Court rejects estimates proffered by the Construction Expert Witness citing credibility concerns

Court rejects estimates proffered by the Construction Expert Witness citing credibility concerns

This lawsuit originated from the damage Hurricane Laura caused to First United Pentecostal Church of DeRidder (FUPC), a church in DeRidder, Louisiana, on August 27, 2020. Throughout the relevant period, the church was insured under a policy issued by Church Mutual Insurance Company (Church Mutual). Following the storm, FUPC engaged in a contract with Plaintiff Alex Howard, operating as ServiceMaster by Howard (ServiceMaster-Howard), a company based out of Alabama. The contract involved emergency cleaning, water mitigation, and restoration services. ServiceMaster-Howard subsequently filed a lawsuit against FUPC in this Court, asserting that both FUPC and Church Mutual had sanctioned the work but failed to settle the invoices. In response, FUPC filed cross-claims against Church Mutual, citing the latter’s alleged failure to promptly and adequately reimburse FUPC for losses covered under the insurance policy.

The case went through the Court’s Streamlined Settlement Process for first-party insurance claims from Hurricanes Laura and Delta, but did not resolve. It was originally set for a jury trial in April 2023, but the Court granted Church Mutual’s motion to continue the trial to allow more time for discovery. The new trial date was set for November 2023.

FUPC timely designated Keith Meranto as an expert witness, specifying him as a general contractor. The designation indicated that Meranto would testify in alignment with his report and expertise, encompassing Hurricane damage to the First United Church and Family Life Center, including reconstruction costs. The attached report featured a two-paragraph narrative and provided estimates for the rebuilding of both the church and Family Life Center.

On October 4, 2023, FUPC submitted supplemental discovery responses, which included the December 2022 contract between FUPC and Meranto Construction for the reconstruction and renovation of the church. Additionally, payment applications and invoices from December 2022 onward for the ongoing project were provided. The contract referred to a “Budgetary Schedule of Values” and an “attached schematic proposal,” outlining the scope of the church’s remodeling project. These documents, along with associated design plans, were only disclosed to Church Mutual on October 9, 2023. Meranto’s estimate for the entire project amounted to $3.7 million, whereas the estimate for hurricane repairs provided by the Plaintiff’s public adjuster was $1.5 million. On October 10, Meranto underwent deposition, during which he affirmed that he did not provide any opinions on causation. He also acknowledged that his involvement with the church extended beyond hurricane damage, and he could not distinguish between hurricane repair work and other renovations in his estimate.

Church Mutual filed a motion seeking the exclusion of all expert opinion evidence from Meranto, contending that his original report failed to establish his expertise in accordance with Rule 26(b)(2), Federal Rule of Evidence 702, and  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The argument also asserted that Meranto’s opinions lacked relevance to the ongoing litigation. In response, the Plaintiff opposed the motion, asserting that Meranto was qualified to provide an estimate of repair costs and had cooperated to the best of his abilities in supplying documents to the defense counsel. 

Construction Expert Witness

Keith Meranto has over 14 years of experience in construction and project management roles. He currently serves as the Owner/Construction Manager of Meranto Construction. Meranto has an extensive expertise in various areas including general contracting, project management, quantity take-offs, and design-build projects. 

Discussions by the Court

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a party is required to disclose the identity of any expert witness intended for trial, accompanied by a written report prepared and signed by the witness, as outlined in Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(a)(2)(B). This report is mandated to include a comprehensive statement of all opinions the witness would express, along with the basis and reasons for those opinions, as specified in Rule 26(a)(2)(B)(i). The rule does not restrict an expert’s testimony to merely reading the report; rather, it anticipated that the expert would supplement, elaborate upon, and explain the report in oral testimony, quoting Thompson v. Doane Pet Care Co., 470 F.3d 1201, 1203 (6th Cir. 2006). However, the Court held that a complete report is required to provide the substance of the testimony the expert intended to offer along with the reasons supporting it, citing Rule 26 Advisory Committee Note, 1983 Amendments. These requirements aimed to prevent unfair surprise. Consequently, an expert who failed to provide a report in compliance with Rule 26(a) should not have been allowed to testify unless such failure was deemed harmless, citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(c)(1).

