Is a Trucking Industry Expert Permitted to Opine on the Cause of a Truck Crash?

Posted in truck accident on March 12, 2021

Sometimes expert testimony can play an important role in a truck accident case.

To assist our experienced Atlanta truck accident lawyer at Tobin Injury Law with proving what happened that led to the collision, we often hire a trucking industry expert to render an opinion about exactly how the accident occurred and why it happened.

Big rigs have an extensive amount of data that’s recorded in their systems. This includes readings about the semi’s steering, acceleration, braking, GPS locations, vectoring, along with times stamps when certain actions transpired.

To accurately interpret this data and how it applies to the accident, our team at Tobin Injury Law will often hire a professional who specializes in the examination of truck data. In truck accident cases, the expert will examine the scene of the collision, download the data, analyze the data, and inspect the vehicles involved.

Was the Trucking Expert Allowed to Testify in a Recent Georgia Case?

In a recent Georgia case, the testimony of a plaintiff’s trucking expert came under scrutiny, as the trucking company defendant asked the court to prohibit him from testifying.

The plaintiff, Michael Jacob Castle-Foster, sued Cintas Corporation for $7,500,000 for injuries he received when a Cintas employee driving a Ford Transit Van struck his 2002 Lexus RX800. On April 6, 2018, Michael was traveling in the southbound lane of Old Augusta Road in Rincon, just outside of Savannah, Georgia, when he collided with the truck that was turning out of Rincon Stillwell Road. Michael said that the truck turned left into his path after failing to observe a stop sign and failing to yield the right of way. There was just one lane for traffic traveling southbound and one lane for traffic traveling northbound.

Michael was airlifted to the hospital and claimed he suffered a brain hemorrhage and a displaced right femur fracture that required multiple surgical procedures, as well as fractured ribs, facial lacerations and facial scarring, and a knee injury. Michael claimed roughly $230,000 in medical damages, $34,000 in lost wages, property damages, as well as mental emotional and physical pain and suffering and anguish. He also said that he suffers significant and likely long-lasting mental deficits which he believes are the result of the brain injury which he suffered in the crash.

The Defendants Move to Exclude the Opinions and Testimony of Michael’s Trucking Expert

Cintas wrote in its motion to exclude that Plaintiff’s trucking expert was being offered for a single purpose: “to contend that some nonexistent and undefined nebulous ‘professional driver’ standard applies to the conduct of [the truck driver], the Cintas employee involved in the accident giving rise to this suit, rather than the standard of ordinary care on which the Court will instruct the jury.”

In addition to challenging the expert’s testimony on the grounds that his opinion lacked actual or legal foundations and that its sole purpose was to confuse the members of the jury, the trucking company argued that the expert proffered testimony “beyond his expertise and that he applies a standard which does not exist.”

What Opinions Did the Trucking Expert Provide?

Michael’s trucking expert proffered the following opinions:

  1. The truck driver failed to adhere to industry regulations and standards, including:
  2. He failed to keep a proper lookout in order to perceive a hazard;
  3. He failed to safely and reasonably respond to a hazard despite having the time and opportunity to do so;
  4. He didn’t drive defensively;
  5. He failed to manage his space, and ultimately encroached on the space of approaching traffic; and
  6. He was required to have the necessary knowledge, skills, and safe driving attitude to prevent crashing with other road users.
  7. Cintas is responsible for the actions of the truck driver as it relates to the safe operation of their vehicle he was driving at the time of this collision.
  8. According to industry standards, this accident was preventable on the part of Cintas and its driver.
  9. Michael was driving his Lexus in a normal manner when the truck intruded upon his path.

Was Michael’s Truck Expert Qualified to Render an Opinion?

The Plaintiff’s trucking expert had worked in the trucking industry since 1968 as a truck driver, owner operator, truck driver training instructor, truck driver training program director, and as a consultant for motor carriers and truck driving schools. He has licenses and certifications both in the United States and in Europe. In addition to his substantial driving experience, he has also produced numerous training videos and modules for drivers, written books and articles on the subject, and conducts research and analysis on comparative driving cultures, as well as other professional qualifications.

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Christopher L. Ray found that after reviewing the expert’s report, his deposition, and his educational background, the judge was satisfied that the expert had the necessary qualifications to opine as he did. As far as the other standards, Cintas argued that the trucking expert’s testimony was unlikely to be helpful—and may instead be exactly the opposite—because he purports to apply what Cintas called a “nonexistent and undefined nebulous ‘professional driver’ standard” to Cintas’ business.

