Is Expert Testimony Required in a Construction Site Accident?

Posted in expert testimony on June 20, 2022

In most lawsuits, you do not need to have an expert say what the at-fault person who committed the wrongdoing did wrong. However, in some situations like medical malpractice cases or legal malpractice cases you do need an expert. Our Georgia personal injury lawyers Georgia residents trust know which cases necessitate expert testimony and which cases do not.

Georgia law says that in a certain negligence actions, the plaintiff must present an expert opinion as to causation through an affidavit at the time of the filing and then during the course of the case. In other words, expert testimony is required to show that the plaintiff’s damages were caused by the negligence in question.

A jury can conclude from common knowledge that a causal connection exists between an accident and an injury if there’s a short lapse between the accident and the onset of the plaintiff’s symptoms. A recent case discusses whether the testimony of an expert would be necessary to validate the plaintiff’s damages in a construction site accident.

Background

A plaintiff filed a complaint against an aluminum fabrication plant (“the company”), alleging negligence arising from an accident at a construction site. At the time of the incident, the plaintiff was performing concrete work on the terrace of a building as an employee of a landscaping company. The landscaping company was a subcontractor at the site. While the plaintiff crouched face down, an aluminum pole (8-10’ and weighing forty pounds) lifted in the wind and struck him in the back and shoulder.

The company employees were working nearby installing aluminum railings. One of the plaintiff’s co-workers stated that the pole was leaned against a wheelbarrow prior to the accident and that it was too big to be left unsecured.

The company sought summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims because the type and nature of medical damages at issue in this case required the testimony of a medical expert. The plaintiff failed to designate such a witness, so he should be foreclosed from seeking medical damages, they said.

The plaintiff responded that questions of negligence, contributory negligence, cause and proximate cause are jury issues and that the jury must determine the genuine facts. The plaintiff also argued that there was a genuine issue as to the duty of the company’s employees and breach thereof because the record showed that the pole was too large to be left unsecured.

Additionally, he contended that he was exempt from expert disclosure requirements because his treating physicians would provide the necessary testimony regarding his medical damages.

The Judge’s Decision
United States District Judge J. P. Boulee started that under Georgia law, it was well established that to recover for injuries caused by another’s negligence, a plaintiff must show four elements:

  • A duty;
  • A breach of that duty;
  • Causation; and
  • Damages

As relevant here, Judge Boulee quoted an 1888 decision that said:

“[w]here a man is employed to do certain work, and knows that the work which he is doing is dangerous to others, and that accidents are likely to happen, and knows that other persons are lawfully engaged in other work, and are under an obligation to perform such work, the person engaged in the dangerous work is subject to the duty of using reasonable care, and taking precautions to prevent accidents arising from the work in which he is engaged.

The judge went on to opine that to establish proximate cause, a plaintiff must show a legally attributable causal connection between the defendant’s conduct and the alleged injury and must introduce evidence that affords a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it is more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a cause in fact of the result. Further, proximate cause is properly reserved for the jury and can only be appropriately addressed on summary judgment in plain and indisputable cases. Still, a court may grant summary judgment where there is only a “‘mere possibility'” of causation “‘or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced.

Is Expert Testimony Required?

Judge Boulee explained that expert evidence typically isn’t required to prove causation in a simple negligence case. A lay jury can conclude from common knowledge that a causal connection exists between an accident and an injury where there’s a short lapse between the accident on one hand and the onset of the plaintiff’s symptoms and receipt of medical treatment on the other hand. But expert testimony is necessary where the issue of causation presents ‘specialized medical questions. This includes cases where the link between a defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s injury is beyond common knowledge and experience’ and presents medical questions that ‘can be answered accurately only by witnesses with specialized expert knowledge.

Here, the undisputed facts showed that the plaintiff was injured after he was struck by an aluminum pole a company employee placed at the construction site. Further, it was clear that Georgia law imposes a general duty of care on employees working at a construction site to avoid causing injury to others working at the site. Given the disputed fact issues regarding whether the company employees breached their duty to the plaintiff and whether the accident was foreseeable, summary judgment is not appropriate, the judge concluded.

As to evidence of medical damages, a lay jury could conclude that a causal connection exists between the plaintiff’s accident and his injuries based on evidence that temporally ties the accident to the plaintiff’s onset of symptoms and his receipt of medical treatment. However, as the company pointed out, the law requires the plaintiff to prove that his medical expenses “arose from the injury sustained” and that they were “reasonable and necessary.” Therefore, testimony from a medical expert would be necessary to validate the plaintiff’s medical damages.

Did the Plaintiff Make the Required Expert Disclosures?

The record showed that the plaintiff didn’t make the required disclosures for such expert testimony. The judge said he must provide a disclosure that describes “the subject matter on which the witness is expected to present evidence” and “a summary of the facts and opinions to which the witness is expected to testify,” quoting Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2)(C). Rule 37(c)(1) states that a party who fails to make the required disclosures “is not allowed to use that information or witness to supply evidence on a motion, at a hearing, or at a trial, unless the failure was substantially justified or is harmless.”

Because the plaintiff failed to provide any justification for failing to provide the required expert disclosures, and his lack of disclosure prevented the defendant from conducting full discovery on his medical damages, the plaintiff was prohibited from presenting such expert testimony on a motion, at a hearing or at trial.

The Court found that exclusion of the testimony was the appropriate sanction but declined to grant summary judgment to the company on the issue of medical damages. The company’s motion was denied. Further, the plaintiff was prohibited from presenting expert witness testimony on a motion, at a hearing or at trial for failure to provide the required disclosures under Rule 26(a)(2)(C). But the judge held that the plaintiff’s treating medical providers may be called as lay witnesses because the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a physician’s diagnosis of the injury is permissible lay testimony. But statements regarding the cause of the injury are prohibited to the extent that such testimony is “not grounded in the physician’s own experience.” Mora v. White Aluminum Fabrication, Inc., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50132, 2022 WL 836298 (N.D. Ga. March 21, 2022).

If you have a personal injury question…

If you have been injured, we’re sorry you are here dealing with this tragedy. If you have questions about your injury, we welcome you to call our Georgia personal injury lawyers Georgia residents trust at 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or contact us via email through our contact form.