Court: United States District Court for the District of New Mexico
Case Name: Yazzie v. Fezatte
Citation: 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25550
This case resulted from a collision between the defendant truck driver and the plaintiff on a New Mexico interstate. The plaintiff’s transportation expert, however, errs in the eyes of the court by offering a series of conclusions that are outside the bounds of his expertise. Namely, he makes speculative assertions on the driver’s credibility and level of fatigue that cannot be backed up with evidence. The only portion of testimony not excluded is his statements on compliance with federal regulations in the trucking industry—conclusions based on documented, industry-accepted resources.
This case was the result of a vehicle collision between the plaintiff and defendant. The plaintiff was driving on an interstate in New Mexico when they were struck by the defendant driving a tractor-trailer. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging the defendant was driving negligently. The plaintiff hired a transportation expert witness to opine on road safety, general practices, and federal regulations in the commercial trucking industry.
The Plaintiff’s Transportation Expert Witness
The plaintiff’s transportation expert witness was retained to opine on the defendant’s responsibilities in operating a tractor-trailer and their purported infringements on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations in relation to the collision with the plaintiff.
The defendant asserted that the expert’s opinion on the defendant’s degree of fatigue was speculative. Further, the defendant claimed the expert was unqualified to offer advice on the circadian rhythm. The plaintiff argued that through their expert’s experience, training, and education, he had become acquainted with studies carried out on the effect of circadian rhythm fluctuations on truck drivers. Through this experience and evidence, the plaintiff argued their expert was right to conclude that the driver was fatigued.
The defendant also tried to exclude the expert’s testimony stating that the defendant driver was distracted. Specifically, the defendant argued that the expert’s reliance on Qualcomm signals as evidence of distracted driving should be omitted since they were not reasonably close in time to the crash. The plaintiff responded that these opinions were directly relevant to the cause of the accident.
Further, the defendant objected to the expert’s testimony that he observed a surge in crashes from the defendant trucking company and concluded this was related to the poor safety management of increased power units in the defendant company’s trucks. The defendant argued the expert had mischaracterized the data and that this information was otherwise irrelevant.
The defendant also asked the court to exclude any testimony that the expert might provide on the driver’s random drug test, as well as opinions that the defendant should have carried out a drug and alcohol examination directly after the crash. The plaintiff contended that the drug test was improperly performed and, together with an anonymous report in the driver’s file that he had used marijuana, was essential to his credentials and ability to operate a commercial vehicle safely.
The plaintiff contended that their expert had appropriately focused on facts in the record to provide conclusions on how the accident occurred, including interpreting the accident as a hit-and-run case. The defendant, on the other hand, argued that the expert’s views on how the accident occurred were not founded on expertise and should be omitted.
The court found that the expert’s opinion regarding the driver’s fatigue was speculative, lacked foundation, and, thus, was unnecessary for the trier of fact. Furthermore, since the Qualcomm messages at issue were so attenuated in time from the time of the accident, any opinion expressed on the supposed distraction was irrelevant and therefore inadmissible.
The court also explained that the expert’s opinion that the driver would not have stayed employed had he tested positive in an adequately administered drug test, was speculative and inadmissible.
The court also excluded the expert’s causation opinion because it was based only on the expert’s assessment of the driver’s credibility. His opinion that the defendants owed a duty of care to the plaintiff was also excluded as an impermissible legal conclusion. However, the court reserved its ruling on the expert’s opinion regarding the driver’s compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.
The defendant’s motion to exclude the plaintiff’s transportation expert witness was granted in part and denied in part.
Key Takeaways for Experts
This case demonstrates the consequences of reaching past the bounds of expertise in an expert report. The expert here clearly had technical transportation expertise, however, overstepped legal bounds by offering speculative opinions not backed in research or experience.