U.S. District Court Analyzes Challenges to Expert Opinions Proffered in Motor Vehicle Accident
Chebbani was driving a Mazda 3, which was struck from the rear by a Ford Focus, owned by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and driven by Shoemaker, who admitted liability. However, a dispute arose over Plaintiff’s alleged damages. As such, the parties filed motions to preclude the opposing experts’ opinions, arguing that they were unreliable and, therefore, inadmissible at trial.
Kolmus earned a master’s degree from Cornell University in civil engineering and has approximately 40 years in providing civil engineering services, including the forensic investigation of automobile accidents and their causes. Kolmus evaluated photographs of the vehicle, stiffness coefficients derived from United States Department of Transportation testing, and used EdgeFX software to determine that Shoemaker was operating the Ford Focus at a speed of less than three (3) miles per hour when the crash occurred.
Nobilini earned a doctorate degree from Drexel University in mechanical engineering, with a specialty in biomechanics, and had approximately 30 years of experience in providing mechanical and biomechanical engineering investigations and analyses of accidents, including the relationship of trauma to injury. Nobilini opined that the accelerations [of underlying degenerative arthritis] Plaintiff experienced during the accident were within the range of accelerations that she would experience during everyday non-injurious activities of daily living. Nobilini also cited scientific studies involving the dynamics of vehicle occupants during rear-end motor vehicle accidents and concluded that the impact experienced by Chebbani was not consistent with the injuries that she had claimed.
Pello is a board-certified neurologist and pain management specialist who examined Chebbani. Based on the examination and a review of medical records, Pello diagnosed Chebbani with post-concussive syndrome, post-traumatic headaches, ocular motor dysfunction, cervical sprain/strain, left shoulder sprain/strain-improved, and myofascial pain. Pello attributed his diagnosis to the crash.
Fed. R. Evid. 702 requires expert testimony to be “based on sufficient facts or data” and be derived from “reliable principles and methods” that have been “reliably applied . . . to the facts of the case.” A witness’s testimony fits a case only if it would help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue. UGI Sunbury LLC v. Permanent Easement for 1.7575 Acres, 949 F.3d 825, 835 (3d Cir. 2020). Courts have been directed to consider the following factors to determine the reliability of proposed expert testimony: (1) whether a method consists of a testable hypothesis; (2) whether the method has been subject to peer review; (3) the known or potential rate of error; (4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique’s operation; (5) whether the method is generally accepted; (6) the relationship of the technique to methods which have been established to be reliable; (7) the qualifications of the expert witness testifying based on the methodology; and (8) the non-judicial uses to which the method has been put.'” Pineda v. Ford Motor Co., 520 F.3d 237, 244 (3d Cir. 2008).
The Court found Kolmus’s opinion to be reliable. Kolmus analyzed 21 pieces of evidence related to the accident and provided a thorough explanation of the application of the Edge FX software, including the data that was used in his calculations. Kolmus used the Ford Focus coefficient because he would be comparing the software-calculated damage to the Ford Focus against the damage observed in the post-accident photographs. Finally, Kolmus’ opinion on federal bumper damages standards was appropriate because the bumper standards were created by the federal government to ensure minimal damage at an impact of 2.5 mph.
The Court found Noblini’s opinion and his reliance on Kolmus’ opinion to be reliable. Nobilini referenced a study conducted by Anderson et. al., which Defendant states contained an explanation of the values used in his analysis. Nobilini also provided a brief explanation of each of the five studies. These explanations included the ages of the participants, the type of collisions tested, the speed and force experienced by the vehicle occupants, and the injuries suffered by the participants.
The Court found Pello’s opinion concerning post-concussive syndrome and post-traumatic headaches was reliable as Chebbani’s symptoms and exam findings were consistent with that diagnosis. However, the court concluded that his opinions regarding ocular motor dysfunction, cervical sprain, and myofascial pain were unreliable and, therefore, inadmissible. While there was some reference to ocular motor dysfunction in Chebbani’s past medical records, she did not have symptoms or findings consistent with ocular motor dysfunction at the time of Pello’s examination. Moreover, Pello did not consider Chebbani’s pre-crash medical records involving complaints of cervical/shoulder pain and Chebbani’s deposition testimony in concluding that the crash aggravated her neck/shoulder pain and that she suffered from myofascial pain; therefore, the Court found that Pello did not “thoroughly consider an alternative cause” to her pain, and thus, ruled that his opinions in this regard were unreliable.
The decision in Chebbani v. U.S. Dept. of Agric., No. 5:21-CV-04298 (E.D. Pa. May 1, 2023) can be accessed here.