Expert testimony is often crucial to product liability cases in Georgia. After all, most people, notably those who serve on a civil jury, lack the technical knowledge of how a given product or manufacturing process works. That is why experts are employed by plaintiffs to establish causation.
Under Georgia law, a trial judge has the discretion to allow expert testimony if three conditions are met:
- There are “sufficient facts or data” in the record to support the expert’s opinions;
- The expert used “reliable principles and methods” to arrive at his or her conclusions; and
- The expert “applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.”
Cash v. LG Electronics, Inc.
But how do judges determine whether an expert’s principles are reliable? A recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision offers a helpful illustration. In this particular case, the Court upheld a trial judge’s decision to exclude expert testimony, which in turn led to the dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
Sadly, the plaintiff in this case lost both her husband and son to a house fire. The plaintiff said the fire was started by a defective television in her living room. She subsequently sued the manufacturer of the television, alleging “strict liability and negligence” on its part.
The Gwinnett County fire department never determined the precise origin of the fire, although it did begin in the “vicinity of the entertainment center” in the plaintiff’s living room. The plaintiff herself testified that she observed “green-black smoke” coming from the television set after the fire began. An expert retained by the plaintiff agreed that the television was the cause of the fire. More specifically, the expert said a capacitor on the television’s board “failed due to a manufacturing defect or mechanical damage,” and this triggered a “chain reaction” culminating in the deadly fire.
The problem, according to the Court of Appeals, was that the expert arrived at this conclusion using a protocol that involved “repeated manipulation to achieve his desired results.” Indeed, “[a]t every step of the expert’s experiment,” the Court observed, “the results failed to trigger the next event of his expected chain reaction unless he forced the result he desired and proceeded to the next step.” For example, in attempting to replicate the events leading up to the fire, the expert “removed a safety fuse” from a similar model of television in order to force the capacitor’s failure, even though there was no evidence that fuse was missing from the plaintiff’s television.
Given this “unreliable methodology,” the appeals court said the trial judge was correct to bar the expert’s testimony. And without the expert, the plaintiff could not establish causation. Even though fire investigators said the deadly blaze likely began in the entertainment system, that did not conclusively prove a faulty television set was to blame. “Although process of elimination can be a reliable means of ascertaining the source of a fire,” the Court said, “such eliminations must be made through reliable scientific investigation and testing, which the trial court founds was not done in this case.”