Court affirms the testimony of Accident Reconstruction Expert despite marginally discussing human factors

Court affirms the testimony of Accident Reconstruction Expert despite marginally discussing human factors

This case involves a vehicle accident that occurred on August 24, 2018 in Thomasville, Georgia. Plaintiff Grady Bryan was performing maintenance on a traffic light while positioned in a suspended lift bucket attached to a Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) utility boom truck. Defendant David Swisher, a tractor trailer driver working for Defendant Greenwood Motor Lines, struck the DOT truck, causing Plaintiff Bryan to fall approximately 25 feet from the lift bucket to the ground.

The complaint was initially filed by the Plaintiffs in the State Court of Thomas County, Georgia, on December 1, 2020, naming American Lighting, David Swisher, and Greenwood as Defendants. Grady Bryan, one of the Plaintiffs, alleged negligence against all Defendants, asserting that he suffered severe physical and mental injuries from a fall, significantly impacting his ability to work and care for himself. Grady Bryan sought damages exceeding $10.8 million, encompassing medical expenses, lost past and future wages, lost earnings capacity, and past and future pain and suffering. Additionally, Kristi Bryan, another Plaintiff, sought an unspecified award for compensatory damages, citing a loss of consortium resulting from her husband’s injuries.

The Defendants removed the case to federal Court in December of 2020.

Subsequently, Defendants Swisher and Greenwood filed the Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony of Plaintiffs’ accident reconstruction expert, Sean Alexander.on June 1, 2023. The Plaintiffs then filed their Response to Defendants’ Motion. Following that, Defendants filed their Reply.

Sean M. Alexander has extensive professional experience investigating and reconstructing traffic accidents. He possesses 25 years of experience investigating accidents and 24 years of experience in a special Traffic Division of the Houston County Sheriff’s office. He also has been a consultant in accident reconstruction since 2000. He has completed numerous courses on accident reconstruction in the State of Georgia, and has actively participated in over 1,000 Accident Reconstructions. He has extensive experience both as a student and as a teacher and trainer in the accident reconstruction field, and is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction. He is currently the President of C.A.R. Crash Analysis & Reconstruction LLC, in which he investigates and reconstructs motor vehicle crashes.

Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admission of expert testimony, requiring the court to perform a “gatekeeping” function. The court must assess the expert’s qualifications, the reliability of their methodology, and the helpfulness of their testimony to the trier of fact. The three-part inquiry involves evaluating the expert’s qualifications, the reliability of their methodology, and the assistance their testimony provides to the trier of fact. While qualifications may include scientific training or experience, it does not guarantee reliability. The court must ensure that the methodology is scientifically valid and can be applied to the facts in question. The exclusion of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule, and minor flaws may not render it inadmissible. The court reviews these determinations for abuse of discretion, allowing considerable leeway to the district courts.

The Defendants requested the Court to exclude the testimony of Sean Alexander, an accident reconstructionist retained by the Plaintiff. The Defendants argued that Alexander, a non-engineer with over 17 years of experience in a Georgia county sheriff’s department, was contacted by the Plaintiffs about a month after the accident and did not personally conduct inspections or measurements. Instead, two other non-engineers from his office, former law enforcement officers, were sent to inspect the accident scene on his behalf.

The parties did not dispute Sean Alexander’s qualification as an accident reconstructionist. A review of Alexander’s deposition and report affirmed his competence to testify on the relevant matters related to accident reconstruction. 

The Defendants argued that Sean Alexander was not qualified to provide testimony on human factors, asserting that he lacked the expertise of a human factors expert. Consequently, according to the Defendants, Alexander could not opine on whether Defendant Swisher had the capability to determine the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) vehicle’s positional location in proximity to the lights for at least 1,000 feet away. They further contended that Alexander was not qualified to testify on whether Defendant Swisher faced “no vertical obstructions for a thousand feet that would have obstructed his view” or express opinions regarding Defendant Swisher’s ability to “see and perceive at night”. Additionally, the Defendants argued that Alexander’s assessment of photographs taken during the daytime with a non-full frame camera was flawed, citing their expert Allen Powers‘ explanation of the potentially misleading nature of zoomed-in photographs.

Upon a thorough review of Sean Alexander’s deposition and his report, the Court determined that neither the report nor deposition extensively focused on human factors to warrant the exclusion of Alexander’s testimony. The primary purpose of Alexander’s report was to reconstruct the accident and illustrate the vehicle positions at the time of impact for the jury’s understanding of the accident site. Importantly, Alexander clarified that he was “to some extent” qualified to offer opinions on human factors but emphasized that he was not providing opinions or calculations on human factors. Instead, his opinion was to demonstrate that clear targets were visible from a distance of a thousand feet, leaving it to Defendant Swisher to convey what he saw before the collision to the jury. Alexander explicitly stated that he would not determine whether Defendant Swisher should or should not have seen targets or stimuli but asserted that his opinion, based on evidence, was that there were “no vertical obstructions” from a thousand feet where Defendant Swisher was. Furthermore, Alexander mentioned referencing studies on reaction time and perception time during report preparation but clarified that he did not provide opinions on when or whether Defendant Swisher “should have recognized the flashing lights” at the time of the accident

Regarding depth perception, Alexander testified that the pictures were taken at 100-foot increments starting at a thousand feet and at 50 millimeters, representing the eye focal length of a person’s vision, not necessarily Defendant Swisher’s. The purpose of the pictures was to show reference-wise depth perception and what was available, not specifically what Defendant Swisher would or should have seen. Alexander clarified that the non-full-frame camera pictures were not intended to provide an exact representation of Defendant Swisher’s perspective but rather to demonstrate the absence of physical obstructions blocking his vision.

