Does Georgia Still Have the Expert “Investigating Officer” Rule?

Does Georgia Still Have the Expert “Investigating Officer” Rule?

In a lawsuit stemming from a fatal accident between a commercial truck and a passenger vehicle, the Georgia Supreme Court was asked to examine whether the state has retained the so-called “investigating officer” rule or whether the trial court should have conducted a Daubert analysis for expert witness testimony.


On the evening of September 27, 2017, after picking up a load of peanuts from a Thomas County farm, 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 accident. He and his team conducted several tests and produced a 102-page report.

The family of the car driver brought a lawsuit against the truck driver, the owner of the trailer that the driver was transporting, and the peanut company’s parent company. The family filed a motion to exclude this part 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 family contented this testimony was unreliable because it ignored part of the truck driver’s testimony and because the sergeant didn’t perform nighttime testing in reaching his conclusions. They also sought to exclude his opinion that, when the semi driver began moving his truck out of the field and across the opposite lane of traffic, he had the right of way. That’s because this statement was a legal conclusion and not a proper subject of his testimony. But the trial court denied the motion to exclude, concluding that an investigating officer was presumptively qualified as an expert.

What is the “Investigating Officer” Rule?

Justice Carla Wong McMillan of the Georgia Supreme Court wrote that years ago, the Court of Appeals stated that “[t]here can be no doubt a police officer with investigative experience on automobile collisions is an expert.” This holding was carried forward to one of the cases relied on by both the trial court and the Court of Appeals in this case. As a result, under the investigating officer rule, the Court of Appeals explained that it’s an abuse of discretion for “a trial court to exclude the investigating officer’s testimony about the cause of the accident,” such that the trial court need not conduct an analysis as to the admissibility of his opinion.

Justice McMillan explained that these cases were decided before the current Georgia Evidence Code took effect in 2013, and the Court has said that where a provision of the current Georgia Evidence Code is materially identical to the Federal Rules of Evidence, the new provision “reflects the federal rule’s meaning, displacing any other.” As such, Georgia courts shouldn’t look to cases decided under the former Evidence Code because that precedent didn’t survive the adoption of the new Evidence Code. This principle is true even where the new statutory language is materially identical to the former statute it replaced. In adopting Rule 702, the General Assembly didn’t create a carve-out for law enforcement officers testifying as experts, Justice McMillan said.

Nonetheless, the semi driver argued that the investigating officer rule is actually just a streamlined application of the Daubert expert witness standard. The Supreme Court disagreed. Quoting an Eleventh Circuit decision, Justice McMillan wrote that “while an expert’s overwhelming qualifications may bear on the reliability of his proffered testimony, they are by no means a guarantor of reliability.”

As a result, nothing in the language of Rule 702 supported the trial court’s conclusion that an investigating officer’s testimony is somehow exempted from the statute’s admissibility standard or comports with the semi driver’s argument that the investigating officer rule is somehow a streamlined version of Daubert‘s clear standards. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that when an investigating officer is called to provide an expert opinion, the trial court must perform the same gatekeeping function under Rule 702 that’s required with all expert witnesses. The trial court’s judgment was vacated. Miller v. Golden Peanut Co., 2023 Ga. LEXIS 176  (Ga. August 21, 2023).

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