Biomechanical Engineering Expert Witness fails to provide a "scientific connection" to the issue at bar

Biomechanical Engineering Expert Witness fails to provide a “scientific connection” to the issue at bar

On February 7, 2020, Mauricio Gonzalez-Lopez, who was then a 37-year-old employee of V-coin, Inc. (“V-com”), was at V-corn’s warehouse unloading a tractor-trailer owned by Perfect Trading, Inc. (“Perfect Trading”) and operated by its driver, Ding Yi (“Yi”). Defendants Perfect Trading and Yi (“Defendants”) maintained that Yi remained in his truck throughout the entire unloading of the trailer and only when a V-com employee returned the driver’s paperwork and alerted him that his truck was unloaded did he begin to pull the truck forward so that a V-corn employee could shut the trailer doors. When the tractor-trailer began moving away from the docking area, Plaintiff was walking out of the truck with a box.

The Plaintiff alleged that due to the truck’s sudden movement forward, he lost his balance, stumbled, and fell out of the truck causing injury to his right foot. In contrast, although there was video surveillance of the incident, Defendants offered Kirk Lawrence Thibault’s expert opinion to support their theory that Plaintiff jumped, rather than fell out of the truck.

Plaintiff Mauricio Gonzalez-Lopez filed a Daubert motion to  exclude the testimony of Kirk Lawrence Thibault, PhD, D-IBFES,  a biomechanical engineer, pursuant to Rule 702.

Biomechanical Engineering Expert Witness

Kirk Lawrence Thibault has a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Pennsylvania as well as a Master’s Degree in Doctorate in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

He is the President of Thibault Scientific, LLC which specializes in the following areas of injury analysis: Transportion (motor vehicles, pedestrians, bicycles), Recreation and athletic trauma, Product liability, Premises liability, Pediatric injury biomechanics and Impact and crash testing and analysis.

Discussion by the Court

Thibault’s expert report explained that a “sudden change in velocity of one’s planted foot relative to one’s center of mass may momentarily disturb one’s dynamic stability such that one may lose one’s balance and fall forward. … If one could not step to reestablish a stable base of support, one might fall forward, resulting in a reflexive, protective response that manifests as extending one’s arms forward.” As Thibault described, the video did not demonstrate a loss of balance, but rather, showed “that [Plaintiff’s] body remained stable and upright throughout the entire event. He took active, deliberate steps with his left and right leg to position his body at the edge of the trailer. He squatted and then pushed off with both feet to hop off the trailer and jump to the ground.”

In addition, Thibault noted there was no evidence of injuries, such as to Plaintiff’s upper extremities or to his face, torso, and lower extremities, suggesting that Plaintiff had lost his balance and fallen forward out of the trailer to the ground. In sum, Thibault concluded: “the trailer began to move forward slowly and, in response, Mr. Gonzalez-Lopez stepped to the rear edge of the trailer and jumped to the ground, where the heel of his right foot contacted the ground and sustained a fracture of the calcaneus.”

Thibault did not derive his expert opinion from any scientific facts pertaining to Plaintiff’s fall or jump

In this case, Defendants explained that Thibault’s opinion was based on the review of 14 specific references, in addition to his education, training, and experience. Those 14 references appeared to be the video surveillance footage, pleadings, discovery materials, medical records, witness statements, and an inspection of the docking area. As Plaintiff correctly pointed out, Thibault did not derive his expert opinion from any scientific facts pertaining to Plaintiff’s fall or jump such as his approximate height, weight, BMI, center of mass, or speed of the truck. The Court observed that Thibault did not factor in or calculate changes in velocity relative to mass or utilize any other mathematical formula or methodology that could be tested. Moreover, despite Thibault’s assertion that his analysis relied on “data and methodologies…published in peer-reviewed journals and texts,” it was unclear what those sources were. 

Thibault’s opinion did not satisfy the precondition of providing a “scientific connection” to the issue at bar

Thibault’s opinion was based on his observation of the video footage and review of discovery from this case rather than from any scientific methodology. Thus, it did not satisfy the precondition of providing a “scientific connection” to the issue at bar. In any event, the video footage of the incident itself was the best evidence of what occurred. Moreover, the Court requires expert testimony generally in situations where a jury of laypersons lacks sufficient knowledge or understanding of the subject matter to form a reasonable opinion. Expert testimony covering an area known and within the comprehension of the layperson is generally not helpful to the trier of fact and thus is inadmissible.

The Court held that Thibault’s conclusion pertained to a subject matter that was familiar to a layperson: that a “sudden change in velocity of one’s planted foot” could cause a person to lose balance and fall forward. After seeing the surveillance video, based on its own experience and knowledge, the jury could assess for itself whether Plaintiff had lost his balance and involuntarily fallen or purposely and voluntarily jumped off the truck.

Thibault did not address if Plaintiff “jumped to the ground” as the result of a deliberate decision

Defendants sought to establish that Plaintiff’s injuries were consistent with and proximately caused by a jump rather than a loss of balance because Defendants assumed that “jumping” reflected a deliberate choice not to stay in the truck until it came to a stop. However, Thibault did not (nor could he) opine that because Plaintiff did not lose his balance and instead jumped, Plaintiff must have had the opportunity to proactively choose his course of action despite the truck’s sudden movement.

Thibault did not address whether Plaintiff “jumped to the ground” as the result of a deliberate decision or felt compelled to do so by the unexpected forward motion of the truck in the opposite direction that he was walking. Therefore, even assuming Plaintiff jumped, Thibault’s testimony did not assist a jury in determining whether Plaintiff’s injuries were proximately caused by his own decision to exit the truck or because the sudden movement of the truck necessitated him to jump off.

Held

The Court granted Plaintiff’s Daubert motion to exclude the testimony of Defendants’ expert Kirk Lawrence Thibault because Thibault’s testimony did not rely on scientific methodology or assist the trier of fact.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Helpful to the Trier of Fact: The Court requires expert testimony generally in situations where a jury of laypersons lacks sufficient knowledge or understanding of the subject matter to form a reasonable opinion. Expert testimony covering an area known and within the comprehension of the layperson is generally not helpful to the trier of fact and thus is inadmissible since it did not satisfy the precondition of providing a “scientific connection” to the issue at bar.
  2. Reliability: Thibault did not derive his expert opinion from any scientific facts pertaining to Plaintiff’s fall or jump such as his approximate height, weight, BMI, center of mass, or speed of the truck. The Court observed that Thibault did not factor in or calculate changes in velocity relative to mass or utilize any other mathematical formula or methodology that could be tested. Moreover, despite Thibault’s assertion that his analysis relied on “data and methodologies…published in peer-reviewed journals and texts,” it was unclear what those sources were.

Case Details:

Case Caption:Gonzalez-Lopez V. Perfect Trading, Inc. Et Al
Docket Number:2:21cv12906
Court:United States District Court, New Jersey
Order Date:April 02, 2024


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