Indiana Supreme Court Says Okay to Engineering Expert Providing Testimony as to Cause of Lower-Back Injury in Motor Vehicle Collision

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.

The Court also agreed that his opinion testimony was based on reliable scientific principles. To make his opinion, the expert had to make calculations based on the mass and velocity of the tractor trailer and the sedan. The expert did not use the exact masses and velocities, rather he used reasonable estimates based on the circumstances of the accident that occurred. Using this information, the expert then determined the change in velocity of the plaintiff’s tractor trailer when the sedan made impact. Afterward, the expert was able to arrive at the conclusion that the change in velocity of the tractor trailer was not great enough to cause the lower-back injury of which the plaintiff complained. The Court reasoned that Evidence Rule 702, “does not require such specific factual support for expert testimony. Rather, it only requires the trial court’s satisfaction that the expert’s opinion is based on reliable scientific principles that can be properly applied to the facts in issue.” The Court explained that the expert, “squarely applied a reliable scientific method – calculating the momentum transfer as mass times velocity – to the facts that occurred in this case – a sedan rear ending a semi tractor-trailer.” As for the expert’s inability to testify as to the exact weights or speeds of the vehicles, the Court agreed with the trial court’s conclusion: “that’s cross-examination stuff, that’s not exclusion stuff.”

Also in this appeal, the plaintiff objected to a second expert providing testimony because his testimony was based on the first expert’s testimony regarding the calculation of momentum transfer. The Court agreed with the trial court that the second expert was qualified to give expert testimony because the first expert’s testimony was properly admitted.

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