Admissibility of Expert Opinions in Insurance Bad Faith Trials

David McLain | Colorado Construction Litigation| October 8, 2019

In 2010, Hansen Construction was sued for construction defects and was defended by three separate insurance carriers pursuant to various primary CGL insurance policies.[i]  One of Hansen’s primary carriers, Maxum Indemnity Company, issued two primary policies, one from 2006-2007 and one from 2007-2008.  Everest National Insurance Company issued a single excess liability policy for the 2007-2008 policy year, and which was to drop down and provide additional coverage should the 2007-2008 Maxum policy become exhausted.  In November 2010, Maxum denied coverage under its 2007-2008 primarily policy but agreed to defend under the 2006-2007 primarily policy.  When Maxum denied coverage under its 2007-2008 primary policy, Everest National Insurance denied under its excess liability policy. 

In 2016, pursuant to a settlement agreement between Hansen Construction and Maxum, Maxum retroactively reallocated funds it owed to Hansen Construction from the 2006-2007 Maxum primary policy to the 2007-2008 Maxum primary policy, which became exhausted by the payment.  Thereafter, Hansen Construction demanded coverage from Everest National, which continued to deny the claim.  Hansen Construction then sued Everest National for, among other things, bad faith breach of contract.

In the bad faith action, both parties retained experts to testify at trial regarding insurance industry standards of care and whether Everest National’s conduct in handling Hansen Construction’s claim was reasonable.  Both parties sought to strike the other’s expert testimony as improper and inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702.
In striking both sides’ expert opinions, the U.S. District Court Judge Christine Arguello set forth the standards for the admissibility of expert opinions in Federal Court:

Under Daubert, the trial court acts as a “gatekeeper” by reviewing a proffered expert opinion for relevance pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 401, and reliability pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702.[ii]  The proponent of the expert must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the expert’s testimony and opinion are admissible.[iii]  This Court has discretion to evaluate whether an expert is helpful, qualified, and reliable under Rule 702.[iv]

Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony. Rule 702 provides that a witness who is qualified as an expert by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” may testify if:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
Fed. R. Evid. 702.

In deciding whether expert testimony is admissible, the Court must make multiple determinations. First, it must first determine whether the expert is qualified “by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” to render an opinion.[v]  Second, if the expert is sufficiently qualified, the Court must determine whether the proposed testimony is sufficiently “relevant to the task at hand,” such that it “logically advances a material aspect of the case.”[vi]  “Doubts about whether an expert’s testimony will be useful should generally be resolved in favor of admissibility unless there are strong factors such as time or surprise favoring exclusions.”[vii]

Third, the Court examines whether the expert’s opinion “has ‘a reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of his [or her] discipline.’”[viii]  In determining reliability, a district court must decide “whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid.”[ix]  In making this determination, a court may consider: “(1) whether a theory has been or can be tested or falsified, (2) whether the theory or technique has been subject to peer review and publication, (3) whether there are known or potential rates of error with regard to specific techniques, and (4) whether the theory or approach has general acceptance.”[x]

The Supreme Court has made clear that this list is neither definitive nor exhaustive.[xi]  In short, “[p]roposed testimony must be supported by appropriate validation—i.e., ‘good grounds,’ based on what is known.”[xii]

The requirement that testimony must be reliable does not mean that the party offering such testimony must prove “that the expert is indisputably correct.”[xiii]  Rather, the party need only prove that “the method employed by the expert in reaching the conclusion is scientifically sound and that the opinion is based on facts which sufficiently satisfy Rule 702’s reliability requirements.”[xiv]  Guided by these principles, this Court has “broad discretion” to evaluate whether an expert is helpful, qualified, and reliable under the “flexible” standard of Fed. R. Evid. 702.[xv]

With respect to helpfulness of expert opinions, Judge Arguello explained:

Federal Rule of Evidence 704 allows an expert witness to testify about an ultimate question of fact.[xvi]  To be admissible, however, an expert’s testimony must be helpful to the trier of fact.[xvii]  To ensure testimony is helpful, “[a]n expert may not state legal conclusions drawn by applying the law to the facts, but an expert may refer to the law in expressing his or her opinion.”[xviii]

“The line between a permissible opinion on an ultimate issue and an impermissible legal conclusion is not always easy to discern.”[xix]  Permissible testimony provides the jury with the “tools to evaluate an expert’s ultimate conclusion and focuses on questions of fact that are amenable to the scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the expert’s field.”[xx]

However, “an expert may not simply tell the jury what result it should reach….”[xxi]  Further, “expert testimony is not admissible to inform the trier of fact as to the law that it will be instructed to apply to the facts in deciding the case.”[xxii]  Similarly, contract interpretation is not a proper subject for expert testimony.[xxiii]

Finding that all three of the experts intended to offer opinions that were objectionable on the basis of helpfulness, Judge Arguello granted both parties’ motions to exclude the expert testimony of the opposing experts. 


