Court rejects testimony of Mechanical Engineering Expert Witness for lacking specialized knowledge or experience in the pulp and paper industry

Court rejects testimony of Mechanical Engineering Expert Witness for lacking specialized knowledge or experience in the pulp and paper industry

The Plaintiffs—Michael Johnson, Charles Cunningham, Jerry Bailey, Eric Woodward, Michael Darbonne, Michael McCullough, Christopher Harrington, Demon Benjamin, and Pamela Green—filed a lawsuit against Packaging Corporation of America (“PCA”), Boise Packaging & Newsprint, LLC (“BPN”), Boise, Inc. (“Boise”), and Rick Butterfield after a tragic explosion at PCA’s DeRidder, Louisiana paper mill on February 8, 2017. During the mill’s annual shutdown for maintenance, inspections, and upgrades, a foul condensate tank (“FCT”) exploded, causing injuries to individuals employed by Elite Specialty Welding, LLC and Top Deck, Inc., the contracting companies involved in the maintenance work.

The Plaintiffs asserted that the Defendants were fully aware that the foul condensate tank (“FCT”) posed a significant risk of causing severe and life-threatening injuries.  In an attempt to invoke the intentional act exception to worker’s compensation immunity, the Plaintiffs argued that the Defendants were conscious of the high probability of the incident at the mill, given their prior knowledge of hazards linked to flammable emissions from tanks used in mill operations.

They further alleged that the Defendants knowingly disregarded established rules, regulations, and safety norms by directing work in close proximity to tanks containing these known dangers, which could serve as sources of ignition. The Plaintiffs contended that the Defendants should be held accountable for the outcomes of their actions, asserting that all the necessary elements for an explosion—fuel, ignition source, and oxygen—were present at the time of the incident. The Plaintiffs attributed the knowledge of these elements to the Defendants based on statements made by the Defendants’ employees. They argued that since the Defendants were aware of the flammable gases in the foul condensate tank, anticipated oxygen entry, and knew about welding activities above the tank, they effectively understood that an explosion was unavoidable.

The Defendants requested a summary judgment on all of the Plaintiffs’ claims. On July 27, 2021, the Court granted the Defendants’ motion regarding the intentional act exception. The Court concluded that the Plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether the Defendants “intended” the explosion to happen as outlined in the exception. The Court specified that the evidence presented by the Plaintiffs in support of the summary judgment only indicated that the Defendants were aware that fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source would be in close proximity. However, the Plaintiffs did not establish that the Defendants were “substantially certain” that the explosion would take place.

The Plaintiffs put forth Eric Van Iderstine as a liability expert to provide testimony during the trial based on his “engineering investigation” of the explosion in question. The Defendants objected to this, contending that Van Iderstine’s opinions and testimony regarding the Defendants’ alleged knowledge and state of mind wouldn’t assist the fact-finder in comprehending the evidence or establishing a pertinent fact, as mandated by Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Consequently, the Defendants sought to have Van Iderstine’s testimony excluded.

Mechanical Engineering Expert Witness

Eric Van Iderstine is a Consulting Mechanical Engineer and Director of Mechanical Engineering at McSwain Engineering located in Pensacola, Florida. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Mississippi State University, where he graduated with honors. Van Iderstine is currently a registered Professional Engineer in the states of Florida and Alabama. Van Iderstine has testified in state and federal courts, having been qualified as a Mechanical Engineer in the areas of failure analysis and mechanical engineering design.

Discussion by the Court

Van Iderstine’s expert report and deposition centered on his assessments regarding the Defendants’ supposed awareness and mindset concerning the potential for an explosion at the Mill. His report stated that, drawing from previous similar incidents, the conditions leading to the DeRidder explosion were familiar within the industry and would likely have been within the Defendants’ knowledge. Van Iderstine concluded that there existed a substantial certainty that an incident of this nature would occur and that the Defendants would have been aware of this heightened risk.

