From the Desk of Kyle Riley: This case explains why trial judges may use their discretion to exclude a biomechanical engineer’s testimony that the forces in an accident were unlikely to have caused injury.
Claims Pointer: A judge may exclude a biomechanical engineer’s testimony as being more misleading than helpful to a jury, and such a decision is unlikely to be overturned on appeal.
Patricia Stedman v. Stacey Cooper, in the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington, Division I, No. 266839-1-I, 282 P.3d 1168 (August 13, 2012).
Patricia Stedman was driving in a Seattle residential area when Stacey Cooper drove her car out of a parking spot on the side of the street and collided with Patricia’s vehicle. The accident caused minor damage. The next day, Patricia sought medical attention. She continued to see medical doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists months following the accident.
Two years later, Patricia filed a lawsuit against Stacey and the case went to mandatory arbitration where Stacey was determined at fault. The arbitrator awarded Patricia $23,300 and Stacey filed a request for trial. Before trial, Patricia learned that Dr. Allen Tencer, a professor of mechanical engineering, was planning to testify on Stacy’s behalf about the severity of the force involved in the collision. Patricia filed a motion to exclude the testimony and it was granted because his testimony was determined both irrelevant and cumulative by the trial court. Patricia also filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court ruled that Stacey was negligent as a matter of law, but issues regarding contributory negligence, Patricia’s injuries, and her subsequent medical treatment remained for the jury. At trial, the jury found no contributory negligence by Patricia and awarded her $22,000 in damages and $1,469.83 in statutory costs. Patricia moved for attorney fees because Stacey had failed to improve her position at trial. The trial court granted Patricia’s motion and awarded her $58,546.88 in attorney fees. Stacey appealed.
On appeal, Patricia raised timeliness of the appeal as an issue and the Washington Court of Appeals determined it was not untimely. Stacey assigned error to the exclusion of Dr. Allen’s testimony at trial. The Court of Appeals agreed with Stacey that the trial court erred in characterizing his testimony as cumulative because his expertise as a biomechanical engineer was different from the treatment providers’ expertise. However, the Court of Appeals held the trial court’s relevancy ruling proper. Dr. Tencer’s testimony was logically irrelevant to the jury’s decision concerning the degree to which Patricia was injured in this particular accident. Dr. Tencer essentially determined the jolt of the accident by examining the damage to the vehicles and then compared the jolt from the accident to the forces encountered in typical daily activities. The Court of Appeals held that it was within the discretion of the trial court to determine that the comparison of forces was not similar enough to allow Dr. Tencer to testify. Even though Dr. Tencer did not describe an opinion on any threshold for injury, the Court of Appeals concluded his message was that the force of the impact was too small to cause Patricia injury. The court found that it was within the discretion of the trial court to find that the testimony was more likely to be misleading than helpful to a jury. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it excluded the biomechanical engineer’s testimony because it was logically irrelevant.
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