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Maritime Update: Fifth Circuit Reinstates Maritime Products Liability Claim

On November 4, 2016, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case In Re: In the Matter of the Complaint of C.F. Bean, L.L.C. reversed a ruling in favor of a manufacturer in a maritime products liability dispute. This ruling illustrates the importance of timely disclosing expert opinions and that a district court's exclusion of expert testimony can be too harsh a sanction. 

A.   Background

On September 16, 2012, Mark Barhanovich was boating in coastal waters south of Biloxi, Mississippi. The Suzuki outboard engine on Barhanovich's fishing boat struck an underwater dredge pipe and flipped into the boat, where it struck and killed Barhanovich.

Barhanovich's estate filed suit against C.F. Bean, LLC, Bean Meridian, LLC, and Archer Western Contractors, LLC (collectively, "Bean"), which were responsible for dredging operations in the area. Bean filed a third-party complaint against Suzuki Motor Corporation ("SMC") seeking indemnity or contribution based on products liability. SMC filed a motion for summary judgment and motion to exclude testimony of Edward Fritsch, Bean's expert mechanical engineer.

The district court excluded Fritsch's expert reports and testimony due to untimely disclosure and granted summary judgment in favor of SMC. Bean appealed.

B.   Discussion

On appeal, Bean argued that the district court abused its discretion when it excluded Mr. Fritsch's opinions. The Fifth Circuit considered four factors in determining whether the district court abused its discretion: (1) the explanation for the failure to identify the witness; (2) the importance of the testimony; (3) potential prejudice in allowing the testimony; and (4) the availability of a continuance to cure any prejudice.

Fritsch was Bean's only expert and his testimony was critically important to Bean's product liability claims against SMC. The Fifth Circuit believed that Bean's explanation for its delay in obtaining defect opinions was reasonable and a continuance would have sufficed to cure the prejudice to SMC.

The Fifth Circuit held that excluding critical expert testimony was disproportionately harsh for what amounted to a failure to request an extension of the expert disclosure deadline. It reversed the district court's dismissal of Bean's products liability claim against SMC and remanded the case for the district court to consider whether to reopen discovery to allow SMC to adequately respond to Fritsch's opinions and for Bean to test the motor. The district court should also consider lesser sanctions for Bean's untimeliness, such as costs and attorneys' fees, for SMC's additional discovery.   

C.   Why Is This Important?

  1. Requesting an extension of the deadline to disclose expert opinions could protect your client from having its experts excluded from testifying at trial.
     
  2. Meeting with expert witnesses early on to discuss what discovery needs to be done in advance of the deadline to exchange expert reports could help defeat an attack based on failure to timely disclosure the experts' opinions.
     
  3. An award of costs and attorneys' fees associated with additional discovery may be a more appropriate sanction for the untimely disclosure of an expert's opinion.

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