Construction Expert Witness Testimony Admitted Despite Conducting Inspection Three Years Post Hurricanes

Construction Expert Witness Testimony Admitted Despite Conducting Inspection Three Years Post Hurricanes

This dispute stems from damages caused by Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta to a residence at 3321 Landfair Street, Lake Charles, Louisiana. The property, owned by the estate of Bobby Shelton, was insured by State Farm Fire & Casualty Company . Cynthia Frisbie, the executor of the estate, filed a lawsuit on October 16, 2021, in the Louisiana Western District Court, alleging that  State Farm did not promptly or adequately compensate for covered losses under the insurance policy.

While the Frisbie suit was still ongoing on August 16, 2022, Cat 5 Pro LLC (“Cat 5”) initiated a separate lawsuit against State Farm in the same court. Cat 5 claimed that Frisbie had assigned her rights under the policy to Cat 5, asserting that State Farm owed them $69,625.27 (factoring in a $16,657.42 payment) for mitigation work carried out at the Shelton residence. Cat 5 raised claims of breach of contract and bad faith under Louisiana law in connection with the unpaid invoices for their completed work.

The two suits proceeded through the Case Management Order for first-party hurricane claims but did not resolve. They were consolidated at State Farm’s motion and have been set for jury trial on January 29, 2024. On September 26, 2023, Cat 5’s bad faith claims were dismissed on the grounds that these had not been validly assigned by Frisbie. On November 17, 2023, Cat 5 filed suit against State Farm in the Fourteenth Judicial District Court, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. There it raised breach of good faith and fair dealing, breach of contract, detrimental reliance, and fraud claims under Louisiana law against the insurer based on the $69,625.27 in unpaid invoices for its work on the property at 3321 Landfair Street. It also asserted that the amount in controversy “does not exceed $75,000.”

State Farm removed the suit to the Western District Court of Louisiana on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. Plaintiff filed a Motion to Remand, which this Court denied. State Farm then filed a Motion to Dismiss the state filed removed suit, which this Court granted.

Plaintiff Cat 5 Pro filed a Daubert motion to exclude the reports and
testimony of State Farm’s expert Jonathan Palmer as well as a motion to strike the expert report of Jonathan Palmer.

Construction Expert Witness

Jonathan Palmer, licensed as a building and residential contractor since 2017, boasts over 17 years of construction experience. He earned a postbaccalaureate certification in Construction Management from Louisiana State University. Palmer has overseen a diverse range of construction projects, including small complex residential ventures to large commercial projects. Since 2019, he has served as a Managing Building Consultant at Keystone Experts and Engineers.

Discussion by the Court

Under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, “A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if: (a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; (b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data; (c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.” When expert testimony is challenged under Daubert, the burden of proof rests with the party seeking to present the testimony.

Palmer had been retained by State Farm to provide insights into the disputed invoice under scrutiny in this litigation. Cat 5 contested Palmer’s qualifications, asserting an alleged deficiency in certifications and licensure. They also claimed he failed to articulate his expert designation during deposition. Additionally, Cat 5 argued that Palmer’s report and opinions lacked reliability due to his inspection occurring three years after the hurricanes.

Cat 5 contended that Palmer lacked qualifications because he acquired his residential construction license post-Hurricanes Laura and Delta and lacked official certifications in related areas. They argued that expertise is determined by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education,” as per Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The Court noted that the absence of certain certifications, including a residential construction license obtained after the hurricanes, might not automatically disqualify an individual from providing expert testimony.

State Farm countered, asserting that Palmer was qualified as an expert general contractor. They refuted Cat 5’s claim that Palmer obtained his residential construction license in 2021, presenting evidence that he held it since 2018. State Farm highlighted Cat 5’s lack of construction and mold remediation licenses, emphasizing that Cat 5 only acquired a home improvement license in 2021 after performing mitigation work on the Frisbie property post-hurricanes.

Regarding Palmer’s testimony on his area of expertise, State Farm contested Cat 5’s representation, asserting misrepresentation. Cat 5 claimed Palmer couldn’t specify State Farm’s designation of him as an expert witness during his deposition. However, Palmer clarified that while he didn’t know the specific terminology, his expertise lay in being a general contractor. State Farm argued that Palmer’s qualification stemmed from his knowledge, education, experience, and expertise in general contracting.

On the matter of reliability, State Farm maintained that Palmer’s 14-page report, based on Cat 5’s estimate, photographs, drying logs, State Farm’s photographs, and his own inspection (albeit conducted three years post-hurricane), demonstrated the credibility of his findings.

The Court determined that an expert’s opinions remain reliable even if they rely on evidence gathered by others rather than the expert’s direct inspection of the residence. State Farm emphasized that such arguments challenge credibility and are suitable for cross-examination, but they do not constitute a basis for deeming the expert’s testimony inherently unreliable.

State Farm contended that the case’s nature was inherently spoliative, given that the disputed invoice originated after the completion of mitigation work, making it impossible to inspect the property before that work was done. After reviewing the memoranda from both parties, the Court found no grounds to exclude Palmer’s report and testimony.

Henceforth, when Cat 5 argued that Palmer’s expert report should be stricken because he inspected the Frisbie property three years after Hurricanes Laura and Delta damaged the property, and because there was some confusion as to the bates numbers on certain photographs, the Court found no basis to grant the relief sought by Cat 5.


The Court denied the Daubert motion to exclude the reports and
testimony of Jonathan Palmer as well as the motion to strike the expert report of Jonathan Palmer.

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

Key Takeaways:

The admissibility of expert testimony in this case hinged on Federal Rule of Evidence 702, which outlines the qualifications and criteria for expert witnesses. The Court emphasized that lacking specific certifications or licenses, especially when related to post-disaster scenarios, does not automatically disqualify an expert under Rule 702. State Farm successfully argued that Palmer’s expertise as a general contractor, supported by knowledge, education, and experience, qualified him to provide insights into the disputed invoice. The Court highlighted that challenges to expert testimony, such as those raised by Cat 5, should be addressed through cross-examination rather than outright exclusion. Additionally, the Court rejected the argument that the nature of the case, involving post-mitigation inspection, rendered expert testimony inherently unreliable. This case underscores the importance of adherence to Rule 702’s criteria and the recognition that challenges to expert testimony primarily serve as fodder for cross-examination rather than grounds for exclusion.

Case Details

Case CaptionFrisbie V. State Farm Fire
Docket Number2:21cv3658
CourtUnited States District Court, Louisiana Western
Citation2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8907
Order DateJanuary 17, 2024


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