In the legal malpractice case of Ashton v. KoonsFuller, P.C., the Fifth Court affirmed a summary judgment for the defendant law firm. Among other issues addressed, the Court criticized the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert about the defendant’s billing, providing an illustration of the commonly-litigated Daubert/Robinson issue about whether an expert adequately considered alternatives to his or her conclusion: “[W]hile Hill disagrees with the amount of time KoonsFuller spent on discovery matters and preparing for mediation, the affidavit does not state how much time would have been reasonable. Similarly, Hill complains about the number of lawyers and legal assistants billing for those services, but does not suggest what an appropriate number would be.” No. 05-16-00130-CV (May 10, 2017) (mem. op.)
Continuing its skepticism of expert opinions about how third parties would act under hypothetical situations (see Experts, show your work or it isn’t summary judgment evidence), the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed a directed verdict in favor of the defendant in Axess International, Inc. v. Baker Botts, LLP based on the legal insufficiency of causation evidence. In that case, the plaintiff alleged that if Baker Botts had disclosed that it was pursuing similar patents on behalf of a competitor as well as the plaintiff, the plaintiff would have obtained different counsel, resulting in more favorable business terms in a deal with the competitor when conflict over the competing patents later came to a head.
At issue was an expert opinion from a patent attorney offered to show causation. He opined that the plaintiff would have initiated an interference proceeding and would have expanded its patent claims if the conflict had been disclosed, and that the result would have been a more favorable resolution between the plaintiff and the competitor. While noting that whether those two steps would have been taken was not clear, the Dallas Court of Appeals focused instead on whether there was evidence that those two steps would have resulted in a more favorable deal between the plaintiff and the competitor. The Court noted that because the expert offered no evidence of a similar case that was resolved favorably, there was no basis for the expert opinion that the plaintiff would have prevailed in the interference proceeding (heard this one before?). As to the expanded patent claims, the court held that the expert offered no factual basis to support his opinion as to how the USPTO would have responded to the hypothetical patent applications, again focusing on the lack of evidence regarding similar cases. And the court suggested it would be layering speculation upon speculation to assume that the mere threat of an interference proceeding or expanded patent claims would have resulted in a more favorable deal for the plaintiff without an indication as to the result of either. Thus, there was insufficient proximate cause evidence against Baker Botts and the trial court was affirmed.
Lesson learned (again): anytime your expert is saying what someone else would have done under alternative circumstances, the expert should identify specific similar factual scenarios that were considered by that third party that had the desired outcome. Otherwise, the expert’s testimony may be no evidence at all.
In Starwood Management, LLC v. Swaim, the Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed a summary judgment in favor of the defendant by holding that the plaintiff’s evidence of causation, an opinion from their expert witness, was conclusory and therefore not admissible summary judgment evidence. The opinion is a reminder that expert opinion evidence on summary judgment must be more than mere conclusions.
The facts of the case arose from plaintiff hiring the defendants, an attorney and his law firm, to recover an aircraft that was seized by the DEA for an allegedly illegal registration. The defendants were late in filing a claim with the DEA’s Forfeiture Counsel to recover the aircraft, causing the plaintiff’s federal claim for the aircraft to be dismissed. The affidavit offered by the plaintiff as evidence of causation was that of an attorney who had successfully represented the plaintiff in five previous aircraft seizure cases. His opinion was that if the plaintiff had timely filed its claim with the DEA such that the federal lawsuit would not have been dismissed, the DEA would have returned the aircraft as it had in those prior five case. The district court excluded the opinion and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
The Dallas Court of Appeals affirmed because it held the expert’s opinion of causation was conclusory. Inexcusably passing on an opportunity to use one of this blogger’s favorite Latin phrases, ipse dixit, the Dallas Court of Appeals instead described the legal standard in less colorful but ultimately more helpful terms. “To avoid being conclusory, ‘[t]he expert must explain the basis of his statements to link his conclusions to the facts.’ An expert must also ‘[e]xplain how and why the negligence caused the injury.’” Or as I was told in math class, the expert must show his work. This expert failed to do that because, although he had past experience in other aircraft seizure cases in which the outcome was positive, he failed to describe the facts of those cases. As a result, he failed to link those cases to the one at hand, rendering his causation opinion a mere conclusion.
