SC Supreme Court Reverses $18 million Products Liability Verdict; Enunciates Standard for Admission of Expert Witness Testimony
Following a single vehicle accident, Respondents Sonya L. Watson and the Estate of Patricia Carter filed a products liability suit against, inter alia, Appellant Ford Motor Company. A jury found against Ford and awarded Respondents $18 million in compensatory damages.
On appeal, Ford argued the trial court erred in several respects. Following briefing and oral argument, the South Carolina Supreme Court held the trial court erred in qualifying a purported cruise control expert, in admitting certain testimony, and in admitting evidence of similar incidents. Accordingly, the Court reversed the jury’s verdict against Ford.
This opinion is informative for us with regard to the admissibility of expert witness testimony. While the Court did not adopt Daubert, it nevertheless enunciated a clear requirement that requires the trial court make certain preliminary findings regarding admissibility requirements, such as qualification of experts, reliability of the substance of the testimony, and substantial similarity of alleged similar incidents, before a jury may hear the evidence. If these preliminary requirements are not met, as a matter of law, the trial court may not permit the jury to consider the evidence. Specifically, the Court wrote:
[I]n executing its gatekeeping duties, the trial court must make three key preliminary findings which are fundamental to Rule 702 before the jury may consider expert testimony. First, the trial court must find that the subject matter is beyond the ordinary knowledge of the jury, thus requiring an expert to explain the matter to the jury. See State v. Douglas, 380 S.C. 499, 671 S.E.2d 606 (2009) (holding that the witness was improperly qualified as a forensic interviewing expert where the nature of her testimony was based on personal observations and discussions with the child victim). Next, while the expert need not be a specialist in the particular branch of the field, the trial court must find that the proffered expert has indeed acquired the requisite knowledge and skill to qualify as an expert in the particular subject matter. See Gooding v. St. Francis Xavier Hosp., 326 S.C. 248, 252-53, 487 S.E.2d 596, 598 (1997) (observing that to be competent to testify as an expert, a witness must have acquired by reason of study or experience such knowledge and skill in a profession or science that he is better qualified than the jury to form an opinion on the particular subject of his testimony). Finally, the trial court must evaluate the substance of the testimony and determine whether it is reliable. See State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 20, 515 S.E.2d 515, 518 (evaluating whether expert testimony on DNA analysis met the reliability requirements).
In Watson, the Court held one of plaintiff’s key liability expert’s testimony did not meet this standard. As a result, the Court determined the expert’s testimony was inadmissible. Consequently, the Court reversed and remanded the matter for a new trial. The $18 million verdict was erased.
For greater detail about the significance of this verdict, please click onto an article about Watson in South Carolina Products Liability Blog, which is run by my friend and fellow Collins & Lacy attorney, Brian Comer: http://scproductsliabilitylaw.blogspot.com/2010/03/case-brief-watson-v-ford-motor-co.html
Text of Supreme Court opinion in Watson v. Ford Motor Company: http://ping.fm/XPP54