The Lawletter Vol 40 No 1
Jeremy Taylor, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
The Virginia Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of the admissibility of expert testimony in a products liability case and ruled such testimony inadmissible under the circumstances presented. See Hyundai Motor Co. v. Duncan, ___ Va. ___, 766 S.E.2d 893 (2015). In Duncan, a driver was severely injured when he lost control of his car and ultimately struck a tree. Although the vehicle was equipped with a side airbag system, the airbag did not deploy. The circuit court entered judgment on a jury verdict for the plaintiff guardian/conservator.
The supreme court overturned the circuit court's judgment, concluding that the trial court had committed reversible error in admitting the testimony of the plaintiff's expert witness. Initially, the court noted that although evidentiary matters are within the discretion of the trial court, the court has no discretion to admit clearly inadmissible evidence. The court explained that expert testimony founded on assumptions that have no basis in fact is not subject to correction merely by cross-examination or by opposing experts but is inadmissible and subject to striking upon motion. According to the court, expert testimony is inadmissible if the expert fails to consider all variables bearing on the inferences to be deduced from the facts observed. The supreme court found the proffered testimony inadmissible specifically because the expert's opinion was premised on the unfounded assumption that the side airbag would have deployed if the sensor had been located on the B-pillar of the vehicle instead of on a cross-member underneath the driver's seat. The court noted that the expert had admitted that the vehicle's crash-sensing system depended on multiple factors and that he had not performed any tests to determine whether a different combination of factors would have caused the airbag to deploy in the crash.
Duncan thus stands for the proposition that an expert witness must test variations of the elements of a complex product which are claimed to render the product defective in design.