He expressed the belief that the Defendants neglected this risk when they made the decision not to empty the contents of the foul condensate tank (“FCT”)—specifically, to drain, flush, and open the vessel—before undertaking hot work.

The Court determined that Van Iderstine lacked the qualifications—pertaining to knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education—to provide testimony regarding the Defendants’ knowledge or state of mind.

The Plaintiff conceded that, concerning opinions related to the Defendants’ actual subjective knowledge and state of mind, the motion became moot. The Plaintiffs decided not to present these opinions during the trial. However, they urged the Court to reject the motion concerning other opinions expressed by Van Iderstine, as referenced in the Defendants’ motion. The Plaintiffs argued that regardless of the admissibility of expert opinions regarding a party’s subjective knowledge, the law allows an expert to utilize training and experience to assist the jury in assessing a party’s knowledge based on evidence of what someone in the party’s position would likely have known. Therefore, the Plaintiffs asserted that these opinions should be admissible.

The Court rejected the nuanced attempt at distinction, deeming it unconvincing. It concluded that Van Iderstine lacked specialized knowledge or experience within the pulp and paper industry. Consequently, the Court ruled that Van Iderstine would not be allowed to provide opinion testimony regarding what a reasonable owner or operator of a pulp and paper mill should have known based on industry knowledge.

The Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s argument stating that inquiries about the basis and sources of an expert’s opinion pertain to the weight given to that opinion rather than its admissibility. Recent revisions to FRE 702 and the official comments clarified that this understanding of the Court’s inquiry under Daubert and FRE 702 was inaccurate. The rule change aimed to guide district courts to specifically conduct the gatekeeping examination outlined in Daubert and focus on determining admissibility and refrain from bypassing the admissibility determination in favor of a question of weight to be decided by a fact finder.

The Committee Notes highlighted that some courts had previously regarded the sufficiency of an expert’s basis and the application of their methodology as matters of weight rather than admissibility. However, the Notes pointed out that such rulings were viewed as an incorrect application of Rules 702 and 104(a).

The Court’s ruling barred Van Iderstine from providing opinions regarding what the Defendants knew. Additionally, he was not permitted to offer opinions on what a prudent owner or operator should have known based on industry knowledge. The Court deemed that the jury was fully capable of connecting the dots between industry knowledge and best practices to the conditions leading to the alleged explosion. Van Iderstine’s proposed opinion about what the Defendants should have known was considered excessive and intruded into the jury’s province to determine if the Defendants adhered to a reasonable standard of care.


The Court granted the Defendants Motion in Limine to Exclude the
Opinions and Testimony of Plaintiffs’ Expert Eric Van Iderstine Regarding Defendants’ Knowledge and State of Mind.

The Court has not arrived on an outcome for this case since the remaining issues involved in this case still await resolution.

Key Takeaways:

In this case, the importance of expert testimony was highlighted through a series of key determinations by the Court. Firstly, the Court emphasized the critical nature of an expert’s qualifications. Specifically, the Court assessed the expertise of Van Iderstine, ultimately finding that his lack of specialized knowledge in the industry impacted the admissibility of his opinions. Secondly, the limitations concerning expert testimony on a party’s subjective knowledge or state of mind were underscored; such opinions might be restricted or considered moot in Court proceedings. Moreover, the Court outlined the boundaries for experts, emphasizing that opinions extending beyond their specialized knowledge could face exclusion or limitations, especially if they encroached upon the jury’s decision-making domain. Recent revisions to the Federal Rules of Evidence (FRE 702) clarified the distinction between the admissibility and weight of expert opinions, prompting courts to focus on admissibility rather than solely evaluating the weight of such opinions. Additionally, the Court’s gatekeeping role in determining the admissibility of expert testimony, primarily focusing on an expert’s basis and methodology as per Daubert principles, was highlighted. Lastly, the jury’s role in connecting industry knowledge, best practices, and the circumstances leading to an incident was emphasized. Expert opinions should aid in understanding complex matters without infringing upon the jury’s responsibility in determining reasonable standards of care.