A ‘Battle of the Experts’ and the Role of Expert Testimony in a Negligence Action

On the morning of February 2, 1961, Erwin Davis was driving his Chevrolet Impala southbound on Louisiana State Route 66 toward Bains. O.C. Roberts, who was driving a Pontiac with two other passengers, was headed north on the same road in the direction of Angola. When Roberts attempted to slow his car, the front left brake “grabbed,” causing the vehicle to cross the center line and veer into the path of Davisís oncoming Chevy. Davis suffered contusions to the head, shoulder, and chest, as well as a neck strain which aggravated a pre-existing arthritic condition. He was hospitalized for six days, wore a collar brace for 10 months, and was placed in traction while recuperating in his home.

According to Louisiana law, a plaintiff has the burden of proof to establish the essential facts that support his theory of recovery. At trial, Davis put on evidence showing that the accident occurred because Roberts’ car crossed the road’s center line and invaded Davis’ lane. This established a prima facie case of negligence against Roberts. A prima facie case means evidence which, unless countered by the defendant, would support the plaintiff’s theory of recovery. Here, Roberts had a duty to operate his car in a safe manner, which would include maintaining control of his vehicle and keeping it within his lane of travel. The movement of Roberts’ vehicle into the oncoming lane represented a breach of this duty, and pointed to negligence unless Roberts could rebut that presumption with his own evidence.

Roberts offered the testimony of Alvin Doyle, an automobile consultant who inspected Robertsís Pontiac after the crash. Doyle testified that the brake “grabbing” sensation Roberts felt just before the accident was due to excessive grease on the left front brake drum, which was the result of improper lubrication of the ball joint. In Doyle’s opinion, the “accumulation of grease was so obvious as to merit the attention of any conscientious grease man and to call for replacement as well as removal of the grease deposits.”

Roberts’ car had recently been serviced by a shop owned by L. L. James, also named a defendant in the suit. To counter Doyle’s testimony, James called two expert witnesses, Leo Bickford and George Wilson. Bickford was trained by General Motors and had previously been employed for Pontiac dealers for 16 years were he achieved the position of senior service craftsman. Wilson was an approved automotive appraiser who attended the General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan and completed a course in collision damages. Each expert testified that, in his opinion, the excess grease that accumulated on a ball joint could not have made its way into the brake drum leading to its malfunction.

After hearing the testimony, the trial court dismissed Davis’ claim against Roberts, the driver, but entered a judgment against James, the shop owner, and awarded Davis $4,014.49 in damages. Davis appealed the dismissal of his action against Roberts, and James appealed the judgment.

The Louisiana Court of Appeal found that the “evidence shows the accident occurred because the north bound Roberts automobile invaded the south bound lane, and there collided with the south bound Davis automobile, making out a prima facie case of negligence against Roberts.” The court then carefully examined the trial court’s analysis of the expert testimony, finding that there was no testimony other than Doyle’s to corroborate the presence of grease in the left front brake. It determined that Doyle’s testimony was contradicted by Bickford and Wilson and, therefore, since “Davis has proven the accident happened in his lane of traffic and he was in no way negligent, a prima facie case was made out against defendant Roberts.” Accordingly, the court concluded that the trial court erred in dismissing Davis’ suit against Roberts and in rendering a judgment against James. The court ordered that the judgment of the trial court be reversed and judgment entered in favor of Davis and against Roberts in the amount of $5,514.49; further, the court dismissed Davis’ action against James.

The Davis case, though almost 50 years old, illustrates the important role of expert testimony in negligence actions. Although the plaintiff carries the initial burden of establishing his prima facie case where expert testimony is often useful, the defendant’s rebuttal can also be enhanced by convincing expert testimony.

When choosing an attorney, it is increasingly important to choose one that has a variety of experts in various fields that it will use to argue your case. By selecting the lawyer with a proven track record and that has experience not only arguing cases but using quality experts, the victim of a car accident can help make sure they do not select for themselves deficient representation.

The Berniard Law Firm has extensive experience in personal injury claims and automobile accidents and will happily discuss with potential clients their legal rights regarding their car accident in Louisiana. Call today.