Georgia Judges Disagree About Need for Expert Testimony in Defective Vehicle Case

Expert testimony is often the key to winning a product liability lawsuit. Anyone can offer an opinion on the safety, or lack thereof, of a given product. But trial courts must go one step further and determine the qualifications of an expert before admitting his or her testimony. Under Georgia law, expert testimony must be “based on sufficient facts or data.” It must be the “the product of reliable principles and method,” and the expert must personally apply those principles and methods to the case at hand.

Moore v. Cottrell, Inc.

In a recent case, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld a trial court’s decision to exclude expert testimony in a product liability lawsuit. The plaintiff was driving a car hauler with a two-level trailer. The hauler did not have a built-in ladder, but there was a portable ladder attached so the driver could access the upper level of the trailer.

On the day of the accident, the driver traveled to Mississippi to pick up a shipment of vehicles for delivery. After driving a large SUV onto the hauler, the driver exited the vehicle, intending to descend the hauler. Unfortunately, he lost his balance and fell off the hauler, sustaining serious injuries.

The driver subsequently sued the manufacturer of the hauler in Georgia state court for “strict liability, negligence, and breach of warranty.” Specifically, the driver argued the hauler was defective because it lacked a “safe means for him to descend to the ground,” and the upper level did not have any type of guardrail or “similar safety system” to protect against falling. Before the trial court, the driver offered the affidavit of an expert witness who said the hauler was “defective and unreasonably dangerous from a human systems safety perspective,” citing both defects in the design as well as inadequate warning labels and safety instructions.

The trial court ruled the affidavit inadmissible and dismissed the driver’s lawsuit. The driver appealed. A seven-judge panel of the Georgia Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and the defendant.

Chief Judge Sara L. Doyle, writing for a majority of the panel, noted that although this case was tried in Georgia, the substantive law of Mississippi, where the driver’s accident occurred, applies. Under Mississippi law, according to Judge Doyle, “a plaintiff must demonstrate that the product was defective and that a feasible alternative would have prevented the alleged harm.” This, in turn, requires admissible expert testimony. Here, Judge Doyle said the trial court was right to exclude the driver’s expert affidavit because the expert failed to personally inspect the car hauler. Nor were his methods for determining the hauler’s safety systems inadequate “subject to peer review on these theories nor completed any scientific testing to support them.”

Judge Christopher J. McFadden, dissenting on behalf of himself and one other judge, said it was unnecessary for the expert to personally inspect the plaintiff’s vehicle. The expert was clearly qualified, Judge McFadden said, based on his existing scholarly work on the study of car haulers. Moreover, while the expert’s testimony “might shed additional light” on the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries, it was not necessary for the plaintiff to continue with his lawsuit. “Georgia law imposes no across-the-board requirement of expert testimony in products liability cases,” Judge McFadden said, and even if one applies Mississippi law, as the majority did here, that state’s supreme court has said the need for expert testimony must be evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.”

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