Nick Hurston//May 22, 2023
Nick Hurston//May 22, 2023//
A jury will hear expert testimony about the probability that a plaintiff’s jewelry — valued at almost $390K — would launch overboard due to a boat’s motions, wave height or an open transom door, the Eastern District of Virginia has decided.
When the insurer’s expert concluded the story was improbable, the plaintiff moved to exclude the expert’s testimony. The expert’s opinion addressed facts within the jury’s knowledge and experience and the expert’s failure to account for the weight and dimensions of the jewelry made his opinion unreliable, the plaintiff contended.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark R. Colombell was unpersuaded.
“[A]ny concerns raised regarding [the expert’s] opinions, including, but limited to his consideration of the weight of the Jewelry in his calculations, must be addressed by Plaintiff at the trial of this matter,” the judge said.
The opinion is Gray v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Company (VLW 023-3-241).
After allegedly losing a bag of jewelry with a value of at least $386,423 while operating a boat on the James River, Antonie Pierre Gray sued State Farm Fire and Casualty Company for breaching their contractual obligation to indemnify and cover his loss.
State Farm designated Michael Venturella, a Naval architect and marine engineer, as a potential expert witness.
According to Venturella’s report: “(1) it is improbable that the boat’s motions could have caused the jewelry to be launched overboard; (2) the wave heights during the alleged loss period were not large enough to crest over the bow of the boat; and (3) if the transom door was unlatched, it is improbable that the transom door was in an open position while the boat was accelerating forward and pitching aft.”
The expert reached those opinions by compiling data to ascertain the boat’s motions — and forces acting upon the boat — at the time of the purported loss.
Although he reviewed the weight and dimensions of the jewelry, Venturella explained that those factors were irrelevant to his opinion.
State Farm asserted that Venturella’s testimony reviewed maritime data and engineering calculations that would be helpful to a jury.
“A careful review of the report confirms that Mr. Venturella’s opinions do not simply state the obvious when they are stripped of their technical gloss. Instead, Mr. Venturella’s opinions touch on technical matters such as the boat’s motions, projectile motions (i.e., kinematics), wave motion, planning hull trim, hydrodynamic lift and the design and operation of the boat, including the rear transom door.”
— U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark R. Colombell
Federal Rule of Evidence 702 “permits the exclusion of expert testimony if the Court determines that the expert’s scientific, technical or otherwise specialized knowledge would not help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue,” Colombell explained.
Here the judge said Venturella’s opinions: “(1) analyze meteorological data from buoys; (2) explain the forces exerted on the boat and the impact on the boat’s contents and (3) apply that information to the facts of this case.”
And those technical issues weren’t within the everyday knowledge and experience of a lay juror, Colombell said.
“A careful review of the report confirms that Mr. Venturella’s opinions do not simply state the obvious when they are stripped of their technical gloss,” the judge wrote. “Instead, Mr. Venturella’s opinions touch on technical matters such as the boat’s motions, projectile motions (i.e., kinematics), wave motion, planning hull trim, hydrodynamic lift and the design and operation of the boat, including the rear transom door.”
As such, the expert’s testimony would be helpful to the jury.
While Gray didn’t dispute that the field of kinematics was accepted by the scientific community, he contended Venturella’s opinion wasn’t reliable because he didn’t factor in the weight and dimensions of the jewelry in his calculations of the force required to launch the jewelry off the boat.
State Farm said Gray’s objection went to the weight of the expert’s opinion, not its admissibility.
While Venturella considered the jewelry’s weight and dimensions, he said that information wasn’t relevant to his opinion that the boat’s motion didn’t cause the jewelry to be launched overboard.
“Mr. Venturella explains that the weight of the Jewelry is irrelevant to his opinion because ‘[i]n the application of uniform acceleration projectile motion equations, the motion of the projectile is independent of mass, as the projectile is acted only by the downward gravitational acceleration,’” Colombell noted.
Here, Gray neither explained why the weight of the jewelry was relevant to Venturella’s calculations and overall opinion, nor did he challenge the various rules or formulas relied on by the expert.
Rather, Gray “simply submits the conclusory statement that Mr. Venturella’s opinion ‘is not reliable because it does not consider the weight of the [J]ewelry at issue,’” Colombell wrote. “Plaintiff fails to state how the lack of consideration of the weight of the Jewelry runs afoul of the standard principles of kinematics.”
Thus, Venturella’s opinions are admissible and any further concerns Gray has must be addressed during trial, the judge concluded.