Civil Engineering Expert Witness Investigates Headlight Use in Fatal Drunk Driving Case


Civil Engineering ExpertCourt: Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division One
Jurisdiction: Federal
Case Name: Fisk v. Hurricane AMT LLC
Citation: 2018 Ariz. App. Unpub. LEXIS 970

Facts

This wrongful death claim involves a fatal car accident caused by an intoxicated driver. The plaintiff was driving home around midnight. His wife was in the passenger seat of the car. As the plaintiff made a left turn, a sport-utility vehicle plowed into the passenger side of his car, killing his wife. The driver of the sport-utility vehicle was found to have a .284 blood-alcohol content reading at the time of the accident.

The drunk driver consumed three beers and two shots of liquor at Hurricane Grill before the accident. According to the Hurricane bartender, the drunk driver was not intoxicated when she arrived at Hurricane Grill, but the bartender admitted that the drunk driver was intoxicated by the time she left the establishment.

The plaintiff sued Hurricane Grill for causing his wife’s death and his own personal injuries. The plaintiff alleged that Hurricane overserved the drunk driver in question and that it negligently trained and supervised its alcohol-serving staff. Other members of the deceased’s family joined as plaintiffs in the wrongful death claim. Before trial, however, each of the plaintiffs, except her husband, accepted Hurricane’s offers of judgment.

The plaintiff (husband) appealed against the superior court’s judgment in favor of the defendants and claimed the court had erred in allowing the testimony of the defendant’s civil engineering expert witness.

The Civil Engineering Expert Witness

The defendant retained an expert in civil engineering to discuss whether the headlights on the plaintiff’s vehicle were in use during the crash. The civil engineering expert was the founder and chief engineer of a forensic engineering firm specializing in traffic engineering accidents.  He was a licensed professional engineer with both a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in transportation engineering.

The expert had 45+ years of experience giving strategic and professional advice to lawyers, regulators, and insurance company representatives for cases involving accident investigation, collision assessment, and accident reconstruction. The expert had also written an article detailing his work into the study of traffic light filaments to assess whether a specific light was having an impact. His research was focused on examining whether the headlight was on, and he had undertaken previous training on the subject.

The civil engineering expert witness examined the plaintiff’s vehicle and found that although the running lights and taillights were on at the time of the crash, there were no headlights on. He reached his opinion about the headlights based on his findings that the headlights, which were retractable, were in the downward position. Furthermore, the filaments in the right front headlight did not show the distortion that he said would typically occur with a severe impact near the light while the light was on.

Arguments for Exclusion

The plaintiff argued that the superior court had erred in permitting the civil engineering expert witness to testify, arguing that he was not qualified to give an expert opinion on the headlight. The plaintiff asserted that the expert himself had “admitted he is not a headlight expert, but a civil engineer.”

The plaintiff also contended that Rule 702 mandated the expert have “scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge” in order to qualify as an expert on the subject. He further argued that the expert’s testimony should have been excluded because his conclusion contradicted the testimony of the plaintiff and another eyewitness that the headlights were on at the time of the accident.

The plaintiff also claimed that the civil engineering expert witness did not use proper methods to carry out his examination. The plaintiff alleged that the expert used a stone to break open the glass face of the headlight and used only a pocket camera and a pocket magnifier to inspect the car’s lights. He quoted a witness who testified that she assumed the expert himself had made the light inoperable by moving the lamp when he opened it.

Discussion

The court found that although the expert was a civil engineer, he had more specific qualifications related to the forensic analyses of traffic accidents. Furthermore, the expert had conducted research analyzing traffic-light filaments to determine whether a particular light was on at impact and was published on the subject. He also testified he had taken a three-week course in analyzing car headlamps and taillights. The civil engineering expert had testified many times in state and federal courts about whether lights were on or off at the time of an accident. Indeed, he testified that the primary focus of his research has been analyzing lamp filaments to determine whether a light was on at the time of a collision.

The court noted that if the jury “can receive help on a particular subject from the witness, the degree of qualification goes to the weight given the testimony, not its admissibility,” citing State v. Davolt. The court cited Sandretto v. Payson Healthcare Mgmt. when it was observed that the presence of conflicting eyewitness testimony is dependent on the weight of the expert’s evidence, not on its admissibility. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s methodology argument, noting that the plaintiff had failed to seek a hearing to challenge the expert’s methods. Although the plaintiff filed a motion in limine to preclude the expert’s testimony, that motion challenged only his qualifications, not his methods.

Held

The plaintiff’s motion to exclude the testimony of the defendants’ civil engineering expert witness was denied.

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