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Schmelzer v. Muncy

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

January 16, 2020



          GILBERT C. SISON United States Magistrate Judge

         On January 14, 2016, Plaintiff Stevan Schmelzer was driving when his vehicle collided with a semi-tanker driven by Defendant Mark J. Muncy. Schmelzer alleges that as a result of the accident, he suffered a traumatic brain injury, and he filed suit seeking, among other damages, compensation for future expenses, including lost future wages. Pending before the Court are several motions to exclude witnesses, discovery and sanction-related motions, and a request for a status conference. All matters will be resolved ahead of the scheduled final pretrial conference, but the Court will address certain matters at this time. If any party requests additional explanation or analysis, the Court will provide it in a future order.

         Daubert Motions

         Screening evidence is a function that lies “squarely within the purview of the trial judge.” Lapsley v. Xtek, Inc., 689 F.3d 802, 809 (7th Cir. 2012). When the issue is whether to admit or to exclude the testimony of an expert witness, the Court's discretion is guided by Federal Rules of Evidence 702 and 703 and the principles set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Rule 703 requires that an expert employ “those kinds of facts or data” on which experts in a particular field reasonably rely. Manpower, Inc. v. Insurance Co. of Pennsylvania, 732 F.3d 796, 809 (7th Cir. 2013). Daubert laid the foundation for Rule 702, which seeks to ensure that “any and all scientific testimony or evidence admitted is not only relevant, but reliable.” United States v. Parra, 402 F.3d 752, 758 (7th Cir. 2005)(quoting Smith v. Ford Motor Co., 215 F.3d 713, 718 (7th Cir. 2000)).

         Rule 702, as amended after Daubert, provides that expert testimony is admissible if offered by a witness qualified by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education and if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data; (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and (3) the witness reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case. The standards set forth in Daubert extend to non-scientific expert testimony, as well. See Kumho Tire Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 147-148 (1999). Rule 702 requires that the expert's scientific, technical, or otherwise specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact issue. Simply stated, “Rule 702 requires that expert testimony be relevant, reliable, and have a factual basis - requirements that must be met before the jury is allowed to hear and perhaps be persuaded by the expert testimony.” Lapsley, 689 F.3d at 809.

         Considered together, Daubert and Rule 702 allow that expert testimony is admissible only if (1) the expert testifies to valid technical, scientific, or other specialized knowledge; and (2) the testimony will assist the trier of fact. See Messner v. Northshore Univ. Health System, 669 F.3d 802, 811-812 (7th Cir. 2012)(citing NutraSweet Co. v. X-L Eng'g Co., 227 F.3d 776, 787-788 (7th Cir. 2000)). “No matter the nature of the witness's expertise, Rule 702 ‘establishes a standard of evidentiary reliability,' 'requires a valid . . . connection to the pertinent inquiry as a precondition of admissibility,' and mandates that the testimony have ‘a reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of [the relevant] discipline.'” Manpower, Inc. 732 F.3d at 806 (citing Kumho, 526 U.S. at 149).

         The district court judge acts as the gatekeeper for expert testimony, but “the key to the gate is not the ultimate correctness of the expert's conclusions, ” rather it is “the soundness and care with which the expert arrived at her opinion.” Schultz v. Akzo Nobel Paints, LLC, 721 F.3d 426, 431 (7th Cir. 2013). The Court's inquiry focuses “solely on principles and methodology, not on the conclusions they generate.” Id. (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 595). Evaluating reliability requires a flexible inquiry. The relevant consideration is whether the testimony falls outside the range where experts might reasonably differ. See Kumho, 526 U.S. at 153-54. Experts must rely on theories, studies, reports, and other materials and methodologies that are reliable, both in general and in the case. As long as the expert's principles and methodology reflect reliability, vigorous cross-examination, “presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence.” Schultz, 721 F.3d at 431 (quoting Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596).

         1. Jeffrey Polster

         Jeffrey W. Polster is an accident reconstructionist and is a registered professional engineer with a degree in mechanical engineering. He has taken a number of courses related to vehicle collision reconstruction, including one about human factors in traffic accident reconstruction. Plaintiffs do not challenge Polster's general qualifications as an expert witness. Instead, they take issue with certain conclusions he reached as falling outside the scope of his expertise.

         Polster concludes that Schmelzer was grossly exceeding the posted speed limit of 55 miles per hour (“mph”) at the time of the accident, as he was traveling at 69 mph, and that Schmelzer had his cruise control engaged near 70 mph, demonstrating a determination to maintain this grossly excessive speed. Schmelzer's car was equipped with an event data recorder (EDR), which was imaged and contained data related to the accident. It showed that Schmelzer's vehicle was traveling approximately 69 mph before the crash, and the data indicated that cruise control was engaged. The data covered approximately 4.9 seconds before the collision.

         Plaintiff argues that this methodology is flawed because the data includes only the 4.9 seconds preceding the accident. There's no indication that the data pulled from the EDR is unreliable or that it is outside the norm for an accident reconstruction expert to review the EDR data in reaching an opinion as to a vehicle's speed or usage of cruise control immediately prior to an accident. The phrasing of the opinion that Schmelzer was “determined” to continue at 70 mph does stray towards speculating on Plaintiff's state of mind, but the general opinion that the vehicle was operating with cruise control set near 70 mph until just before the accident was reached appropriately.

         Polster next opines that the semi's movements just before the collision would have warned an attentive driver to reduce speed. Plaintiff objects because Polster is not a human factors expert, but his resume supports finding that he has training in human-factor analysis and that he is a well-versed accident reconstructionist. Despite Plaintiff's suggestion to the contrary, the record reflects that Polster considered positions of Defendant's truck in the moments leading up to the accident and considered the changing situation ahead of the collision. Plaintiff fails to establish at this time that Polster cannot provide reliable expert testimony on the human factor in the collision and that he cannot opine on what an attentive driver would have done under the circumstances.

         The final two opinions that Plaintiffs challenge involve the relationship between speeding and the collision occurring. Like those described above, Plaintiffs' complaints and objections on these issues are more properly raised on cross-examination. The record reflects that Polster engaged in a sound course of inquiry and reviewed appropriate data in reaching his conclusion about the impact of speed on the accident, including whether it might have been avoided had Plaintiff been driving at a slower rate of speed and leading to the ultimate conclusion that speeding by Plaintiff caused the collision. As such, the motion to exclude his testimony is denied.

         2. ...

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