Using Expert Opinions to Strengthen Your California Wrongful Death Lawsuit, and What the Says about their admissibility

Using Expert Opinions to Strengthen Your California Wrongful Death Lawsuit, and What the Says about their admissibility

A fatal vehicle accident (including auto accidents, motorcycle accidents, and pedestrian accidents) may present serious challenges to the survivors of that fatally injured victim. These may include many things, not the least of which is obtaining the monetary recovery necessary to ensure your family’s continued financial security in the wake of your loss. Meeting these challenges may include many elements, including a lawsuit, and that lawsuit may have any highly technical parts, including scientific evidence and expert opinions. To ensure that you are prepared to get an outcome that is just and appropriate, make sure you’ve consulted an experienced Santa Barbara wrongful death lawyer about the best way to pursue your case, whether with or without expert evidence.

A recent wrongful death case that originated in San Bernardino County offers some useful instruction about what the law does and does not require of you to use an expert witness’s opinions as part of your civil lawsuit. Although the San Bernardino case was not the result of a vehicular accident, the appellate court’s conclusions apply universally to civil cases where a party seeks to introduce one or more experts.

The origin of the case was a survival and wrongful death complaint G.G. initiated against a major freight railroad following the death of his father (who worked for the railroad.) The son provided four expert witnesses, including a Ph.D. chemist, a Ph.D. biochemist, and two physicians. After the railroad made a series of pre-trial motions, the trial judge excluded three of the four experts. Because those three were the son’s causation experts, the trial court’s exclusion of them “resulted in the equivalent of a nonsuit,” and the son’s case was dismissed.

Expert Opinions to Strengthen your Wrongful Death case

The son, however, successfully revived his case at the appellate level. The court pointed out that, in a case involving expert witnesses, the trial judge has the role of “gatekeeping.” That role entails excluding experts unless their opinions are “related to a subject that is sufficiently beyond common experience” and “would assist the trier of fact.” Additionally, the law demands that an expert’s opinions are reasonably reliable, meaning that the judge must exclude experts whose opinions are “speculative or irrelevant.”

The law also gives the judge the authority to exclude an expert if the materials upon which the expert relied do not support the reasons for his/her opinion. In other words, if there is “too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion,” the judge may exclude that expert.

Expert Opinions Must Be ‘Clearly Invalid and Unreliable’ to Be Excluded

The California Supreme Court has stated, however, “that trial courts must be cautious in excluding expert testimony.” Even if the trial judge deems the defense’s expert(s) more persuasive, that alone does not warrant excluding a plaintiff’s expert. The law demands that the trial judge focus “solely on principles and methodology, not on the conclusions.” Trial courts also should not “determine the persuasiveness of an expert’s opinion, weigh the opinion’s probative value, substitute its own opinion for the expert’s opinion, or resolve scientific controversies.” Rather, the law directs trial courts only to ask if the expert’s principles and methodology are “clearly invalid and unreliable.” If the answer is no, the expert’s evidence is admissible.

Determining whether your case should utilize expert evidence and, if so, how many and what type of experts you need is a decision best made as part of working with a seasoned lawyer who’s highly experienced in handling wrongful death cases like yours. The knowledgeable Santa Barbara wrongful death attorneys at the personal injury law firm of Galine, Frye, Fitting & Frangos, LLP seek to provide all clients with representation that is equal parts thoughtful (in light of the unimaginable loss you’ve endured) and zealous (in getting you the fair and proper outcome you deserve.) Our team has a diverse range of experiences in these cases, so we know what it takes to use the system to get justice. Contact us at 805-617-1365 or through our website to get a free case consultation today.


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