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ALBANY, N.Y. — A toaster with an alleged design defect and a dripping Pop-Tart provide the backdrop for an unusual ruling in which a federal judge is allowing an electrical engineer to appear as an expert witness. Northern District Judge Lawrence Kahn acknowledged that the engineer, Michael Wald, has no toaster manufacturing experience and no special insight into the qualities of Pop-Tarts. But he knows enough to qualify as a genuine expert in a products liability action, the court found in Seeley v. Hamilton Beach/Proctor-Silex Inc., 1:99-CV-1162. “Wald’s education and experience in electrical engineering and his experience determining the cause of electrical fires and mechanical malfunctions is sufficient foundation for him to testify as to the design of the toaster which may have resulted in a fire,” Judge Kahn said, performing the “gatekeeping” role of the judiciary as required under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 US 579 (1993). Court records show that on June 1, 1998, Clark Seeley put a Pop-Tart into his toaster and then left his Albany home while the pastry was heating. While he was gone, a fire started in the kitchen, spread to the rest of the house and caused extensive damage. Seeley and Jannine Walton recovered about $145,000 from their insurance carrier. That left them $100,000 short of covering the entire cost of the fire. So they sued Hamilton Beach, claiming that its toaster was to blame. The plaintiffs hope to prove their claim with the help of Wald. But Hamilton Beach argued in a pretrial motion to preclude his testimony that the proposed testimony was too unreliable to overcome the barrier between junk science and expert knowledge. The gist of the plaintiffs’ argument is that Hamilton Beach toasters are unique in design. A report submitted by Wald explains that toasters generally have a strip made of two metals that bends when heated. At a certain temperature, the strip touches a rod, which closes the switch contacts and turns off the toaster. Wald said that as far as he can tell, every manufacturer except Hamilton Beach has something between the rod and the toasting chamber to prevent food debris from mucking up the works. The toaster in this case has an unprotected rod, Wald contends. That enables matter like frosting dripping from a hot Pop-Tart to impede the movement of the rod and prevent it from turning off the toaster, he said. Hamilton Beach claimed Wald’s theory and his various experiments are invalid and of no evidentiary value. Judge Kahn said the engineer did enough to satisfy the test for scientific reliability of expert testimony. The court said that Wald performed dozens of tests on Hamilton Beach toasters, both with Pop-Tarts and other brands of toaster-heated pastries. Frosting regularly oozed onto various toaster components, including the unshielded rod, he said. Wald also experimented by putting melted sugar frosting and sugar crystals directly onto the rod. When the rod was impeded, fires erupted on at least three occasions, records show. Hamilton Beach complained that Wald is not an expert as defined under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. The court disagreed, saying, “In this case, the testing that was performed by Wald was so specific to this situation that it is not reasonable to require that it have been subject to peer review, have a known or potential rate of error, or have general acceptance within the scientific community.” Hamilton Beach’s motion was denied. John Caher is a reporter with the New York Law Journal, a Recorder affiliate.

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