The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has issued an important decision on expert testimony, Hughes v. Kia Motors. (Click here to access the full opinion.)

Patricia Hughes filed a wrongful death action against Kia Motors after her daughter, Allene, died in a car crash. The suit claimed Kia’s failure to equip its Optima sedan with a fuel shut-off switch caused Allene’s death. A Mack truck initially struck Allene’s Optima on the driver’s side, bending the brake pedal so that it depressed the gas pedal. As a result, the Optima pinballed around the intersection, hitting two parked cars, going through a fence, and coming to rest against a house. Plaintiff’s theory was that a fuel shut-off switch would have prevented the subsequent collisions that allegedly caused Allene’s death.

Plaintiff hired Dr. Joseph Burton, a board-certified forensic pathologist, as her "cause of death" expert. Dr. Burton testified that it was possible Allene suffered brain injury from the initial impact with the Mack truck. But he testified that Allene’s brain injury "more likely than not" resulted from the later collisions. Dr. Burton asserted that his opinion was based on the scientific method, his examination of the data, and his experience. During his deposition, Dr. Burton conceded that he didn’t have enough information to conclude that the Optima’s later collision with the parked cars caused Allene’s brain injury. Nor could Dr. Burton determine what part of the car caused Allene’s injury—the steering wheel, the A pillar, or the side air bag.

Kia moved to strike Dr. Burton’s testimony as unreliable. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment in favor of Kia. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed on appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit held that district courts serve as gatekeepers on the admissibility of expert testimony. This ensures that "speculative, unreliable expert testimony does not reach the jury." There are three requirements an expert must meet before his or her opinions may be admitted: (1) the expert must be qualified to testify on the matter in question, (2) the expert must employ a reliable methodology, and (3) the expert’s expertise must help the fact finder understand the evidence or issue.

Applying these principles, the Eleventh Circuit held Dr. Burton "offered precious little" to establish "a reliable foundation or basis for his opinion" on the cause of Allene's death. "Something doesn’t become scientific knowledge just because it’s uttered by a scientist," the Court observed. And where there is "too great an analytical gap between the data and the [expert’s] opinion," the "ipse dixit of the expert" cannot bridge the gap. Here Dr. Burton’s methodology was not reliable "given the vague manner in which [he] described his method coupled with his inability to express an opinion about how the various impacts would have affected Allene." Because the "leap from data to opinion was too great," Dr. Burton’s testimony was not admissible.

The Hughes decision will impact products liability, medical malpractice, and other personal injury cases that turn on an expert’s opinion concerning the cause of death or other injuries. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is binding precedent in all federal cases arising in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.