Forensic Engineering Expert Witness held to use a Reliable Methodology for Window Evaluation

Forensic Engineering Expert Witness held to use a Reliable Methodology for Window Evaluation

Plaintiffs, Aimee and Erich Wolf filed a suit against Defendant, State Farm & Casualty Company raising claims such as breach of contract and bad faith from damage inflicted on the Wolf’s home during Hurricane Laura, which made landfall in Southwest Louisiana on August 27, 2020. Throughout the relevant period, the home was insured by State Farm. Allegations made by the Plaintiffs asserted that State Farm did not adequately compensate them for the covered losses in a timely manner.

The Plaintiffs enlisted Matthew Phelps as a forensic engineering expert to evaluate the damages sustained by their home, specifically focusing on the windows. Following the signing of a contract around April 21, 2021, Phelps and his team conducted inspections of the Wolf residence, which happened over eight months after Hurricane Laura affected Lake Charles. Phelps and APEC visited the home approximately ten to twelve times before Phelps completed his report on April 11, 2022.

State Farm filed a motion to exclude or limit the testimony of Matthew Phelps. State Farm contended that Phelps did not reference the appropriate building code for the Plaintiffs’ home during his assessment and that his testing of the windows deviated from industry standards, citing flaws stemming from inaccurate assumptions regarding the windows’ age. State Farm argued that Phelps’s testimony failed to meet the standards outlined in Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. In response, the Plaintiffs opposed the motion, highlighting that both Phelps and State Farm’s engineer utilized different building codes than those in effect when the Plaintiffs’ home was constructed. They also asserted that any challenges to Phelps’s methodology in evaluating the windows should affect the weight of his testimony rather than its admissibility.

Forensic Engineering Expert Witness

Matthew B. Phelps is the CEO and Chief Engineer at APEC Engineering & Laboratory, LLC, and boasts extensive qualifications in forensic investigations, structural design, and construction inspections. Phelps possesses more than 15 years of expertise in high wind design and has amassed extensive experience in testing and evaluating various building materials and assemblies. With a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering and Management from Texas Tech University, Edward E. Whitacre, Jr. College of Engineering. His earlier academic achievements include a Master of Science in Engineering from Texas Tech University, a Master of Science in Biology from Eastern New Mexico University, and a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Business from West Texas A&M University.

Discussion by the Court

The trial court serves as a gatekeeper for expert testimony, determining its admissibility based on relevance and reliability, as outlined in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The proponent of the expert testimony must prove its admissibility by a preponderance of the evidence. While the Court has broad discretion in this determination, rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule, with vigorous cross-examination and presentation of contrary evidence being traditional means of challenging admissible evidence.

Phelps was informed the Wolf’s home was built around 1985 and utilized the 1985 Uniform Building Code (UBC) for his assessment, neglecting to verify the building code applicable in Calcasieu Parish at that time. State Farm’s expert, Matthew Innocenzi, relied on the 1979 Standard Building Code (SBC), which State Farm argued was more likely in effect. However, it was shown that the 1982 UBC was adopted by Calcasieu Parish and was in effect as of 1985. Consequently, neither expert used the correct building code in their assessment. State Farm argued that the discrepancy in building codes was insignificant, however, since the 1979 SBC and 1982 UBC were both based on three-second gusts of 150 mph, faster than the 110 mph figure used by the 1985 UBC.

The Court typically allows the fact-finder to assess the accuracy of an expert’s testimony based on the facts they relied on. However, expert testimony unsupported by factual evidence is not admissible. Currently, the Court only has the State Farm expert’s interpretation of building code wind speed figures and their impact on Phelps’ assessment. Phelps testified that his assessment considered the building code used by the home builders and the aging of materials. State Farm failed to demonstrate any flaw in Phelps’ approach or that the use of the wrong building code would warrant exclusion.

State Farm accused Phelps of employing a flawed methodology in window testing. They argued that Phelps’ assessment of window replacement was based on the assumption that 93 percent of the windows had less than 50 percent of argon gas remaining, which they contended was an unreliable indicator. State Farm emphasized that window age is an important factor in predicting argon concentration and highlighted Phelps’ error in estimating the windows to be around 16 years old when they were actually 35 years old. In response, Phelps demonstrated that even assuming a 35-year window age and standard argon concentration loss over time, 93 percent of the windows at the Plaintiffs’ residence still failed the argon testing. Furthermore, Phelps pointed out that State Farm’s own engineer, who recommended repair or replacement of several windows due to fogging, did not consider the role of any other storms, similar to Phelps’ approach. Consequently, State Farm’s objections to Phelps’ methodology lacked merit, as they failed to provide a valid basis for exclusion. Any discrepancies in Phelps’ sources or oversights in his considerations could instead be addressed through cross-examination.


The Court denied the Defendant’s Motion in Limine to exclude or limit testimony of Plaintiffs’ expert Matthew Phelps.

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 expert testimony in the case involving the Wolf residence and State Farm’s insurance coverage reveal several critical points. First, both parties’ experts, Phelps and Innocenzi, used different building codes in their assessments, neither of which aligned with the code in effect when the home was constructed. Despite this discrepancy, the Court found State Farm’s argument that the variance in building codes was inconsequential due to their shared higher wind speed requirements unconvincing. Second, the Court emphasized the importance of expert testimony being supported by factual evidence, indicating that unsupported assertions are inadmissible. In this case, State Farm failed to discredit Phelps’s methodology or demonstrate any flaws in his approach. Lastly, State Farm’s objections to Phelps’s window testing methodology were refuted by Phelps’s demonstration that even after accounting for corrected window age assumptions, the majority of windows still failed argon testing. Additionally, State Farm’s own engineer’s recommendations mirrored Phelps’s findings, further weakening State Farm’s argument. Ultimately, the Court found State Farm’s objections lacking merit, underscoring the importance of rigorous cross-examination to address any discrepancies or oversights in expert testimony.

Case Details

Case CaptionWolf v. State Farm Fire
Docket Number2:22cv2225
CourtUnited States District Court, Louisiana Western
Citation2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27800
Order DateFebruary 16, 2024