As discussed in the last post on the topic of traffic accident reconstruction, experts can play a pivotal role in the outcome of a case. Many accident victims can benefit from the opinion of reconstruction experts in establishing the at-fault party in a crash. Key to achieving this result is officially qualifying the reconstruction expert in the eyes of the court. Though a person may represent himself as qualified to analyze traffic accidents and offer an opinion on its cause, it may be quite another matter for the court to accept the opinion and permit the jury to consider the expert’s testimony.
The case Wilson v. Woods, 163 F.3d 935 (5th Cir. 1999) helps to explain the trial court’s role in evaluating the qualifications of a self-proclaimed accident reconstruction expert. The case concerned a car accident in which the defendant, driving a tractor-trailer, collided with the defendant’s car at an intersection in Yazoo City, Miss. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was negligent because at the time of the crash he was operating his truck at a speed in excess of the posted limit of 55 MPH. In support of this theory, the plaintiff sought during her jury trial to qualify that her witness, Mr. Rosenhan, was an expert in accident reconstruction. Rosenhan was to testify, based on his review of the police’s accident report, that he calculated that the defendant’s truck was traveling 63 MPH when the collision occurred. The defendant objected, arguing that Rosenhan’s qualifications were insufficient to form the basis of an expert opinion on the crash. After substantial analysis, the district (trial) court refused to qualify Rosenhan as an expert witness and did not allow the jury to hear his testimony. When the jury delivered a verdict for the defendant after the plaintiff could not otherwise prove her speeding theory and establish the defendant’s negligence, the plaintiff appealed on the basis that the trial court’s exclusion of Rosenhan’s testimony was improper.
The appellate court recalled its prior decision in Watkins v. Telsmith, Inc. in which the wide discretion district courts are granted when deciding whether expert testimony is admissible was determined. This discretion is only overturned when its’ exercise was “manifestly erroneous”. 121 F.3d 984, 988 (5th Cir.1997). The court also referenced the Supreme Court decision of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), in which the Court stated that a district court’s function was to act as gatekeepers, only permitted expert testimony that is both reliable and relevent to be presented to the jury. When the appellate court considered the matter of Rosenhan’s expertise as analyzed by the district court, it found he had earned a bachelor of science degree and a masters degree in mechanical engineering. Rosenhan had experience teaching mechanical and industrial engineering at vocational schools and colleges. During his 25-year consulting career, Rosenhan had worked in fire investigation and reconstruction; Rosenhan testified that his specialty had only recently changed to car accident reconstruction.
The appellate court further considered that the defendant’s counsel questioned Rosenhan and established that:
- Rosenhan taught college courses in engineering but did not hold a professorial rank;
- the college courses Rosenhan taught were not in, or relating to, accident reconstruction;
- Rosenhan did not have certification or degree in accident reconstruction, although he had commenced a course by correspondence with the Northwestern Traffic Institute;
- Rosenhan was not certified by the Association of Accident Reconstructionists as he did not meet the requirements; and
- a court had previously refused to qualify Rosenhan as an expert in accident reconstruction, determining that he lacked qualifications.
The appellate court noted that the district court judge personally questioned Rosenhan and, through questioning, determined that Rosenhan:
- had no experience conducting experiments or studies in accident reconstruction or related fields;
- failed to collect measurements or data from the scene of the plaintiff’s accident;
- failed to examine the mechanical parts or tires of the vehicles that were in the accident;
- used data that was publicly accessible to make calculations, rather than collecting data himself; and
- could not show that he had any more experience or training in accident reconstruction than another person trained as a mechanical engineer.
Considering these facts, the appellate court found that Rosenhan’s expertise in the area of accident reconstruction was “legitimately in doubt” and that the district court, therefore, “appropriately exercised its gatekeeping responsibility and did not abuse its discretion in refusing to qualify the witness” and permit him to testify for the jury. The appellate court affirmed the jury verdict for the defendant.
The Wilson case illustrates the importance of ensuring that an accident reconstruction expert’s qualifications will be accepted by the court so that the expert’s testimony will be heard by the jury. This is especially true in situations like this one where the expert’s opinion is absolutely critical to the victim’s recovery. If you have been injured in a car accident, you need a lawyer who not only knows the law, but also knows who you can rely on for expert testimony to win your case and get the recovery you deserve.