Pennsylvania Federal Judge Says Accident Reconstruction Expert Witness Properly Barred


Accident Reconstruction Expert WitnessCase:

John P. Senese v. Liberty Mutual, No. 13-5139, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; Aug. 19, 2014

Background:

Plaintiff John P. Senese was injured in a car accident in 2009, when he accelerated while making a left turn to avoid another car that was speeding toward him as he turned. He struck a parked car. However, the other allegedly negligent driver was never identified.

Senese was covered by his employer’s auto insurance policy with defendant Liberty Mutual. He claimed that he is entitled to damages under the policy because the unidentified motorist’s negligence caused his accident, and since he would have been able to recover damages from the unidentified motorist under tort law, he could recover those damages under the Liberty Mutual insurance policy. The insurer argued that it was not liable because Senese could not establish that an unidentified motorist existed, was negligent or that the negligence caused the accident.

Accident Reconstruction Expert Witness:

In a memorandum opinion, Judge Berle M. Schiller for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania limited the testimony of plaintiff and defense experts to statements about measurements at the scene of the accident and the posted speed limit.

Senese’s expert, Steven W. Rickard, did not testify. The jury heard testimony only from Senese and defense expert Steven Schorr. The jury found that an unidentified motorist existed and was negligent but that its negligence did not harm Senese.

Admissibility of Accident Reconstruction Expert Witness:

Senese moved for a new trial on the grounds that the court improperly limited his expert’s testimony and that it did so without conducting a hearing under (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 592, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed.2d 469 ([1993]).

In denying the motion, the judge said Rickard’s testimony was not relevant or reliable. He based his opinion on Senese’s deposition, declaration and the answers to his interrogatories, police report, accident scene photos, a belated inspection of the accident scene, information from Schorr’s expert reports and Schorr’s DVD, which the court had excluded.

Consequently,  the judge found no basis for Rickard’s conclusions that Senese has no responsibility for the accident and that his actions were reasonable and appropriate given the negligent actions of the unidentified motorist.

“Rather, Rickard bases his conclusions on findings that could only have come from Senese’s own statements,” the judge said. “While an expert may consider a party’s deposition in forming his opinion, that opinion ultimately must be based on scientific, technical or specialized knowledge.”

Rickard possessed sufficient experience in accident reconstruction, but the judge said his proposed testimony was not based on that knowledge. His opinion parroted Senese’s account of the accident, which constituted an opinion based on subjective belief rather than on science, the judge held.

Further, the judge found unhelpful Rickard’s testimony that 1.6 seconds usually elapse between when a driver perceives a stimulus on the road and when he reacts to it, and that centrifugal forces likely forced Senese’s van to make a wider left turn than he had expected. This information was common knowledge and thus were inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, the judge said.

Finally, the judge said a Daubert hearing on the admissibility of Rickard’s testimony was not necessary. The court said it possessed sufficient information to determine admissibility.

About The Author

Kristin Casler is a legal writer and journalist who served as the editor for LexisNexis Mealey’s litigation news monitor for 17 years.