[i] Hansen Construction, Inc. v. Everest National Insurance Company, 2019 WL 2602510 (D. Colo. June 25, 2019).

[ii]See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 589–95 (1993); see also Goebel v. Denver & Rio Grande W. R.R. Co., 215 F.3d 1083, 1087 (10th Cir. 2000).

[iii]United States v. Nacchio, 555 F.3d 1234, 1241 (10th Cir. 2009); United States v. Crabbe, F. Supp. 2d 1217, 1220–21 (D. Colo. 2008); Fed. R. Evid. 702 advisory comm. notes.

[iv]See Goebel, 214 F.3d at 1087; United States v. Velarde, 214 F.3d 1204, 1208–09 (10th Cir. 2000).

[v]Nacchio, 555 F.3d at 1241.

[vi]Norris v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 397 F.3d 878, 884, 884 n.2 (10th Cir. 2005).

[vii]Robinson v. Mo. Pac. R.R. Co., 16 F.3d 1083, 1090 (10th Cir. 1994) (quotation omitted).

[viii]Norris, 397 F.3d at 884, 884 n.2 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592).

[ix] Id. (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 592–93).

[x]Norris, 397 F.3d at 884 (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593–94).

[xi]Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 150 (1999).

[xii]Daubert, 509 U.S. at 590.

[xiii]Bitler v. A.O. Smith Corp., 400 F.3d 1227, 1233 (10th Cir. 2004) (quoting Mitchell v. Gencorp Inc., 165 F.3d 778, 781 (10th Cir. 1999)).

[xiv] Id.

[xv]Velarde, 214 F.3d at 1208–09; Daubert, 509 U.S. at 594.

[xvi] United States v. Richter, 796 F.3d 1173, 1195 (10th Cir. 2015).

[xvii] Fed. R. Evid. 702.

[xviii] Richter, 796 F.3d at 1195 (quoting United States v. Bedford, 536 F.3d 1148, 1158 (10th Cir. 2008)); see, e.g., Killion v. KeHE Distribs., LLC, 761 F.3d 574, 592 (6th Cir. 2014) (report by proffered “liability expert,” which read “as a legal brief” exceeded scope of an expert’s permission to “opine on and embrace factual issues, not legal ones.”).

[xix] Richter, 796 F.3d at 1195 (quoting United States v. McIver, 470 F.3d 550, 562 (4th Cir. 2006)).

[xx] Id. (citing United States v. Dazey, 403 F.3d 1147, 1171–72 (10th Cir. 2005) (“Even if [an expert’s] testimony arguably embraced the ultimate issue, such testimony is permissible as long as the expert’s testimony assists, rather than supplants, the jury’s judgment.”)).

[xxi] Id. at 1195–96 (quoting Dazey, 403 F.3d at 1171).

[xxii] 4 Jack B. Weinstein et al., Weinstein’s Federal Evidence § 702.03[3] (supp. 2019) (citing, e.g., Hygh v. Jacobs, 961 F.2d 359, 361–62 (2d Cir. 1992) (expert witnesses may not compete with the court in instructing the jury)).

[xxiii] Id. (citing, e.g., Breezy Point Coop. v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Co., 868 F. Supp. 33, 35–36 (E.D.N.Y. 1994) (expert witness’s proposed testimony that failure to give timely notice of loss violated terms of insurance policy was inadmissible because it would improperly interpret terms of a contract)). 

Nevada Legislative Update: August 2019

Edward Garcia and Brittany Walker | Holland & Hart | August 30, 2019

CONSTRUCTION

AB 421 amends the laws governing residential construction defects. Key changes include extending the statute of repose from six to ten years and no longer requiring an expert to be present at an inspection concerning an alleged construction defect. Proponents of this legislation stated that it will protect Nevada’s homebuyers and encourage homebuilders to build to a higher standard. Opponents of this legislation stated that it will increase costs to new homebuyers and exacerbate the affordable housing issues facing Nevada.

AB 440 requires contractors who build new, single family residences to provide a disclosure of the purchaser’s rights and a one-year warranty from punch list completion that guarantees all home systems, workmanship, materials, plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems, appliances installed by the contractor, fixtures, equipment, and structural components.

