Wrongful Death Case Clarifies the Use of Expert Witnesses

In trial, experts are individuals who have specific knowledge about their field beyond what the average person would have. That knowledge could be about a broad, technical field such as neuroscience or it could be something as simple as a neighbor who constantly watches the happenings in the neighborhood. As a result of their experiences, those individuals have special knowledge that they are able to share with the judge and jury at a trial.

However, in order to allow an expert to testify at trial, there are certain criteria that must be met. Recently, thanks to a State of Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals case, those requirements have been spelled out explicitly. The case involved the death of a teen as he was driving down a slippery highway in the evening on Highway 102 in Jefferson Davis Parish. He lost control of his vehicle as he was driving around a curve and the vehicle struck a headwall of a cement culvert that ran under the roadway. The vehicle rolled over into the ditch and partially ejected the teen; his head and neck were trapped between vehicle and the ditch. He died as a result of his injuries.

The family brought a wrongful death action against the Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), arguing that the road was maintained in a hazardous condition. They contended that headwall of the concrete culvert was slightly above grade by about three inches and that the slope of the ditch was steeper than it should be. Obviously, both of these claims involve a lot of technical information about highways and regulations that the average person would not know. Therefore, when this case got to trial, both sides called in experts to determine whether these conditions were violating any rules and whether the above grade culvert and the slope of the ditch could have contributed to the accident regardless of whether they were maintained improperly.

Both sides offered several experts in this case. The issue, however, centered on whether an expert could be questioned on a subject that he was not brought into the case to testify upon, but was none-the-less qualified to answer. Two experts testified about highway design and traffic engineering. There was a third expert who would testify on accident reconstruction and who actually reconstructed the accident to determine how it happened. Nonetheless, the two experts regarding highway design were both questioned as if they were accident reconstruction experts. Both experts explained to the jury that they were not prepared to testify regarding accident reconstruction (because they had not done one for this accident), but were both qualified to do so. They proceeded and gave their opinions.

The Court of Appeals allowed this testimony based on several qualifications that are somewhat unique to this case: (1) The experts could have testified in the other field because they were qualified to do so, (2) the questions that were asked were general and asked of many of the other experts and lay witnesses in this trial, (3) the experts explained their original expert position in this trial and that they had not done the accident reconstruction, and (4) the jury should be able to make determinations as to whose testimony they find credible. The Court mentions that the experts helped the jury understand the accident, so they fulfilled their purpose within the course of the trial based on Louisiana Codes of Evidence.

The Court of Appeals also underscored the federal requirements of an expert witness: (1) the expert must be qualified, (2) the methods by which the expert creates his or her opinion must be reliable, and (3) the testimony assists the trier of fact in understanding the application of the specialized knowledge to the case at hand. The Court found that the experts in this case fulfilled these requirements as well even though the experts testified on subjects that were outside the scope of their original purpose coming into trial.

Expert witnesses and their testimony is also an area that is in the discretion of the trial court. The trial judge has broad discretion to allow such testimony in their courtroom and the Court of Appeals will only question their judgment when it is absolutely necessary; in this case, it was not.

Expert witnesses are a very useful tool because the average person (or judge) cannot be expected to know all of the technical information that could come into play at trial. Cases range from intellectual property to real property so it is important to know when to use an expert at trial. The knowledgeable attorneys at The Berniard Law Firm know just when an expert would be helpful for your case.

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