Judgment in Favor of Defendant Transit System Upheld in Vehicle Accident Lawsuit, California Appellate Court Holds No Abuse of Discretion When Judge Excluded Plaintiff’s Expert Testimony

The California Court of Appeal recently reviewed a decision in favor of the defense in a personal injury lawsuit involving injuries sustained on a bus owned and operated by the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS). Specifically, the issue was whether the lower court had appropriately excluded expert testimony concerning the rate of speed of a bus operated by the MTS that allegedly turned and caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

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In motor vehicle collision lawsuits, expert opinions may be used to support an argument of liability.  For example, the accident reconstruction expert in this case set forth an opinion, based on security videos and GPS (global positioning software), that indicated the bus had been speeding above the mandated limit. The lower court had determined that the expert opinion was not sufficiently reliable and should not be allowed into evidence.

On review, the appellate court applied an abuse of discretion standard. According to the appellate court, the lower court provided the plaintiff with multiple opportunities to strengthen his opinion that the expert’s conclusion had been reached in a reliable and scientifically accepted manner, but the plaintiff did not do so. The remaining issues before the appellate court focused on the accuracy and reliability of the expert’s analysis.

As a regular bus rider on a downtown MTS route, the plaintiff had been in the back of a bus that was operated by a driver with six years of experience. The bus was made up of two parts connected by an accordion structure because it was 60 feet long.  The driver was turning left, and the plaintiff fell onto the stairwell and broke his leg. The plaintiff was admitted to the hospital for his injuries.

The jury in this case had found that the bus driver was negligent, but this negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the accident.

After filing a complaint against MTS, the plaintiff’s attorney retained an accident reconstruction expert.  He prepared a report that concluded the bus driver was legally at fault for turning at a speed that was not safe for the specific conditions, about 18 mph.

On appeal, the standard of review is for an abuse of discretion. This means a ruling that constitutes an abuse of discretion will be “irrational” or of a kind with which no reasonable person would agree. The trial court’s obligation is to require the expert to set forth an adequate foundation for their opinion.  The appellate court focused on the California Evidence Code and the “substantial ‘gatekeeping’ responsibility” concerning expert testimony. The matter upon which an expert relies must be of a type upon which an expert may rely. In other words, the court looks at the type of material and whether it supports the expert’s reasoning.

An accident reconstruction expert must use operational factors that are relevant to and that explain the situation that contributed to the accident.  In this case, the expert had relied upon visual inspections of the bus, video footage from the bus itself, and GPS software to conclude that the bus had been accelerating at a speed of 18 mph. The appellate court stated that the trial court had a sufficient basis to find this expert’s opinion was not supported by factors that would normally be considered by experts in the field of studying the motion of articulated buses.

Whether an expert’s opinion is admissible involves looking at facts and law, and the court stated that the factual aspect includes whether there was evidentiary support for assumptions the expert made in formulating his opinion.  Here, the plaintiff’s expert stated he was a qualified expert in collision investigation, but he had not received specialized training and did not have credentials related to investigating problems that might arise from articulated buses.

The appellate court stated that the trial court appropriately focused on the methods used by the expert in applying the GPS technology, and those methods did not account for all of the relevant criteria.  In fact, the trial court found that those methods were more likely than not to lead to unreliable results.  The appellate court stated that exercising this discretion did not amount to impermissibly weighing the evidence.

Finally, the court stated there had not been an abuse of discretion.  The jury here had determined that MTS was negligent. This, according to the court, meant they must have accepted the plaintiff’s argument that the bus was traveling over the mandated speed (set by MTS policy). The court stated that if the expert testimony had been admitted, the court could not conclude the jury would have made a different finding on the substantial factor causation of the plaintiff’s fall from his bus seat.

The court affirmed the judgment in favor of the defendant.

The Los Angeles car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm help motor vehicle collision victims and their families seek compensation from all of the parties responsible for causing a collision. We provide personal service and can help you understand your legal rights.  Call our office today for a free consultation at 866-422-7222 or complete our online form.

More Blog Posts:

Appeals Court Holds California Law Governs in Tragic Tour Bus Rollover Accident, Noting California Product Liability Law More Favorable to Plaintiffs, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, January 19, 2017

California Court Upholds Grant of New Trial When Plaintiffs Were Misled About Trial Strategy and Prejudiced by Surprise, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, August 8, 2016

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