What Opinions Can an Expert Provide in a Truck Accident Trial?
Our personal injury law firm headquartered in Atlanta represents victims every day. We see all sorts of cases though we primarily tend to help victims of truck accidents. One of the questions that can come up is “what can a hired expert testify to?” The below looks attempts to address and answer that truck accident expert question.
The plaintiff, Lexie Handley, alleged that she was severely injured in an automobile accident that occurred on September 20, 2019. Specifically, Ms. Handley claimed that a tractor-trailer truck belonging to Werner Enterprises, Inc. (“the trucking company”) improperly stopped on a highway, which caused her car to collide with Werner’s truck. She sought damages for medical and hospital bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and permanent impairment.
After discovery closed, several motions were filed by the parties, including Ms. Handley’s Motion to Exclude Certain Opinions of the trucking company’s accident reconstructionist and expert witness. Accident reconstruction is a scientific process that gives objective evidence about the causes of an accident. An accident reconstructionist is a person who usually has specialized training in science, engineering, and law enforcement and who can review evidence at the scene of the accident, as well as interview witnesses. It’s the process of investigating, analyzing, and making conclusions about the causes and events during a vehicle collision. Many defense lawyers and insurance companies like to hire these types of experts to shift blame. Sometimes the defense experts tell the truth; sometimes they’re paid to tell the “truth”.
Ms. Handley asked that the Court exclude three opinions of the trucking company’s expert as unreliable, unhelpful, and speculative.
What Do the Rules of Evidence Permit?
Citing the United States Supreme Court case of Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael (1999), Senior United States District Judge W. Louis Sands wrote in his opinion that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 allows a witness to testify in the form of an expert opinion if:
- 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;
- the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
- the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
- the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
In other words, expert opinion is admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence provided that the opinion is reliable, relevant, and helpful to the fact finder.
The judge explained that the trial court must “‘make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field,” again quoting the Supreme Court. The burden of establishing qualification, reliability, and helpfulness rests with the proponent of the expert opinion.
The Accident Reconstructionist’s Opinion that Ms. Handley Didn’t Make Any Effort to Avoid the Collision
Ms. Handley argued that the expert’s opinion that she “made no effort to avoid the collision” is “unreliable and unhelpful to a jury” because it is based on incomplete data, and the expert admitted that it was possible that she could’ve made a “short-timed steering input” that would not have been shown in his data. Ms. Handley further argued that the expert improperly opined on her mindset and effort, and that he can’t speak to what her efforts were but only to the movement and position of her vehicle.
The trucking company responded that technical experts like engineers often base their opinions not on any scientific method but on their general experience and knowledge after reviewing the evidence. They argued that their accident reconstructionist downloaded the objective data from Ms. Handley’s vehicle which showed that she was going at least 53 mph in a 45-mph zone, even assuming the testified-to rate of error and that she didn’t hit her brakes or step off the throttle in the 4.9 seconds prior to the collision. The physical roadway evidence also showed the accident reconstructionist that Ms. Handley rear-ended the tractor-trailer “in a straight line.” Thus, the expert testified that “the combination of those physical data, physical evidence and damage to the car and trailer suggests that she did not make an effort to avoid.”
As far as whether an expert’s methodology is reliable, the judge noted that courts look to a number of factors, including (1) whether the methodology can be and has been tested; (2) whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review; (3) the known or potential rate of error of the methodology employed; and (4) whether the methodology is generally accepted.
However, the Supreme Court has stated that the test of reliability is flexible, and the list of specific factors neither necessarily nor exclusively applies to all experts or in every case. Instead, the law grants a district court broad latitude when it decides how to determine reliability.
Here, Judge Sands said it was clear that the expert reasonably based his opinion that Ms. Handley made no effort to avoid the collision on the objective and largely undisputed evidence he gathered and reviewed in this case. In addition, the judge noted that the opinion addresses an essential issue in this case using technical evidence and doesn’t improperly touch on Ms. Handley’s mindset at the time of the collision. Thus, the Court found that the expert’s opinion was reliable, helpful, and admissible.
