Sims v. Kia Motors of America – Expert Witness Testimony Fell Short in Car Crash Case

Expert witness testimony may be crucial in certain car accident lawsuits in North Carolina. Rule 702 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence outlines the parameters of testimony by experts, and the 2014 decision in State v. McGrady by the North Carolina Court of Appeals concluded that a 2011 amendment to the evidence rule (in line with federal practice) must meet the Daubert standard.Car Accident

The “Daubert standard” for expert witness testimony was established in the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case of Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals. This standard is now applied in both civil and criminal trials, and it is essentially a way of vetting the testimony of an expert witness before trial. It tests whether the theory or technique put forth by the expert witness can be and has been tested, whether it’s been subjected to peer review and publication, whether it has a known potential error rate, whether there exists a standard controlling its operation, and whether it’s attained widespread acceptance in the specified scientific community.

Not all injury lawsuits require expert testimony, but for those that do, your injury attorney needs to be prepared to put forth solid evidence by a qualified expert. In the recent case of Sims v. Kia Motors of America, the question before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was whether a trial court in Texas abused its discretion in excluding the plaintiff’s expert witness, based on a failure to rely on accepted methods and data. This was critical in the case because without it, the trial court ruled, the plaintiff couldn’t raise a genuine issue of material fact that concerned key elements of their product liability lawsuit against a vehicle manufacturer.

According to court records, the plaintiff – individually and as the heir of his father’s estate – filed a product liability lawsuit against vehicle manufacturer Kia after his father died in a tragic car accident as a passenger in a Kia Soul. The plaintiff asserted that the manufacturer was liable for, among other errors, defectively designing a fuel tank on this particular model of vehicle.

The decedent was in the back seat of the vehicle. The Kia Soul driver was in a car accident with another vehicle at an intersection. After colliding with another vehicle, it spun, striking numerous objects in its path. One of those items was a sign, which pierced underneath the front bumper and pierced the fuel tank, tearing a hole in the tank and causing gas to leak. While the driver and the front seat passenger were able to get out, the decedent was stuck inside in the back seat when the vehicle became engulfed in flames. He died in the fire.

In the wrongful death product liability lawsuit against the car manufacturer, the plaintiff alleged the defendant had a responsibility to take reasonable steps to design and make a gas tank not susceptible to failure in crashes or to make sure that if a tank does ignite, it doesn’t immediately explode so that passengers have a chance to get out.

The plaintiff presented testimony from two engineer experts, one who planned to investigate how the sign struck the fuel tank and another who planned to testify about the safer, alternative designs that would have prevented the rupture of the fuel tank. The defense moved to exclude all or some of the plaintiff’s expert witness testimony, arguing it was unreliable. The district court granted the motion. Since the expert testimony was necessary to establish essential elements of the case, the exclusion of it was fatal to the case. The plaintiff appealed.

The Fifth DCA affirmed. The court noted that the differential diagnosis technique used by one of the experts is valid, but it is not reliable per se. In other words, it’s not enough to merely “rule out” alternative causes of a crash. One has to definitively “rule in.” While the court did not say that a differential diagnosis never meets the Daubert standard, in this case it did not.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Sims v. Kia Motors of America, Oct. 5, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District

More Blog Entries:

UnitedHealth Group v. Harvey – Battling for Auto Insurance Coverage, Sept. 27, 2016, Charlotte Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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