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Georgia Judge Erred in Requiring Expert Testimony to Prove Woman Died in House Fire

Expert testimony is often a critical component of a personal injury case. Judges and jurors are not technical experts and often require assistance in understanding evidence. When it comes to “simple negligence,” though, expert testimony is generally unnecessary. A jury does not need help when common sense is sufficient to weigh the evidence and reach a logical conclusion.

Gardner v. Clark

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed a tragic case in which a trial judge improperly demanded expert testimony where none was necessary. The plaintiffs in this case were the children of a woman who died in November 2009. The mother lived in a mobile home that she rented from the defendant.

On the evening in question, the mother’s son and another relative set a fire in her fireplace. Later that evening, the son saw his mother’s house was on fire. In court, he testified that the mobile home was “fully engulfed in flames.”

The mother died in the fire. The son, acting as administrator of his mother’s estate, and his three siblings filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the owner of the mobile home. The plaintiffs alleged the defendant failed to keep the mother’s mobile home up to code. Specifically, they cited the lack of a working smoke detector in the mother’s mobile home as a contributing factor in her death.

At trial, an arson investigator who examined the mobile home on the night of the mother’s death testified that he conducted a “thorough search and was not able to locate any remnants of a smoke detector.” He also testified that the mother “was found in the corner of her bedroom,” which in his professional experience indicated that she “was alive at the time of the fire” and trying to get out of the house. Based on this examination and an autopsy report, the investigator said the mother clearly “died as a result of the fire.”

Despite this testimony, the trial judge granted a directed verdict to the defendant. A directed verdict means the judge believes that no reasonable jury could rule for the plaintiff and therefore the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Here, the judge said there was “no expert evidence” regarding the cause of the mother’s death, by which the judge meant no “medical” expert had offered testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The Court of Appeals held the trial judge overstepped his authority. The appeals court said “expert testimony is not required for a lay jury to determine that a fire was the cause of death of an otherwise healthy woman who was found dead” with severe burns after her house was “engulfed” in flames. Furthermore, the plaintiffs did present expert testimony in the form of the arson investigator, who while not a medical doctor, had sufficient training and experience to offer a credible opinion about the cause of the mother’s death. Finally, the defendant admitted at trial that the mother “died as a result of the fire.”