The other issues raised by Ms. Handley, such as the possibility that she attempted a maneuver that wasn’t shown in the vehicle data, can be explored on cross examination or in her case-in-chief, Judge Sands ruled.
The Accident Reconstructionist’s Opinion on Ms. Handley’s Reaction Time and the Visibility of the Truck
Ms. Handley also argued for exclusion of the expert’s opinion that she had a two-second reaction time because it was an unsupported assumption and of his opinion that she should have perceived the big rig’s lights as speculative and contradicted by eyewitness testimony.
The expert testified that “perception response time is the time it takes for the driver to recognize a hazard, identify it as a hazard, and make the physical movement to start braking. He allowed for a “two-second perception response time” which he testified is “kind of the higher end of the general range” of “one and a half to two seconds.” He testified that a large vehicle stopped ahead in daylight would be a recognizable hazard subject to that general range, just as children playing, animals, and other smaller objects on the road would be subject to the same range. But in scenarios “where the driver may have less information or the threat may be less obvious,” such as a stopped vehicle with no lights on a dark road, the reaction time could be higher, and the analysis delves further into human factor analysis.
The expert testified that the range of 1.5 to 2 seconds is “widely reported through decades of research” and was reasonable for this scenario. He also testified that he couldn’t think of anyone in the field of accident reconstruction who would generally provide a larger range because the range of 1.5 to 2 is based on testing, observations, and literature in the field based on the circumstances of this collision. The trucking company’s expert didn’t consult his literature or a human factors expert because he was confident that a two-second perception time was reasonable based on the “straightforward, appreciable hazard.”
Ms. Handley raised questions about the reliability of the accident reconstructionist’s testimony and suggested that he could have consulted a human factors expert, but he has clearly testified that his reliance on a two-second reaction time was based on his experience and the established literature and research on the average response time to a clear hazard and that he did not need to consult a human factors expert based on the circumstances of this case.
Ms. Handley didn’t show that the accident occurred under circumstances that would render the accident reconstructionist’s opinion on this issue unreliable, and the judge said that the trucking company otherwise met its burden to show that this opinion is based on a reliable methodology. If Ms. Handley thought there were flaws in the expert’s generally reliable methodology, that was for cross-examination. Plus, she didn’t offer any argument in a reply brief to challenge the truck company’s arguments. This, the judge had no reason to exclude the expert’s reaction time opinion as unreliable or speculative.
Ms. Handley also challenged the expert’s opinion that the semi was a visible and obvious hazard. She contended that the accident reconstructionist didn’t know whether and which truck lights were on at the time of the collision, that there was no physical evidence that any truck lights were on, that an eyewitness testified differently, and that jurors could understand these issues for themselves without any expert testimony. The accident reconstructionist testified that he classified the truck as “a clear obvious hazard” because it was “a very large truck” that likely had on its brake lights and was stopped or stopping in the left-hand lane approaching an intersection. He concluded that based on his analysis of the collision and the truck’s position at final rest, the truck driver “pretty much had” to be braking, and that if the brakes were on, then the brake lights were also on. While the accident reconstructionist testified that he didn’t have data that made him 100% positive that the brake lights were on, the witness testimony and data led him to conclude that the truck was stopped or slowing down and that the brakes lights, therefore, would have been illuminated.
She also challenged this testimony as “mere speculation,” but her own eyewitness testified that the truck stopped in the left-hand lane, which wasn’t inconsistent with the expert’s opinion. In addition, the accident reconstructionist testified that the truck’s lights didn’t need to be on because it was “a very large truck” and its “presence was pretty clear otherwise.”
Judge Sands said that the expert provided opinions on complex and technical issues, and he reached these opinions employing reasonable methodologies based on empirical data and largely undisputed facts. That’s sufficient. As a result, Ms. Handley’s motion to exclude the opinions of the accident reconstructionist was denied. Handley v. Werner Enters.. 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 12858 (M.D. Ga. January 25, 2022).
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