Fourth Circuit Reverses Auto Accident Case Based on Expert Testimony

gearsIn complicated accident cases involving heavily disputed facts, parties often rely on expert testimony to establish the bases for their claims. Experts can help provide background and context on issues such as evidence at an accident scene, faulty mechanics, or user error. Experts also help to explain complicated concepts and arguments in easily digested formats so that juries can understand what is going on. At the same time, since they wield such authority, experts can have an undue influence on a case, and a jury may give their testimony more weight or credibility than the expert’s testimony may actually merit. For these reasons, courts take the inclusion of expert testimony very carefully, and they generally only allow experts to testify if they are truly qualified to do so and have reliable testimony to offer.

In a recent case before the Fourth Circuit, the parties relied heavily on the testimony of experts to help them explain negligence and strict liability claims arising from an automobile accident. In the case, H.N. was driving his Ford pickup truck in West Virginia when he found that he could no longer stop the vehicle. Since he was driving at approximately 50 miles per hour, H.N. swerved his vehicle out of the line of traffic and pedestrians and into a brick building. This was the only way that he could figure out how to stop the truck. After suffering injuries and losses resulting from the accident, H.N. sued Ford Motor Company, alleging that the acceleration and deceleration mechanisms on their trucks were defectively designed. In order to establish this defective design, H.N. hired an expert, S.S., who was an electrical engineer who examined H.N.’s vehicle. S.S. concluded that contaminants must have built up in H.N.’s vehicle that wedged H.N.’s accelerator open, keeping the car accelerating even after H.N. tried to stop. However, S.S. did not actually test the truck to see if this was truly the case and the reason for H.N.’s injury, although he theorized that this was the likely cause. According to S.S., Ford was aware of this type of failure being possible and could have designed the truck differently to avoid such problems.

At trial, Ford moved to exclude S.S.’s opinions on the ground that they were not based on a reliable methodology because S.S. had not actually tested the truck to ensure that his theories were correct. The district court denied the motion, finding that Ford’s arguments went to the weight of S.S.’s testimony but not its admissibility, and Ford could address such arguments during cross-examination. At trial, Ford did so, including pointing out that S.S. had not tested his theories and could not say for certain that he was correct. Despite this, the jury found for H.N. and awarded him over three million dollars in damages. Ford appealed.

On appeal, Ford argued that the district court erred in allowing S.S. to testify at trial because S.S.’s testimony was not reliable. Looking at the district court’s decision, the Fourth Circuit first determined that the district court had failed to give proper consideration to whether S.S.’s testimony should be admitted. It noted that rather than considering the reliability and value of S.S.’s testimony, the district court had merely denied all of Ford’s motions outright, finding that all of their arguments went to the weight of the evidence rather than its admissibility. The Fourth Circuit held this was an incorrect way to evaluate Ford’s motions. The Fourth Circuit then turned to the merits of S.S.’s testimony and held that it should have been excluded from the trial because it was not a reliable expert opinion. Namely, S.S. did not test the theories that formed the basis of his opinion and testimony, and, as a result, his testimony was essentially speculation. Since S.S.’s testimony was unsupported by test data, the Fourth Circuit held that it should have been excluded, and the failure to do so was an error. Accordingly, it reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Lining up experts is an important part of many personal injury cases, but it requires careful vetting and close attention to the details of what the expert will discuss. Expert testimony must be reliable and grounded in scientific facts and testing. If you are involved in a personal injury case in which you believe that expert testimony may be necessary, it is important that you contact an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible. Our West Virginia car accident lawyers have been representing clients in the courtroom for more than 25 years and have the experience and strategic skills necessary to locate, vet, and prepare expert witnesses for your case. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

Limitations on the Presentation of Evidence in West Virginia Negligence Cases – Sneberger v. Morrison

Filing Deadlines in West Virginia Personal Injury Cases – Hammonds v. Riverview Cemetary Association

Punitive Damages in Wrongful Death and Negligence Cases – Shulin v. Werner Enterprises