The trial Court, following Daubert and Kumho Tire, acts as a gatekeeper in assessing the relevance and reliability of expert testimony. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 outlines three criteria for evaluating expert challenges: 1) expert qualifications; 2) relevance of proposed testimony; and 3) reliability of principles and methodology. The proponent bears the burden of proving admissibility. The Court has wide discretion, with rejection of expert testimony being the exception. The Court’s gatekeeping role doesn’t replace the jury but complements the traditional adversarial system. Cross-examination and presentation of contrary evidence are the primary means to address admissible but shaky expert evidence.

Church Mutual Insurance Company alleged that Meranto’s report for the first United Pentecostal Church in Deridder failed to meet the mandatory requirements outlined in Rule 26(a). The report, consisting of a mere two-paragraph narrative, was notably lacking in crucial details. It briefly mentioned Meranto Construction being summoned by Pastor Lewis to assess damage sustained by the church and gym due to a hurricane, without specifying the nature of the damage or its cause, be it from hurricanes Laura or Delta, pre-existing issues, or wear and tear. Additionally, the report did not elucidate the methodology used to ascertain the cause of the damage, the rationale behind the budgetary figures, the materials earmarked for use, or the involvement of vendors and subcontractors in supplying materials and labor. Furthermore, it omitted crucial aspects such as contracts or bids acquired from vendors/subcontractors forming the pricing foundation, the scope of renovations or upgrades planned, necessary work mandated by codes or ordinances, and the specifics of the permitting application submitted for a project of this scale.

Meranto’s testimony during the proceedings underscored his clear lack of opinion regarding the property’s extent of hurricane damage. He emphasized that his work’s scope was solely defined by the tasks requested by his client, FUPC, disregarding any considerations related to damage assessment. Notably, he explicitly stated: firstly, his absence of an opinion on the magnitude of hurricane damage; secondly, the disparity between his contracted budget and the actual cost required for hurricane repairs; thirdly, FUPC’s specific requests for upgrades and remodeling distinct from hurricane-related fixes; fourthly, his inability to provide an estimated budget exclusively dedicated to hurricane repairs; and finally, his lack of awareness regarding the allocation within his budget for ordinance and code compliance, despite acknowledging that these expenses exceeded $100,000, reaching the policy sub-limit of $100,000.

The Court observed that Meranto’s report, though brief, left no question about his qualifications as a contractor or his proficiency in cost estimation. However, both his report and testimony indicated that his estimate lacked credibility as a measure of repair costs for covered damages. Consequently, there was a significant risk that it could confuse or mislead the jury. The Plaintiff was advised to rely instead on the repair cost estimate from its public adjuster and invoices for completed work that could be directly linked to the damages.


The Court granted Church Mutual’s motion in limine and barred Keith Meranto from offering any expert testimony in the case. The Court has not arrived on an outcome for this case since the remaining issues involved in this case still await resolution.

Key Takeaways

Firstly, adherence to Rule 26(a) is paramount, demanding comprehensive reports from expert witnesses to prevent unexpected revelations during trial. Secondly, courts assume the role of gatekeepers, evaluating the relevance, reliability, and admissibility of expert testimony as per Federal Rule of Evidence 702, emphasizing expert qualifications, relevance, and methodological reliability. The burden of proving admissibility rests with the proponent, allowing courts wide discretion while maintaining the exceptionality of rejecting such testimony. This gatekeeping role serves to complement the adversarial system, enabling cross-examination and contrary evidence presentation to counterbalance uncertain expert evidence. Mandatory report requirements necessitate detailed opinions, methodologies, and supporting reasons, crucial in avoiding jury confusion or misinterpretation. Highlighting an expert’s limitations and scope prevents misconceptions about testimony credibility. In cases involving repair estimates, reliance on credible assessments directly linked to damages, such as those from public adjusters or invoices tied to damages, is advisable. Ultimately, ensuring clarity, relevance, and direct applicability of expert testimony to the case’s factual context helps prevent potential confusion or misleading interpretations for the jury.