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Whiting v. Coultrip

August 23, 2001

LAURA WHITING, F/K/A LAURA BURNS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ROBERT COULTRIP, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE



Appeal from the Circuit Court for the 13th Judicial Circuit, LaSalle County, Illinois; No. 94--L--232; Honorable Robert Carter Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breslin.

As amended October 3, 2001. Released for publication.

LAURA WHITING, F/K/A LAURA BURNS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ROBERT COULTRIP, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE

Appeal from the Circuit Court for the 13th Judicial Circuit, LaSalle County, Illinois; No. 94--L--232; Honorable Robert Carter Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breslin.

Plaintiff Laura Whiting, f/k/a Laura Burns, filed this action against defendant Robert Coultrip for alleged personal injuries she sustained in a car accident with defendant in a grocery store parking lot. On appeal, plaintiff contends that the trial court erred when it denied her motion for a directed verdict on the issue of negligence and when it allowed defendant to introduce the testimony of a biomedical engineer. We affirm in part, reverse in part and remand, holding that, before novel scientific testimony from a biomedical engineer may be admitted at trial, the proponent of the evidence must prove that the methods of study utilized by the engineer are both generally accepted and reliable.

 FACTS

Plaintiff was driving westbound in a Kroger grocery store parking lot when she was hit on the driver's side by defendant. Defendant was proceeding across the parking lanes going northwest when he hit plaintiff on an angle. Plaintiff filed suit against defendant for personal injuries.

At trial, it was revealed that plaintiff has had back problems since she was 17 years old and had one surgery on her back prior to the accident. Shortly before the accident plaintiff began working as a nurse's aide, which, plaintiff testified, required her to load patients onto cots or gurneys, help them into and out of wheelchairs, and transport them to different areas of the hospital.

Both parties contended they were traveling about five miles per hour at the time of the accident. Pictures of both parties' vehicles showed minimal damage.

Plaintiff testified that she complained of stiffness and soreness to defendant and the police officer at the scene of the accident. After the accident, plaintiff contacted her physician to complain of pain in her back and neck. She eventually underwent surgery on the same part of her spine as the previous surgery and on additional parts. Plaintiff introduced the deposition testimony of Dr. Terry Love, her family physician; Dr. Robert Beatty, the neurosurgeon who operated on her back both times; and Dr. James Wilson, an evaluating, board-certified neurosurgeon. Dr. Beatty opined that the second surgery was necessitated by the accident, and Drs. Love and Wilson concurred.

Over plaintiff's objection, defendant was allowed to introduce the testimony of Officer Robert Cunningham, the officer called to the scene of the accident. Officer Cunningham testified that he had no independent recollection of the accident or being called to the accident scene. He then stated that it was his practice to make a police report whenever any party to an accident complained of injury, but no police report was filed here.

Again over plaintiff's objections, defendant was allowed to introduce the testimony of Gerald Harris, an engineer specializing in biomechanics and biomedical engineering. Using the facts of the collision, Fred Monick, an engineer, calculated the forward and lateral gravitational forces (G-forces) experienced by plaintiff. Using Monick's findings, Harris determined that the amount of force actually experienced by plaintiff was not sufficient to cause the injuries alleged.

The trial court denied plaintiff's motion for a directed verdict on the issue of negligence. The jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant, and plaintiff appealed.

Additional facts will be set forth when they become pertinent to the analysis.

ANALYSIS

On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court committed reversible error when it allowed defendant to introduce novel scientific evidence through the testimony of Monick and Harris on the issue of causation. Because of its dispositive nature, we consider this issue first.

The supreme court has stated that it is within the trial court's discretion whether to admit expert testimony. People v. Eyler, 133 Ill. 2d 173, 549 N.E.2d 268 (1989). When the general acceptance of a new scientific technique is at issue, however, the proponent of the scientific method is often requesting the court to establish the law of the jurisdiction for the adjudication of future cases. People v. Watson, 257 Ill. App. 3d 915, 629 N.E.2d 634 (1994). Such is true of the case at bar.

Because formulation of the law is, in essence, a function of the appeals courts, we engage in a broad review of the trial court's determination concerning the admission of scientific testimony offered by defendant. See Watson, 257 Ill. App. 3d at 924, 629 N.E.2d at 640; People v. Dalcollo, 282 Ill. App. 3d 944, 669 N.E.2d 378 (1996). In doing so, we may consider the evidence presented to the trial court, judicial opinions from other jurisdictions, and any pertinent legal and scientific commentaries. Dalcollo, 282 Ill. App. 3d at 955, 669 N.E.2d at 385.

We note that not all Illinois courts have utilized a similar broad review when ascertaining the admissibility of novel scientific evidence. See, e.g., Mitchell v. Palos Community Hospital, 317 Ill. App. 3d 754, 740 N.E.2d 476 (2000); People v. Mehlberg, 249 Ill. App. 3d 499, 618 N.E.2d 1168 (1993). Neither Mitchell nor Mehlberg contained any rationale for the decision to apply a pure abuse of discretion standard. But, because the question of whether a novel scientific technique is generally accepted within a particular community does not vary according to the unique facts of a case, such question should not be left to each individual trial judge's discretion. Watson, 257 Ill. App. 3d at 924, 629 N.E.2d at 640; see also ...


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