A driver who suffered injuries due to an automobile accident filed a lawsuit against the driver who caused the accident, as well as his employer. After a first remand resulted in a judgment in favor of the injured driver, the defendant and his employer appealed again.
One of the main points of contention in this case—as one would guess—was the cause of the Plaintiff’s injuries. In the second trial, the Plaintiff called several expert witnesses who testified about whether the accident was the likely cause of his injuries. All three experts said the accident was the most likely cause. During cross-examination of the Plaintiff’s treating physician, the employer asked if choking could cause cervical disc herniation. She answered it could. The employer elicited similar testimony from one of its own medical expert witnesses, who testified that the act of fighting off a choking attempt could cause cervical disc herniation.
The reason for this line of questioning was that the Plaintiff’s girlfriend was physically abusive to him, and that the two had a physical altercation after the auto accident in which the Plaintiff suffered injuries.
One of the defendant’s expert was a biomechanics expert, who was not allowed to testify in the first trial. The Plaintiff argued that the same ruling should stand in the second remand. The defendant employer argued that it wanted to call the biomechanics expert to present both “scientific testimony” and “experience-based testimony.”
The trial court ruled that the biomechanics expert was a “Daubert-type, scientific-type expert” and that although the expert could testify about the forces he calculated the Plaintiff had experienced in the accident and compare those forces to the effects of other activities, he was prohibited from testifying as to the precise cause of the injury. Testimony about the specific causes of the Plaintiff’s injuries would exceed the biomechanics expert’s expertise and amount to a medical diagnosis which he was not qualified to make.
The expert testified about the materials he examined, the software he used for the accident reconstruction, and discussed the forces the reconstruction analysis suggested the Plaintiff had experienced. He compared these forces to those experienced during daily activities. The Plaintiff’s subsequent cross-examination of the biomechanics expert started by eliciting his agreement concerning the limits of his testimony, and he did the same in his closing argument. Likewise, the employer used part of its closing argument to explain the value of the Defendant’s biomechanics expert’s testimony.
Chief Justice Dana Fabe of the Supreme Court of Alaska wrote in her opinion that what was at issue in the appeal was whether the limitations the superior court placed on the Defendant biomechanics expert’s testimony amounted to an abuse of discretion. The Chief Justice explained that Alaska Rule of Evidence 702 permits qualified expert testimony that “will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue,” and that the appropriate test for the admissibility of scientific expert testimony is the test set out in Daubert. “It must be reliable and it must be relevant,” she wrote, citing earlier state precedent. She went on to say that by adopting this approach to expert testimony, it ensured that trial courts have “greater flexibility,” than was available under earlier approaches to exercise their “wide discretion in … admitting expert testimony.”
Although the application of Rule 702 expresses a “‘liberal admissibility standard’ for expert testimony,” the Chief Justice held, a trial court’s power to qualify an expert witness in a particular area includes the power to exclude opinions that are beyond the witness’s expertise. Trial courts do not need to choose between admitting every opinion an expert witness seeks to introduce and excluding the witness altogether. Trial courts instead have the authority to limit expert witnesses’ testimony to the areas within their expertise.
The superior court was within its wide discretion to control expert testimony to allow the biomechanics expert to testify about the forces that a person of the Plaintiff’s size would have experienced in a collision between a truck like the Plaintiff’s and a truck like the defendant’s that were both moving as they were in the accident—and to compare those forces to those of everyday activities.
The Supreme Court held that it was also appropriate for the trial court to limit the expert’s testimony. Testimony as to how the forces affected the Plaintiff himself would require a familiarity with his medical history and physiology that were beyond the expert’s expertise.