The New York Court of Appeals, which is the highest state appellate court in New York, recently released a decision affirming two lower court decisions to exclude a plaintiff’s proposed expert witnesses in a personal injury case filed on behalf of a child who was born with serious birth defects and disabilities alleged to have resulted from his mother inhaling gasoline fumes while she was pregnant with him. The plaintiff in Sean R. v. BMW of North America, LLC alleged that a defective fuel line in the mother’s car caused her to breath toxic levels of gasoline vapor while she was pregnant and resulted in the serious disabilities from which the child continues to suffer.
The New York Court of Appeals agreed with the rulings of the other courts and found that two of the plaintiff’s proposed experts in the case did not rely on generally accepted scientific principles to reach the conclusions that supported the plaintiff’s case, so their testimony should not be heard by the jury. As a result of this final ruling, the plaintiff will not be compensated for the injuries that he alleged were caused by the negligence of the defendant.
Pregnant Mother-To-Be Continuously Smells Gasoline Vapors While Driving
The plaintiff’s mother had purchased a car from the defendant in 1989, and within two years of buying the car, she began to notice a strong smell of gasoline while driving. According to the recently released opinion, she was also able to smell the vapor from her home when the car was parked in the garage. After taking the car into the dealer, she was told they could not find a problem. Shortly after the problem of gasoline vapors arose, the woman became pregnant with the plaintiff. After the gasoline odor worsened, the plaintiff’s father brought the car back to the dealer, and a fuel leak was found in the engine compartment, caused by a split hose. The leak was fixed, but the plaintiff’s mother had driven 6,458 miles over the course of eight months while the leak was present, and part of that time she was pregnant with the plaintiff.
After the plaintiff’s mother gave birth to her child, he was diagnosed with serious birth defects and disabilities, including cerebral palsy, developmental delays, microcephaly, and ventricular asymmetry, among other conditions. When the plaintiff was still a minor, a personal injury lawsuit was filed on his behalf against the defendant, alleging that the fuel leak was the proximate cause of his disabilities and seeking damages. To support the case, the plaintiff and his family offered the testimony of two experts, who would testify that the levels of gasoline vapor to which the mother was exposed while pregnant with the plaintiff were the most likely cause of his disabilities.
New York Courts Reject the Plaintiff’s Proposed Experts
The plaintiff’s proposed experts were rejected by the New York courts because they failed to meet the standard in that state for the admissibility of expert testimony. New York utilizes what is known as the “Frye” test for the admissibility of scientific expert testimony, which requires that experts rely on methodologies that are generally accepted within the scientific community in reaching their conclusions. The courts found that the experts’ analysis, which relied on the fact that the mother testified that she experienced headaches and nausea as a result of the gasoline vapors while she was driving, was not an acceptable way to demonstrate that the levels of gasoline vapor in the car were high enough to cause the plaintiff’s birth defects. Since the plaintiff was not able to provide an admissible expert to testify that the gasoline vapors resulted in his disabilities, he received no compensation for the claim.
Indiana Expert Testimony Requirements for Admissibility
The decision made by the New York courts may not have gone the same way if the plaintiff’s family was from Indiana, and the case was tried as an Indiana personal injury lawsuit. Indiana courts have specifically noted that they do not follow the “Frye” or “Daubert” tests for the admissibility of expert testimony in personal injury cases, and instead they follow their own rule, which is outlined in Rule 702 (and to a lesser extent Rules 703 and 704) of the Indiana Rules of Evidence. Rule 702 requires that an expert must only “have sufficient skill, knowledge, or experience in the [relevant scientific field] so that the opinion will aid the trier of fact.”
Indiana courts have repeatedly admitted expert testimony in personal injury actions that may have been excluded under the more restrictive “Frye” or “Daubert” standards that are used by many other states (including New York) and the federal courts. Because of this independent basis for the admission of expert testimony that exists in Indiana, juries here are often allowed to hear more evidence in such cases and can decide for themselves whether a plaintiff’s expert is offering reliable testimony.
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