As a Missouri auto products liability lawyer, I was interested to read an Oklahoma Supreme Court opinion upholding quite a large verdict in a case involving brake failure. In Covel v. Rodriguez et al., the family of H. K. Covel sued Rodriguez Transportes, its owners and its insurance company, alleging the brakes on a Rodriguez bus were defective in the accident that took Covel’s life. After a jury award for $2.8 million in compensatory damages and $5,000 in punitive damages, the defendants appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony was inadmissible. The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals reversed, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court restored the verdict, noting that the defendants waived their appeal by failing to object to the expert at trial.
The Covel family asserted at trial that H. K. Covel was struck in traffic by another driver’s car, pushing his pickup truck into the oncoming lanes of traffic. There, Covel’s truck collided almost head-on with the bus, killing him at the scene. They alleged that faulty brakes on the bus made it harder to avoid the accidents. The Rodriguez defendants maintained that even if their brakes were defective, their driver could not have avoided the accident and the brakes were not a cause. After the jury’s decision, the defendants moved unsuccessfully for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial, then appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed with one judge dissenting. It acknowledged that the defendants never raised objections to the plaintiffs’ expert testimony, and that admitting the evidence was not fundamental error, but still found that the testimony was legally insufficient on Daubert grounds.
On appeal to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, the plaintiffs argued that the expert testimony argument had been waived and therefore the appeals court’s decision was improper. Defendants countered that the admissibility is a question of law properly before the court. Citing federal precedent, the high court decided in favor of the plaintiffs. The Tenth Circuit has held that failure to object to expert testimony forfeits a Daubert challenge, it said; objecting creates an opportunity to clarify as well as rule. Trial courts are not required to challenge expert testimony without an objection. Similarly, Oklahoma rules require parties to object in order to establish that the expert’s testimony is unreliable. Thus, any error in this expert’s testimony is waived on appeal, the high court found. It further agreed with the court of appeals that there was no fundamental error in this case. After reviewing the testimony by both sides’ experts, the court found that the jury had sufficient evidence for its decision. It also dispensed with a slew of objections about how the trial was conducted before affirming the trial court’s decision.
This decision is pleasing to southern Illinois products liability attorneys like me. To establish liability in almost any product defect case, it’s necessary to have an expert testify. The safety of a consumer product’s design is almost always a specialized topic not easily understood by jurors unless they happen to work in a related field. As a result, any case involving defective automobiles or their parts is vulnerable to a challenge to the expert witness’s credibility. In cases where courts agree that the expert didn’t have the right background or didn’t adequately make the case, losing the expert sometimes leads to dismissal because the plaintiff simply can’t find someone else in time. As a St. Louis motor vehicle accident lawyer, I prefer to win or lose on the merits of my cases, not on procedural grounds.
If you or someone you love has been seriously hurt by a defective car, auto part or other product, don’t wait to call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. For a free consultation, send us a message online or call 1-877-678-3400.
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