Madison - St. Clair Record

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Court denies plaintiffs' motion to exclude expert witnesses in AutoZone aftermarket part suit

By Sandra Lane | Apr 4, 2018

BENTON – Two plaintiffs’ motions to exclude expert witnesses in a lawsuit to recover damages for the purchase of an allegedly defective auto part was denied by Judge Staci M. Yandle on March 29 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

In explaining her reasons for denying the motion to exclude, Yandle in her ruling said, “The court must answer three questions before admitting expert testimony. They are (1) is the expert qualified, (2) is the expert's methodology reliable and (3) will the expert's testimony assist the trier of fact in understanding the evidence or determining a fact in issue.”

She also said that “The party offering the expert testimony bears the burden of proof as to relevance and reliability.” 

Plaintiffs Steve Williamson and Rhonda Christine LeMaster had filed a suit, and attempted to make it a class action, to recover damages arising from the purchase of an aftermarket timing chain tensioner for a Chrysler/Dodge 2.7L V-6 engine purchased from AutoZone. The plaintiffs said that the part, manufactured by S.A. Gear, did not meet or exceed original equipment manufacturer (OEM) specifications. In addition, they alleged "that the placement of an O-ring groove and the O-ring itself were too high on the tensioner," causing damage to the engine of LeMaster's car. It was also alleged that this part did not meet Chrysler/Dodge OEM specifications.

In support of their opposition to a class action, defendants S.A. Gear and AutoZone brought in two industry experts and two of their company’s officers to disprove plaintiffs’ allegations. During the next five months, plaintiffs filed two motions to exclude these four people and their testimonies from the case. However, the court on March 29 denied plaintiffs’ motions to exclude.

One of the industry experts that plaintiffs moved to exclude, retained by AutoZone, was David Hallman, a degreed mechanical design engineer who also worked as an auto mechanic for 10 years and became an Automotive Service Excellence certified Master Automotive Mechanic before receiving his degree, the order states.

The order states that Hallman also worked for several Dodge/Chrysler dealers and performed internal transmission and engine work on Dodge and Chrysler vehicles, including the 2.7 liter engine design in LeMaster’s car. In addition, Hallman had performed timing chain replacement and other internal engine repairs, including removing and replacing hydraulic timing chain tensioners.

Hallman inspected the allegedly defective tensioner, the chain tensioner arm, and other items named in Williamson’s charges, and after a lengthy examination period, he determined that Williamson had erred in some of his actions.

In Hallman’s report, he said, “Williamson installed two separate new timing tensioners in a used and well-worn engine without performing any empirical measurement of the subject timing chain or gears. Had he done so, he would have concluded that other factors contributed to the engine failure he alleges occurred.” 

In addition, Hallman said that Williamson had failed to perform appropriate failure diagnosis and analysis of the alleged failed engine utilizing any appropriate investigative method.

“Therefore it is not reasonable to blame an individual replacement part for any engine failure,” he said. 

S.A. Gear retained Stephen Batzer, Ph.D., P.E. as a certification expert to analyze plaintiffs' allegations. As stated in the court’s decision, Batzer has a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, a Master of Science in manufacturing systems engineering and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. He has more than 30 years' experience in engineering, specializing as a forensic engineer and failure analyst for 15 years, investigating hundreds of accidents and product failures.

After extensive review of the parts and plaintiffs’ allegations, Batzer said that Williamson “has not produced evidence that any alleged failure of the two tensioners he installed caused any damage to the subject engine. He also said there is "strong reason to believe that Williamson had an oil distribution failure and not a timing chain tensioner failure.”

Batzer also said that the design of "Part 9422 has not been shown to have a performance difference from OEM, nor have other users shown to have had the same experience as Williamson," the order states.

The two company officers who testified were Steven Tucker, vice president of sales and marketing for S.A. Gear Inc.; and Larry Arthur, AutoZone’s product liability supervisor for merchandise claims since 2012. Plaintiffs moved to exclude Tucker and Arthur, asserting that they were not named as expert witnesses and their testimony contains “opinions, not mere facts or lay opinion testimony.”  

"Defendants counter that these witnesses provided permissible factual testimony based on their personal knowledge,” the order states.    

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U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois