Expert Testimony Tested Again in South Carolina
By Alex Davis
The qualification or exclusion of expert testimony can often be one of the most contentious pre-trial battles between the parties. Over the past two decades, numerous opinions have been issued by state and federal courts seeking to clarify when expert testimony is admissible at trial. On June 11, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued an opinion, 5 Star, Inc. v. Ford Motor Company, Opinion No. 27398 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed June 11, 2014) (Shearouse Adv. Sh. No. 23), which represents its latest guidance to trial judges about what specific knowledge and/or experience is necessary for an individual to be qualified to provide expert testimony.
In 5 Star, the plaintiff was the owner of a 1996 Ford F-250 pickup truck which was parked in a warehouse in North Charleston. The pickup truck was found burned in the warehouse, although there were no witnesses to the fire. The fire chief who investigated the accident determined that the vehicle’s engine compartment was the likely origin of the fire. The plaintiff sued Ford Motor Company, alleging that the fire was the result of a negligently designed speed control deactivation switch in the pickup truck. At the close of trial, the trial judge denied Ford’s motion for a directed verdict and entered judgment on the jury verdict of $41,000. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, finding the trial court erred in refusing to direct a verdict in favor of Ford, as there was no evidence of negligence in the design of the deactivation switch. In reaching this decision, the Court of Appeals held the plaintiff’s expert witness, whom the trial court qualified as an expert in electrical engineering and fire origin and cause, was not “qualified as an expert in automotive design or any other area of expertise that would enable [him] to offer opinions as to whether Ford’s conduct was negligent.” Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff had not satisfied his burden of demonstrating negligent conduct on the part of the defendant.
The Supreme Court disagreed. Reversing the Court of Appeals, the Court held that the plaintiff’s expert “was properly qualified by the trial court as an expert to render an opinion as to whether Ford breached its engineering standard of care in designing the deactivation switch.” Although the expert had never worked for an automobile manufacturer, the court held he had “a vast amount of experience related to automotive engineering and ha[d] designed many component parts that were used in vehicles and other products,” as well as being hired to determine the origin of fires in boats, buses, and commercial vehicles, and investigating prior Ford deactivation switch cases, including a review of “the relevant scientific literature.” The Court distinguished the case from Watson v. Ford Motor Co., 3938 S.C. 434, 699 S.E.2d 169 (2010), in which it rejected the qualification of an expert, as the expert in that case both lacked “experience in the automobile industry” and “employed an unreliable theory that was uniformly rejected by the scientific community.”
5 Star can be seen as a bridge of sorts between Watson and the pre-Watson expert jurisprudence in the state. The Supreme Court in Watson cautioned trial courts to carefully fulfill their role as gatekeeper and scrutinize the qualifications and bases of the opinions of any individual offered as an expert. In 5 Star, the Court seems to warn against disqualifying or overly restricting the scope of testimony offered by an individual with sufficient qualifications. This holding is in line with prior Supreme Court decisions that an individual may not be disqualified as an expert merely because he is not a specialist in the particular branch of the profession involved in the case. See Creed v. City of Columbia, 310 S.C. 342, 426 S.E.2d 785 (1993).
As a practical matter, 5 Star seems to confirm that Watson was not a watershed moment in the jurisprudence of expert qualification in South Carolina. Rather, it was just another step in attempting to bring some clarity to a murky area of the law. These cases also demonstrate the importance of attacking the proffered expert testimony, where appropriate, on as many of the three prongs (subject matter, expert qualification, and reliability) as possible. Multiple grounds offered by the party opposing the introduction of the proffered expert’s testimony not only give that party multiple chances to convince the trial court to rule against inclusion of the testimony, but can also potentially provide multiple grounds to uphold the disqualification against any appellate challenges. Finally, it is worth noting that in 5 Star, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed the decision of an equally unanimous Court of Appeals panel, which had reached the opposite conclusion. Thus, it is likely that the admissibility of expert testimony will continue to be a hotly contested and much debated topic.