Justices say expert opinion not enough proof in dryer fire case, overturn $14M judgment

The SE Texas Record Dec. 15, 2009, 10:00am

Justice Phil Johnson

AUSTIN – Hidalgo County jurors who blamed a Whirlpool clothes dryer for a fatal fire fell for flimsy evidence, the Supreme Court of Texas decided on Dec. 11.

The justices unanimously discarded a $14 million judgment that District Judge Noe Gonzalez entered for Margarita and Santos Camacho.

Their son Joab died in 2002, at age 16.

The justices agreed that the single opinion of engineer Judd Clayton, with neither tests nor review, could not stand as proof that a design defect caused lint to ignite.

"It is incumbent on an expert to connect the data relied on and his or her opinion and to show how that data is valid support for the opinion reached," Justice Phil Johnson wrote. "Clayton did not do so."

He found Clayton's opinions subjective, conclusory and lacking in probative weight.

He found no evidence that a design defect caused the fire.

"Clayton's theory was developed for the litigation in this case," Johnson wrote.

He quoted an earlier decision that, "Opinions formed solely for the purpose of testifying are more likely to be biased toward a particular result."

He wrote, "Various theories were advanced for the fire's cause, and different conclusions were drawn about whether the fire started in the dryer."

He wrote that the fire marshal concluded it didn't and Clayton concluded it did.

He exposed the improbability of Clayton's conclusion by describing the mechanics of dryer ventilation and attaching a diagram.

"Clayton's opinion was that the corrugated tube allowed lint to hang up on the inside of the tube and clog it," he wrote.

"He theorized that the lint was forced through the lint chute seal, became airborne, and was drawn into the heater box," he wrote.

"He reasoned that some airborne lint particles then passed through the heater box, were ignited as they passed by the heater element, and traveled vertically to the inlet grill," he wrote.

"There they either entered the drum or came into contact with and ignited other lint that had become attached to the inlet grill, and then the newly ignited lint entered the rotating drum," he wrote.

"Clayton's opinion was that once the ignited lint was in the dryer drum, it landed in the drying, tumbling clothes, and smoldered there through the remainder of the drying and cool-down cycles and the period of time after the dryer shut off until Margarita opened the dryer door," he wrote.

"He believed that when she opened the door, oxygen entered the drum and the increasing oxygen level allowed the smoldering lint and clothes to burst into flames," he wrote.

"His opinion was that the fire then escaped through the back of the dryer and ignited the Camachos' home," he wrote.

Jurors accepted Clayton's opinion, Gonzalez adopted the verdict, and the 13th District in Corpus Christi affirmed it.

Appeals judges held that Clayton based his opinion on experience and Whirlpool didn't conclusively disprove it.

According to Johnson, they measured Clayton by the wrong yardstick.

"Evaluating whether expert testimony has been conclusively disproved by the opposing party is not the same as considering whether the proponent of the testimony satisfied its burden to prove the testimony is relevant and reliable," he wrote.

"If courts merely accept 'experience' as a substitute for proof that an expert's opinions are reliable and then only examine the testimony for analytical gaps in the expert's logic and opinions, an expert can effectively insulate his or her conclusions from meaningful review by filling gaps in the testimony with almost any type of data or subjective opinions," he wrote.

He wrote that Clayton hadn't seen any test showing that lint would clog a tube in a properly vented dryer to the extent it would back up into the blower.

"He did not personally test his theory. Nor did he test his theory that lint would be blown through the lint chute seal if the lint transport tube became clogged," he wrote.

Whirlpool tried to start fires Clayton's way and couldn't do it, according to Johnson.

Numerous lawyers toiled on the case.

Lynne Liberato, Alene Ross Levy, Mark Trachtenberg, Keith Uhles, Douglas Dieterly, Peter Rusthoven and Juan Noe Garza Jr. represented Whirlpool.

Kevin Dubose, Robert Dubose, Joe Escobedo Jr., Luis Cardenas, Albert Munoz II, Cesar Perez, Aaron Vela, David Hockema, John Tippit III and Mauro Ruiz represented the Camacho family.

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