Human Factors Expert Witness Opinion Only Partly Excluded Due to Accident Reconstruction

After suffering an injury while working, the plaintiff claimed the defendant did not execute safe work practices. The defendant responded by retaining a human factors expert witness to perform a human factors study.

    Zach Barreto

    Written by
    — Updated on August 11, 2021

    Human Factors Expert Witness Opinion Only Partly Excluded Due to Accident Reconstruction

    Court: United States District Court for the District of Kansas
    Jurisdiction: Federal
    Case Name: Belisle v. BNSF Ry. Co.
    Citation: 697. F. Supp. 2d 1233

    In addition to human factors topics including response time, the expert’s testimony also discussed accident reconstruction.  The plaintiff argued the expert was unqualified to conduct an accident reconstruction, which the expert’s methodology relied on.

    The court noted that the expert’s accident reconstruction testimony was relevant in this situation. However, the court disagreed with the expert’s opinion on the plaintiff’s response time. Thus, the court excluded only part of the expert witness’s testimony.

    Facts

    The defendant hired the plaintiff as a train brakeman. As part of his duties, the plaintiff prepared the end of the train for departure. This involved the construction, arming, and checking of a turbine-powered end-of-train system (ETD), which connected to the last train car. The plaintiff needed to test this particular ETD’s ability to identify and communicate a hypothetical emergency to the driver. This involved the plaintiff releasing bottled air into the train cars. To release this air, the plaintiff had to travel from the end of the line to the point where the last few cars linked to the track. From that position, the plaintiff could manually adjust the valve to stop airflow to the cars.

    The train was stationed on one of two major tracks on the north side of the defendant’s yard. The supervisor informed the crew members that an eastbound train would be entering the workplace. The plaintiff suggested that the assistant trainmaster inform the crew that the incoming train would be stopped. It would be stopped until the plaintiff and the crew prepared the train for departure. After the plaintiff and the crew were done, then the arriving train would replace his train. However, a train struck the plaintiff as it passed, causing the plaintiff to suffer severe injuries.

    The plaintiff sued the defendant under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act. The plaintiff argued the defendant failed to stock and supply him with a reasonably secure environment. Furthermore, the plaintiff claimed the defendant failed to provide reasonably-safe operating practices, operating facilities, and working appliances.

    The Defendant’s Human Factors Expert Witness

    The defendant called a human factors expert witness. The plaintiff did not question the expert’s qualification as a human factors expert but questioned the reliability of his methodology. The expert witness performed a study, finding that the claimant had ample time and knowledge to transfer to a secure position before the train stopped.

    The plaintiff argued that the expert’s findings did not meet the admissibility requirements under Rule 702. The plaintiff claimed the basis of the human factors expert’s findings depended on accident reconstruction analysis, which he was not qualified to conduct. Furthermore, the plaintiff maintained that a large amount of the testimony cited the train’s positioning and the people along the railway at various hours. Additionally, the expert specified the location and timing of such acts, such as whistle sounds. Thus, the plaintiff argued the expert’s methodology was that of an accident reconstructionist.

    Discussion

    The court observed that the expert used opinions regarding the accident reconstruction and applied it to human factors. These provided a reasonable factual basis to put the claimant on or near tracks as mentioned. Although a few such facts were in question, such things affected weight. The exact position of the point of impact was relevant in this situation. The possibility that experts disagreed with its position affected only the weight of their testimonies.

    The court further noted there was no reason for the expert to conclude that the plaintiff had less time to respond. The plaintiff only received seven seconds to respond regardless of the train’s speed. Suggesting anything else would confuse the jury and be inadmissible. For this reason, the court excluded the expert’s opinion.

    The court further noted that the expert’s testimony used a reliable methodology and was relevant. The testimony specifically showed that he acknowledged the various variables involved. However, the court determined the plaintiff’s decision to respond was straightforward rather than nuanced. This was because the plaintiff based his decision on his understanding of the limited stimulus as the train approached. The fact that the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s expert disagreed with this opinion did not render it inadmissible. The adversarial process could resolve those concerns.

    Ruling

    The court granted the plaintiff’s Daubert motion regarding prejudice in favor of the plaintiff and denied it in all other regards.

    Key Takeaways for Experts

    This case illustrates the value of accident reconstruction in cases of workplace injuries. The court noted that this testimony, although adjacent to the human factors study, was relevant. By recreating the accident, the expert witness acknowledged all of the variables that could have affected the outcome. This provided a reasonable factual basis to the testimony.

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