Cintas also asserted that the expert’s opinions were also improper because they lacked support in factual or scientific analysis. But Michael argued that Cintas adopted the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations for all of its vehicles, had additional applicable training, and was within the scope of his employment when the accident occurred. Michael noted that the trucking expert testified to federal motor carrier safety regulations in the past, and that Georgia courts have upheld his opinions.

Likewise, Michael asserted that the proper remedy for any purported legal conclusion testimony is at trial with objections, rather than striking the trucking expert prematurely. Michael also said that his expert acknowledged that the standard of care is the same for all drivers, but argued that privately established motor standards could be relevant as “illustrative of ordinary negligence under the circumstances.”

The Court Separates the Trucking Expert’s Testimony into Two Areas

  1. The Standards Applied by Cintas and its Truck Drivers.

The court said that the expert’s testimony could be broken down into two broad topics. The first is the standards applied by Cintas and its drivers. The Court said that many of the issues underpinning the conflict as to these topics aren’t dependent on the expert’s qualifications or examination, but rather on whether he may testify as to questions of fact. Instead of challenging his qualification to provide expert testimony, the parties are using the trucking expert as a “proxy for a contest over whether defendants’ driver was operating in the course of business and whether Cintas has adopted the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) for its vehicles”— not what on the contents of the regulations or how they’re applied.

Judge Ray found that neither of these were questions that an expert may properly decide because they’re “inherently fact determinations best left to the province of the jury.” As a result, the judge held that the trucking expert wasn’t appropriately designated as an expert to opine on either of these issues. Plus, even if this was something that could be the subject of expert testimony, the expert wasn’t qualified, Judge Ray said. There was nothing in his information that indicated he was qualified to opine on business practices such as which procedures companies apply to their drivers, or how they determine when and where an individual is operating in the course of business.

However, Judge Ray explained that should the jury first determine that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) apply in this case, the jury may find it useful to have some explanation as to how truck drivers use and employ these standards. As a result, at that point, the judge wouldn’t strike the portions of the expert’s opinions that purport to provide this type of opinion. Even so, Judge Ray acknowledged that it may be hard to determine the relationship between appropriate and inappropriate testimony at this stage because much evidence has yet to be presented. Thus, the appropriate remedy for reconciling this issue is fully briefed motions or objections during trial.

  1. The Actual Details of the Accident

The second set of topics concerned the actual details of the accident. Specifically, in addition to proffering opinions on the application of trucking regulations, Michael’s trucking expert opined on certain actions taken during the accident itself. These opinions included whether the truck driver stopped at the stop sign and whether one or the other of the parties caused the accident.

Neither the expert’s expertise nor his review of the documents were enough to uphold these types of opinions, the judge said. These opinions are those properly reserved for the jury. Plus, Michael’s trucking expert wasn’t an accident reconstructionist, and nothing in his educational background supported that he was qualified to testify as to causation in the accident. All he was doing, Judge Ray said, was reviewing witness testimony and drawing his own conclusion from that testimony divorced from any technical knowledge or expertise.

As a result, Cintas’ motion was granted in part and denied in part. The judge held that Michael’s trucking expert couldn’t testify as to the standard of care applicable in car accidents. This issue was properly left to the judge and the jury. Also, the trucking expert was prohibited from opining on whether Cintas adopted particular standards or whether Cintas’ driver was operating in his scope of business because the jury must also decide these issues. Finally, Judge Ray held that Michael’s trucking expert couldn’t testify as to causation. However, he was permitted to provide testimony on the federal standards where applicable. Castle-Foster v. Cintas Corp. No. 2, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28145 *; 2021 WL 601877 (S.D. Ga. February 16, 2021).

Consult an Experienced Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured by a semi in an auto accident, you should speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer who has successfully resolved these types of personal injury cases. You should work with an experienced Atlanta truck accident attorney. Contact Tobin Injury Law, and we will work to get you the compensation you deserve. We know what to look for when suing a trucking company.

We work with the nation’s most highly regarded trucking experts who will help you get the compensation you deserve.

You can contact an Atlanta truck accident attorney 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or using our online contact form. Tobin Injury Law offers free consultations, and we’ll be glad to answer your questions.