In a personal injury case arising out of a fatal collision between a tractor-trailer and an automobile, the Georgia Supreme Court was recently asked to address whether the well-established test governing the admissibility of expert testimony applies to investigating law enforcement officers.

Background on the case 

At 8:15PM on September 27, 2017, after picking up a load of peanuts from a farm in Thomas County to take to a drying facility in Camilla, a truck driver slowly made a left turn to head northbound onto a two-lane road. A car traveling southbound collided with the side of the trailer. The accident resulted in the car driver’s death and injuries to her minor son.

A sergeant of the Georgia State Patrol’s Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team (“SCRT”) conducted a walk-through of the crash site that night. He was the lead investigator of the team that performed a number of tests in the following weeks and ultimately issued a 102-page SCRT report.

The car driver’s husband and her adult son filed suit against the semi driver, the owner of the trailer that the semi driver was transporting, and the peanut company’s parent company. The plaintiffs filed a motion to exclude the following portion of the police sergeant’s SCRT report and any related testimony:

For unknown reasons, [the car driver] did not recognize the tractor-trailer being driven by [the semi driver] entering the roadway from a private – from a private field drive. It is the opinion of this investigating officer that [the car driver] was distracted by something and failed to slow her vehicle down to allow for the trailer to clear her travel lane before the collision.

The plaintiffs argued that this testimony was unreliable because it ignored part of the semi driver’s testimony and because the sergeant failed to perform nighttime testing in reaching his conclusions. The plaintiffs also sought to exclude the sergeant’s opinion that, when the semi driver started pulling his truck out of the field and across the opposite lane of traffic, he had the right of way on the ground that it is a legal conclusion and not a proper subject of the sergeant’s testimony.

The trial court denied the plaintiffs’ motion to exclude, concluding that an investigating officer was presumptively qualified as an expert. After the trial court denied the peanut company and its parent company’s motions for summary judgment, the Court of Appeals granted their application for interlocutory appeal, and the plaintiffs cross-appealed from the denial of his motion to exclude. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment to the defendants, but affirmed the order denying the motion to exclude, relying on the trial court’s reasoning. The Court of Appeals did not consider whether the trial court properly conducted the three-prong assessment established in Daubert, a U.S. Supreme Court case defining the standard for expert testimony.

The Supreme Court’s Opinion Looks at Lay and Expert Testimony

On appeal the Supreme Court, Justice Carla Wong McMillian stated that although the admissibility of lay and expert opinion testimony is clearly governed by distinct standards, nothing prevents a law enforcement officer from being qualified to provide both lay opinion and expert testimony. Thus, the Supreme Court was required to examine the difference between expert and lay testimony.

The Georgia Evidence Code establishes standards for admissibility for both lay testimony and expert testimony. O.C.G.A. § 24-7-701 (“Rule 701”), which governs the admissibility of lay witness opinion testimony, provides:

  • If the witness is not testifying as an expert, the witness’s testimony in the form of opinions or inferences shall be limited to those opinions or inferences which are:
  • Rationally based on the perception of the witness;
  • Helpful to a clear understanding of the witness’s testimony or the determination of a fact in issue; and
  • Not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of Code Section 24-7-702.

Rule 702(b), which governs the admissibility of expert witness testimony, provides:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise, 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 upon 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.

Justice McMillian explained that a properly disclosed and qualified expert can testify as both an expert and a fact witness. However, any expert opinion testimony from that witness must satisfy the conditions for admissibility. Turning to the disputed testimony here, the parties agreed that law enforcement, such as the sergeant, get specialized training for the purpose of becoming experts in accident reconstruction. And accident reconstruction is generally a discipline requiring “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” within the plain language of Rule 702.

In this case, the police sergeant conducted multiple tests, performed an accident reconstruction, and ultimately testified that:

  • The car driver should have been able to see the truck from about a half mile away;
  • She had 27 seconds before she reached the truck while traveling at 70 MPH;
  • Nothing prevented the car driver from seeing the truck, which was lighted on the sides as well as by headlights;
  • There were no skid marks to indicate the car driver hit her brakes
  • The car driver’s vehicle left a steer mark for approximately 68 feet before the point of impact; and
  • The car driver must have been distracted by something to cause her to fail to slow down.

This conclusion was based on more than just the sergeant’s own perception of the scene of the wreck as an investigating officer and necessarily involves the application of “technical or other specialized knowledge,” Justice McMillian and the Supreme Court concluded.

Did the Trial Court Properly Admitted the Police Sergeant’s Testimony and Report?

Justice McMillian wrote that a trial court has broad discretion under Rule 702 to admit or exclude expert testimony. However, here the trial court abused its discretion by failing to fully exercise its gatekeeping function under Rule 702.

Specifically, the trial court didn’t consider either the reliability or helpfulness of the sergeant’s testimony. Although the plaintiffs didn’t dispute his qualifications as an accident-reconstruction expert, the trial court is still required to assess the remaining two prongs of the Daubert test: reliability and helpfulness. These two prongs are well-established under federal law, the justice said.

Reliability requires a case-specific inquiry, and as far as helpfulness, the Supreme Court has explained that the proposed testimony must logically advance a material aspect of the case. In other words, the testimony must “fit” an issue that the jury is charged with deciding to be helpful to the jury. And while the semi driver asked the Supreme Court to conduct this analysis on appeal, an appellate court shouldn’t conduct the analysis of the expert’s methodology in the first instance, Justice McMillian said.

The trial court’s judgment was vacated. Miller v. Golden Peanut Co., 2023 Ga. LEXIS 176  (Ga. August 21, 2023).

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