After a comprehensive review of Sean Alexander’s report and deposition, the Court determined that the primary purpose of Alexander’s opinion was to illustrate the alignment and positions of the vehicles at impact, as well as the distance and time required for the Peterbilt to avoid colliding with the bucket at the time of the accident. Alexander explicitly stated that he did not provide opinions on human factors or whether Defendant Swisher should have recognized the utility vehicle. Alexander emphasized that it was Defendant Swisher’s responsibility to testify about his visual perception during the approach to the collision and whether he noticed or recognized the utility vehicle. The Court acknowledged the limits of Alexander’s methodology, his explicit delineation of opinions, and his reliance on available evidence to reach findings. The Court found Alexander qualified as an expert in accident reconstruction, noting that any discussion of human factors was marginal and within the bounds of his expertise. For example, Alexander referred to reaction time only in a general sense, relevant to accident reconstruction, demonstrating to the jury that, based on the evidence, there were no physical obstructions in the area at the time of the accident.

Defendants argued that Alexander made an unfounded assumption that Plaintiff Bryan placed the bucket in front of the traffic signal, despite Plaintiff testifying that he positioned it behind or at the back of the signal. In response, Plaintiffs asserted that a review of Plaintiff’s deposition revealed his numerous memory issues regarding the events surrounding his injury. The Plaintiffs argued that Alexander’s report about the bucket’s location remained consistent with the Defendants’ expert opinion regarding the Plaintiff’s distance from the traffic signal.

Regarding the assumption dispute, Alexander’s deposition showed that he testified that the bucket could be either “in front or behind the light,” emphasizing that the tractor-trailer’s position would remain the same. The Court concluded that Alexander did not take a stance on whether the bucket was in front or behind the light, as he stated that it did not alter the tractor-trailer’s position.

Regarding the Defendants’ claim that Alexander only reviewed the police report and Defendant Swisher’s deposition, the Court noted that Alexander’s report listed a comprehensive set of items and references he reviewed to prepare his expert report. Even if, hypothetically, Alexander did not review every deposition or document, the Court observed that his conclusions or opinions would be limited in nature, possibly suggesting that his opinions should carry less weight rather than being inherently unreliable. The Court referenced Daubert and Quiet Tech. DC-8, Inc. v. Hurel-Dubois UK Ltd., 326 F.3d 1333 stating that vigorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are appropriate means of addressing evidentiary concerns. The Court found that Alexander’s opinion or methodology, based on the available evidence, was not deemed unreliable.

Defendants argued that Alexander’s opinion or report would confuse the jury, citing alleged inaccuracies in the location of impact and the use of daytime photographs with a non-full frame camera. In response, Plaintiffs characterized Defendants’ claims as a “generalized, specious announcement” lacking specific explanations.

After reviewing Alexander’s report and deposition, the Court concluded that Alexander’s opinions and findings were beneficial to the jury, particularly in providing a demonstration and insight into the accident site. The Court found that Alexander’s accident reconstruction could aid the jury in understanding the events and assessing the validity of Plaintiffs’ claims.

The Court denied Defendants’ Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony of Plaintiffs’ expert Sean Alexander as the Court could not find any valid grounds for excluding Alexander’s expert testimony. The Court has not arrived on an outcome for this case since the remaining issues involved in this case still await resolution.

This case demonstrates several important principles regarding the admissibility of expert witness testimony. First, the Court serves a critical gatekeeping role in assessing expert qualifications, reliability of methodology, and helpfulness to the jury. However, the exclusion of expert testimony is meant to be the exception rather than the rule. 

Second, minor flaws in an expert’s reasoning or methodology typically do not warrant exclusion. Instead, issues with the weight of an expert’s opinions are better addressed through cross-examination and presentation of contrary evidence at trial. 

Third, expert testimony that touches on issues outside the witness’s core area of expertise is not necessarily inadmissible. Here, even though the accident reconstructionist briefly referenced human factors issues, he made clear he was not offering definitive opinions on the driver’s perceptions. His core testimony reconstructing the accident itself was deemed admissible.

Finally, assumptions made by experts do not necessarily undermine admissibility if they do not affect the overall reliability and methodology. Here, the expert’s assumption about the bucket’s location did not change his analysis of the vehicles’ positions at impact. Allowing the testimony and testing assumptions on cross-examination was appropriate.