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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Supreme Court of South Carolina finds expert testimony must be beyond the ordinary knowledge of the jury

By Manton Grier, Jr.

In Watson v. Ford Motor Co., et al., Op. No. 26786 (S.C. Sup. Ct. March 15, 2010), the Supreme Court of South Carolina reversed a jury award of $20 million and held that two of the plaintiffs’ experts should never have been qualified. The case involved an allegedly defective cruise-control system that caused a Ford Explorer to accelerate suddenly off the highway and roll over four times. The crash killed one passenger and severely injured another.

Importantly, the Court held that, as a gatekeeping function, the trial court must first find that the expert’s subject matter “is beyond the ordinary knowledge of the jury, thus requiring an expert to explain the matter to the jury.” As to the individual experts, the Court first found that the trial court erred by admitting the testimony of an expert on cruise-control systems. The Court reasoned that the expert had no “knowledge, sill, experience, training or education specifically related to cruise control systems.” Instead, the expert simply studied the system before trial and taught himself the system. Nevertheless, the Court held that this expert testimony, standing alone, did not prejudice Ford.

The Court then held as unreliable expert testimony theorizing that alternative designs and electromagnetic interference caused the sudden acceleration. The expert had no experience with automobiles or with cruise-control systems. Further, the Court stressed that his theory had not been peer reviewed, had never been published by him, and he had never tested the theory. Indeed, the theory was impossible to test. Although the Court noted that scientific evidence may be admitted even when lacking general acceptance in the scientific community, the theory was not only not accepted but also rejected by the scientific community.

Justice Pleicones concurred in result but disagreed that the first gatekeeper function of the trial court is to determine whether the subject matter is beyond the jury’s knowledge. Pleicones argued that while some issues are almost always beyond the understanding of a lay jury, other issues such as medical malpractice, sanity, and intoxication are examples where both lay and expert testimony may be presented. Thus, Pleicones disagreed with the majority to the extent “that expert testimony is now admissible only when it is ‘required’ or ‘necessary’ for the jury to understand evidence or an issue.”

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