“Branch” Warren, a noted professional bodybuilder, tore a leg muscle when he slipped on a rainy ramp outside a TGI Friday’s restaurant. He proffered expert testimony from an architect named Peter Combs who, after inspecting the ramp roughly three months after the accident, opined that it was unsafe. The Fifth Court affirmed summary judgment for the defendant: “[A] fatal problem with the Combs affidavit is that Combs did not say what the ramp’s condition was when Warren fell. Combs did not say that the ramp was probably as slippery on August 20 (when Warren fell) as it was on December 4 (when Combs inspected the ramp). He did not say that the lapse of time and exposure to the elements made the ramp more slippery, less slippery, or had no effect on the ramp’s slipperiness. In short, Combs’s affidavit addressed the ramp’s condition only on the day he examined it.” Warren v. Carlson Restaurants, No. 05-14-01232-CV (Dec. 30, 2015) (mem. op.)
Defendant won summary judgment, with a combination of no-evidence and traditional grounds, on fraudulent transfer claims. Renate Nixdorf v. Midland Investors LLC, No. 05-14-01258-CV (Dec. 8, 2015) (mem. op.) The Dallas Court of Appeals reversed, finding problems with what defensive matters were appropriately addressed by a no evidence summary judgment motion and what specific transactions were at issue, as well as proof of “reasonably equivalent value” that was conclusory.
Zive, the president of a partner in a real estate development venture, sought to testify about the value of the relevant property at various times, in the context of a dispute about the value received at a foreclosure sale. The Court affirmed his exclusion, reminding that while “an owner is qualified to testify to property value,” the testimony must “meet the same requirements as any other opinion evidence.” (quoting Natural Gas Pipeline Co. of America v. Justiss, 397 S.W.3d 150, 156, 159 (Tex. 2012)). Here, although Zive relied upon an appraiser’s report, Zive “provided no substantiation for his opinion that the fair market value of the property would have increased by approximately $2 million by the 2011 foreclosure sale date,” and thus did not meet the standard. Grapevine Diamond v. City Bank, No. 05-14-00260-CV (Nov. 10, 2015, mem. op.)
In this legal malpractice claim, the plaintiff argued that his expert opinion as to proximate causation were sufficient to establish that element of his claim. But the Court of Appeals found that the plaintiff’s expert opinion had been excluded by the trial court as unreliable and the plaintiff did not assign error to that ruling in his appellate brief.
For the second time this month, the Court of Appeals has decided that Oncor Electric Delivery Company was not responsible for causing a fire that damaged a plaintiff’s property. In this instance, Schepp’s Dairy alleged that Oncor’s negligence led to a fire starting with a transformer at Schepp’s facility. At trial, three different electrical engineering experts variously testified that the fire was caused on either Schepp’s side or Oncor’s side of the transformer. The jury specifically rejected the conclusions of two of those experts, leaving only one expert for Schepp’s. In a highly fact-specific opinion, the Court of Appeals held that the last expert’s opinion was unreliable. Among other problems, the witness had failed to exclude other possible causes of the fire, and he had only testified as to Oncor’s negligent maintenance of the transformer without opining as to what was the direct cause of the fire. Without that testimony, Schepp’s had no evidence of causation, and the judgment against Schepp’s was therefore reversed.
Oncor Elec. Deliv. Co. LLC v. So. Foods Gp. LLC, No. 05-12-01223-CV
In this legal malpractice case, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s expert opinion as based on invalid assumptions. The expert opined that the value of sale of an interest in certain oil and gas wells would have been $960,000 greater in April 2008, when the interest should have sold but for a law firm’s malpractice. Among other faulty assumptions, the Court noted that the expert wrongly assumed that (1) the later sale, in September 2008, was a simple asset sale, when, in fact, it involved a partial settlement of a lawsuit; (2) the projections of actual drilling costs, as opposed to actual results, were the proper measure of costs; and (3) that wells would have been drilled at a certain specified rate.
An April 2009 wildfire that damaged nearly 400 acres in Palo Pinto County led to a lawsuit in which a developer’s insurance company ultimately sought to pin the blame on Oncor Electric Company. The insurance company’s theory of the fire was that an Oncor worker lit a cigarette and tossed it in some brush, igniting the blaze. To support this theory, the insurance company found several expert fire reconstructionists who conducted tests and re-enactments and determined that the most likely cause of the fire was “the careless disposal of a cigarette” by the Oncor worker.
The trial court excluded the experts’ opinions, pointing to the fact that they did not have any “real experience” with wildfires and did not demonstrate a proper foundation to reach their conclusions. On appeal, noting the deferential standard of review for the admission/exclusion of expert testimony, the Court of Appeals affirmed.