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United States District Court Finds That Construction Defect Experts May Not Offer Legal Conclusions

In Jeanes v. McBride, Plaintiff Janet Jeanes (“Ms. Jeanes”) brought a suit against Defendant Greg McBride (“Mr. McBride”) regarding Mr. McBride’s construction of a building on a plot of land owned by Ms. Jeanes. 2019 WL 2583113 (W.D. La. 2019). Ms. Jeanes told Mr. McBride that she wanted a building for spaces for her horses and living quarters for herself (“the Building”).

Ms. Jeanes alleged that Mr. McBride failed to obtain the necessary building approvals, and that the Building contained numerous structural defects. Mr. McBride retained consulting engineer Dr. Jerry Householder (“Dr. Householder”) as an expert witness. Dr. Householder had extensive experience in structural engineering and construction. Dr. Householder prepared an expert report, which opined to roof design issues, the improper joining of the living quarters to the horses’ quarters, and the adequacy of the wind bracing. Dr. Householder’s expert report also opined to the contractual relationship between Ms. Jeanes and Mr. McBride.

With regard to the contractual relationship of the parties, the report opined that Ms. Jeanes acted as her own general contractor and that the Building was constructed in conformance with the plans and within the standards expected of a contractor. It then states that Mr. McBride was the metal building and concrete subcontractor. The report also opined to legal responsibilities of general contractors and subcontractors.

Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 704, “an expert may never render conclusions of law,” which include “legal conclusions on the contractual responsibility of the parties” to a contract, unless that expert is interpreting the “technical meaning of terms used in [an] industry.” The Court found that Dr. Householder’s opinions regarding the contractual relationship of Ms. Jeanes and Mr. McBride are not based upon technical interpretations of the contract.

The Court held that Dr. Householder was not allowed to testify with respect to whether Ms. Jeanes or Mr. McBride was the general contractor for the Building. Instead, the Court held it is for the jury to determine the legal responsibilities of the parties under the contract. However, the Court allowed Dr. Householder to testify to design and construction defects regarding the roof, the joining of the Building, and the adequacy of the wind bracing.

This case shows that, despite the ability of a construction expert to testify to matters involving the design and construction stemming from the contract, that same construction expert may not testify to the legally imposed roles of parties to that contract. Those constitute legal opinions and will not be admitted into evidence under the Federal Rules.