Articles Posted in Experts

As much as one may try to avoid them, accidents and injuries are far too common, and Indiana residents may find themselves injured because of another person’s negligence. Although it does not undo the damage, Indiana law allows a victim to bring a lawsuit against the negligent party to recover compensation for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and more. In order to successfully recover, the plaintiff must prove in court that the accident was the defendant’s fault and that there was real harm suffered as a result. There may be some cases in which establishing liability in an injury case is straightforward, but typically the process proves to be more complex than it initially appears. To help with this process, a personal injury plaintiff may want to use expert witness testimony to support their case.

Unlike eyewitnesses, who saw the incident in question happen, expert witnesses were not present at the scene of the incident but have relevant expertise that can help explain what happened to the judge or jury. For example, an accident reconstructionist can help explain to the court how an accident happened, or a medical professional could testify as to the severity of the injuries and likely future medical costs. Since expert witnesses offer this valuable information, they are used in many personal injury cases across Indiana.

Due to the prevalence of expert witnesses in personal injury cases, many plaintiffs may think that they need expert witnesses to make their case and that they will lose without them. However, this is not the case. While expert witnesses are helpful, they are not necessary to win every personal injury case, and many cases can be won without them. A recent state case illustrates this fact. According to the court’s written opinion, the victim was an elementary school student who was assaulted and beaten by other students on the playground during recess one afternoon. The victim’s mother brought suit against the city and the Board of Education on her daughter’s behalf, alleging negligence in failing to supervise the schoolchildren during recess. A lower court had previously ruled that, without expert testimony establishing the standard of care that the defendants owed the plaintiff, the plaintiff could not prevail. The court reversed, finding that although there are some cases in which expert testimony may be necessary, it was not necessary in this particular case.

An appellate court ruled in favor of a pharmaceutical company in an appeal of a summary judgment order and a jury verdict in a multi-district products liability lawsuit. Secrest v. Merck, Sharp & Dohme Corp., part of In re: Fosamax Products Liability Litigation, No. 11-4358-cv (2nd Cir., Jan. 30, 2013). The Second Circuit affirmed a district court’s order granting summary judgment for the defendant (PDF file) on a failure to warn claim, and in a separate ruling issued the same day, it affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the defendant on a design defect claim. Several days after the court’s ruling, a federal jury ruled in favor of a different plaintiff on a failure to warn claim. The two cases illustrate the difficulty of proving causation and damages in large pharmaceutical cases.

Fosamax, the drug at the center of the litigation, was used to treat osteoporosis in women going through menopause. An alleged link between the drug and osteonecrosis of the jaw (ONJ), a condition in which the jawbone begins to die, led to a wave of products liability lawsuits around the country. Some plaintiffs also allege that the drug contributed to femur fractures and other bone injuries. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated most of the pending federal lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Plaintiff Linda Secrest filed suit against Merck, Fosamax’s manufacturer, in Florida in 2006, asserting causes of action for design defects and failure to warn of the drug’s risks. She claimed that she took Fosamax from June 1998 until March 2003, and then began taking it again under a different doctor in December 2003 through April 2005. She developed ONJ around March 2004. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on her failure to warn claim, and a jury entered a verdict in Merck’s favor in October 2011 on the design defect claim.
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More and more often, trial counsel try to impose the requirements of Indiana Rule of Evidence (“IRE”) 702 to limit and/or exclude expert testimony. Certainly, in the context of personal injury litigation, the parties can be expected to battle about who is qualified to render an expert opinion as to whether the collision, fall, etc. caused the plaintiff’s personal injuries. In recent cases handed down by the Indiana Supreme Court (Bennett v. Richmond, 960 N.E.2d 782 (Ind. 2012); Person v. Shipley, 962 N.E.2d 1192 (Ind. 2012)), we see challenges to expert testimony that went too far with arguments for more stringent requirements than are required under IRE 702. Fortunately, the Supreme Court has provided much needed guidance in this regard that will hopefully prevent unnecessary attempts to exclude proper expert testimony.

We have seen challenges to a psychologist/neuropsychologist’s qualification to testify as to the cause of a person’s brain injury. In Bennett, a psychologist testified that the plaintiff had a traumatic brain injury that was caused by the rear-end motor vehicle collision in which he was involved (plaintiff’s van was struck in the rear by a 42,000 pound truck). Defense counsel objected to this testimony, arguing the psychologist’s opinion was inadmissible under IRE 702.

It is clear that in Indiana a psychologist may testify as to the existence of a brain injury or the condition of the brain in general – the question addressed in Bennett was whether psychologists/neuropsychologists may testify as to the cause of a brain injury.

In Bennett, the Court of Appeals had agreed with the defense argument that psychologists who are not medical doctors, but otherwise qualified under IRE 702 to offer expert testimony as to the existence and evaluation of a brain injury, are not qualified to offer an opinion about causation without demonstrating sufficient medical expertise in determining the etiology of brain injuries. However, this standard goes beyond that which is required under IRE 702. Even though the psychologist did not have medical education or training regarding etiology of brain injuries, the Supreme Court held this was not fatal under an IRE 702 analysis because the psychologist demonstrated: his knowledge of how a brain injury might result from the whiplash motion experienced in a rear-ending accident; how such a brain injury results in symptoms similar to those experienced by the plaintiff; and how psychological and neuropsychological testing reveals the relationship between that brain injury and behavior.
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In Person v. Shipley (No. 20S03-1110-CT-609), the Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that an engineering expert was qualified to provide expert testimony on the cause of a lower-back injury the plaintiff suffered when his tractor trailer truck was rear-ended by the defendant’s Buick sedan.

The engineer’s qualifications included an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, time spent as an assistant professor at a school of medicine, and time spent teaching courses in biomechanics that cover the musculoskeletal system and the principles underlying the calculations he used for his testimony. The Court explained that the expert was qualified to provide expert testimony because his “engineering background, his knowledge of velocity and changes in speed upon impact, and his experience in reviewing these types of cases made him qualified to offer his opinion as to the change in speed or velocity of [the Plaintiff’s] tractor-trailer.” The Court also agreed that the expert was qualified to give his opinion that the accident did not cause the plaintiff’s lower-back injury because, although the expert was not a medical doctor, the expert’s opinion focused on “the science of engineering and physics as opposed to the science of medicine.” Therefore, his education, background, training, and knowledge of the effect of forces on the musculoskeletal system made him qualified to render his causation opinion under Rule 702.
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