SB 397 authorizes a licensed contractor to perform work in other license classifications which he or she does not have a license for when: (1) the value of the work is less than $1,000 and does not require a permit; and (2) the work is not of a type performed by a plumbing, electrical, refrigeration, or air-conditioning contractor. Essentially, this bill provides a handyman exception for contractors to perform work outside the scope of their license, which will help consumers by allowing a contractor to complete a small project which he or she does not typically perform.

Professor Stempel’s Expert Testimony for Insurer Excluded

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii | August 14, 2019

    The court denied Daubert motions for several experts with the exception of Professor Stempel’s expert testimony opining that the insurer did not act in bad faith Adell Plastics, Inc. v. Mt. Hawley Ins. Co., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 102942 (D. Md. June 19, 2019).

    A fire demolished several buildings at Adell’s facility. Adell was insured under a commercial property policy issued by Mt. Hawley. Mt. Hawley sued Adell, seeking a declaration that it owed no coverage, and requesting recoupment of a substantial advance payment. Adell filed a counterclaim, alleging that Mt. Hawley had breached the policy and had acted with a lack of good faith. Before the court were several pretrial motions, including motions to exclude testimony of eight expert witnesses.

    The court denied Adell’s motion to exclude several experts to be called by Mt. Hawley. The accountant’s testimony was relevant. Adell had to prove damages on its breach of contract claim, and the accountant’s testimony would aid the jury in evaluating Adell’s documentation and calculating documented damages. Mt. Hawley’s fire safety expert investigated the Adell fire. Mt. Hawley had shown that his expert opinion would be sufficiently reliable for admissibility. Further, three fire protection engineers offered by Mt. Hawley and two fire protection engineers to be called by Adell were allowed to testify. Each expert based his investigation and conclusions on the standards of fire investigation as set out in the NEPA Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. This was a fire insurance case, and fire protection engineers would be allowed to testify and illuminate the circumstances of the fire. 

    Regarding Adell’s motion to exclude Professor Stempel, the court found this testimony was irrelevant. Stempel’s report described the law and made various legal conclusions. A legal conclusion was not likely to assist the jury because the court would provide all necessary legal conclusions in the form of jury instructions. Here, Stempel wanted to tell the jury what result to reach on the lack of good faith issue. The legal conclusions on an ultimate issue for trial predominated Stempel’s report. Therefore, Adell’s motion to exclude his testimony was granted. 

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Motion to Strike Insurer’s Expert Opinion Granted

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii | June 19, 2019

    The court granted the insured’s motion to strike the testimony of the insurer’s expert because the opinion lacked sufficient explanation or analysis. Affinity Mut. Ins. v. Thacker Air Conditioning Refrigeration Heating, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84713 (N.D. Ind. May 20, 2019). 

    The insured owned a market that needed renovations. The roof over an addition to the market extended from the wall of the extension to the top of the existing roof. The area between the old and new roofs was filled with blown-in insulation, so that the structural support from the new overbuilt roof was not visible. The weight of the overbuilt roof rested on top of the existing roof at the point where they met. This added additional weight on the trusses supporting the main roof. 

    In 2014, the market upgraded the building with heating and insulation. Thacker was a subcontractor for work on the hearing system. Six gas furnaces, spaced about 35 feet apart along the length of the building, were placed by Thacker. The total weight of each unit was estimated at 280 pounds. 

    In February 2015, a snowstorm resulted in 14 to 15 inches of heavy, wet snow accumulating on the roof. Employees of the market got on the roof to shovel off the snow. A truss broke and a large portion of the roof collapsed.

    The market sought coverage from Affinity. Affinity then sued Thacker, asserting claims for negligence and breach of warranty, arguing that Thacker was at fault for the collapse. 

    Affinity retained Daniel Honig, a structural engineer, who issued a report that the roof collapsed because of Thacker’s placement of the heating units. Thacker moved to strike Honig’s opinion.

    The court could not discern any logical explanation or methodology in Honig’s report for how he reached his opinion that the heating units caused the collapse. Honig noted that the roof should not have collapsed because the building code required roofs to sustain about twice the amount of weight as the snowstorm here would have added. He did not tie that into his opinion that the heating units caused the collapse. He did not opine that the building complied with the code prior to the installation of the heating units, such that fault for the collapse could be attributed to those units. Instead, he opined that “there was significant structural loading capacity deficiencies within this preexisting roof framing system.” An admission that the structure was defective even before the heating units were installed would seem to call for an analysis of that structure’s capacity and whether it would have been able to withstand the snow even without the addition of the heating units. 

    The lack of analysis and explanation was fatal to Honig’s opinion. The motion to strike was granted.