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$4.84M verdict vacated due to unreliable experts

Where the district court never addressed the defendant’s challenges to one expert’s proximate causation opinions, and never made relevance or reliability rulings about either expert’s opinions, it abdicated its gatekeeping functions. Because it was error to admit the experts’ opinions, and the plaintiff could not have prevailed on its claims without those opinions, the $4.84 million verdict was vacated and judgment was directed for the defendant.


On June 6, 2016, Evangelos Sardis and his training supervisor, Keith Lawrence, were asked to transport an Overhead Door Corporation, or ODC, garage door hood to a work site. The hood was shipped in a container that was loaded onto a ladder rack in the bed of a service truck that Lawrence operated.

At the work site, Lawrence tried to remove the container from the truck with a forklift, but the container became unbalanced on the forklift’s tines. When Mr. Sardis pulled on a handhold on the container, the wood slat constituting the handhold broke off, causing him to fall off the ladder rack and hit his head on the pavement 9 feet below. He succumbed to his injuries two weeks later.

The estate sued ODC, alleging, essentially, that ODC was negligent in designing the container’s handholds, and that this defective design caused Mr. Sardis’ injuries. Both before and after trial, ODC challenged the estate’s two experts’ testimony as irrelevant and unreliable. The district court rejected these arguments. The jury rendered a $4.84 million verdict in the estate’s favor.


ODC argues the district court abused its discretion in admitting Drs. Singh’s and Wogalter’s expert testimony. This court agrees. The district court abused its discretion initially when it failed to perform any Daubert analysis and ruled that the issues of relevance and reliability impacted only the weight of the experts’ testimony, not their admissibility.

The district court’s ruling on ODC’s motion in limine cursorily dismissed each of ODC’s reliability and relevance arguments as only going to weight, not admissibility. Although the court recognized “legitimate concerns” with Dr. Wogalter’s proffered testimony, it nonetheless deemed those concerns solely a subject for cross-examination. Despite ODC’s request, the district court failed to undertake any Daubert analysis.

The court similarly erred in ruling on ODC’s post-trial Rule 50(b) motion. As to Dr. Singh, the district court doubled down, again finding that ODC’s challenges went to the weight of the testimony, not admissibility. It pointed out that ODC “vigorously cross- examined Dr. Singh” on his failure to test his theories, but “the jury apparently found Dr. Singh’s opinions credible.” But credibility is entirely distinct from reliability and relevancy, which are preconditions to the admissibility of expert testimony.

And while the court’s opinion on the failure to warn claim considered Dr. Wogalter’s testimony as part of the evidentiary basis supporting the jury’s verdict, it never addressed ODC’s challenges to Dr. Wogalter’s proximate causation opinions, and never made any direct relevance or reliability rulings. Thus, as to both experts, the district court improperly “delegate[d] [its] gatekeeping responsibility to the jury,” and thereby abused its discretion.


This court has had no cause to address the precise parameters of how a district court’s abdication of its gatekeeping function becomes harmful error. Some courts focus solely on whether the erroneously admitted expert testimony swayed the jury’s verdict. Other circuits allow for a more particular harmlessness review, permitting a reviewing court to make substantive findings of relevance and reliability if the record on appeal is sufficiently developed. The court need not decide which is the “proper” one to follow (assuming there is one), because the district court’s error here is harmful under either path.

First, without Drs. Singh’s and Wogalter’s testimony, the estate could not have prevailed on any of its claims as a matter of law. And second, assuming that the court had considered the merits of ODC’s Daubert challenges in ruling on ODC’s post-trial Rule 50(b) motion, it abused its discretion in refusing to strike Drs. Singh’s and Wogalter’s testimony for both offered irrelevant and unreliable opinions.


The final matter is whether the case should be remanded for a new trial, remanded for the district court to assess whether a new trial is proper or direct that judgment be entered for ODC as a matter of law. With great respect for the jury’s role in our adversarial system, the circumstances of this case and the equitable considerations of fairness to both parties counsel this court to direct the district court to enter judgment as a matter of law in ODC’s favor.

Reversed and remanded with instructions.

Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp., Case No. 20-1411, Aug. 20, 2021. 4th Cir. (Agee), from EDVA at Richmond (Gibney). Sarah Virginia Bondurant Price for Appellant. L. Steven Emmert for Appellee. VLW 021-2-283. 52 pp.

VLW 021-2-283