Three year ago, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law amendments to F.S. 90.702 to F.S. 90.704 that changes the standard by which Florida courts determine whether expert witness testimony should be admissible. Previously, we used the “Frye standard,” which asks only whether the technique of the expert is generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community. The legislative change has now instead using the “Daubert standard,” which is more stringent and requires something of a mini-trial in front of a judge before the case can proceed. Questions raise include not just whether the technique is generally accepted, but questions whether there has been empirical testing, whether there has been peer review and publication, whether there is a known or potential error rate, whether there is a maintenance of these standards and more.
The Florida Supreme Court is considering a proposal that would revert the courts back to the Frye standard. (The Florida courts can take action without the legislators on this point because it concerns a procedural element of the court.) Civil plaintiff attorneys argue the Daubert standards are too stringent and serve as a barrier to legal remedy in legitimate claims.
To understand why the importance of this standard matters in civil personal injury lawsuits, we look at the recent case of Sims v. Kia Motors of America, before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Here, the viability of expert witness testimony was critical to the product liability claim in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from a fatal car accident.
According to court records, family members of decedent filed this product liability lawsuit against auto manufacturer Kia after their father died in the back seat of a 2010 Kia Soul that burst into flames after a sign struck by the driver pierced the fuel tank. The driver collided with another car at an intersection, and the impact caused the car to spin and, in turn, strike various objects. One of those was a “YIELD” sign, which became disconnected upon impact. The base of the sign passed underneath the vehicle and impacted the fuel tank. This tore a large hole in the tank. Gasoline spilled over the roadway. When the vehicle stopped, the driver and front seat passenger safely got out of the car. The three passengers in the back, however, were trapped. Decedent was one of those.
Because the fuel tank ruptured, the car became engulfed in flames. Decedent died in the fire.
Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the maker of the vehicle, alleging the manufacturer had a duty to make sure the gas tank wasn’t susceptible to failure and that, even if a fire does start, the vehicle should be designed so that it does not immediately explode into the passenger cabin.
Plaintiffs presented two expert witnesses, engineers. One was to investigate how the sign struck the fuel tank and another who planned to testify there was a safer alternative design that would have prevented this fuel tank rupture. Defense sought to exclude some or all of this testimony on grounds it was unreliable and failed to meet the Daubert Standard. District court granted the motion and plaintiff appealed.
The 5th DCA carefully examined the methodology of both experts. As to the expert who was slated to testify about how the sign pierced the tank, the court excluded the part of his evidence that asserted a “downward displacement theory” because it was not scientifically reliable, and neither was his use of the differential diagnosis approach.” In looking at the other expert witness’s testimony, the court concluded the theory that fuel tank straps and fuel tank shields could prevent these sort of incidents was unreliable. Therefore, the 5th DCA affirmed.
Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Sims v. Kia Motors of America, Oct. 5, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
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