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Sims v. Kia Motors – Expert Witness Testimony Scrutinized in Fatal Crash Case

Last year, there was a record number of automobile recalls – more than 51 million vehicles over 868 separate recalls, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). So it’s no surprise that the number of product liability claims arising from car accidents has risen as well. Consumers are increasingly becoming aware of design defects and manufacturing flaws, as well as breaches of express and implied warranties and failures to warn of danger, that put their lives in jeopardy. They are looking to the courts to hold auto manufacturers accountable.Driver

Like with any civil litigation, product liability lawsuits require careful examination not just of the injuries sustained and the cause, but whether the vehicle was in fact defective. People are injured and killed all the time on our roads, and it doesn’t necessarily mean there was a problem with the car itself. Proving vehicle defects – even when there has been a recall of that vehicle or a certain part – often requires the testimony of an expert witness, such as an accident reconstructionist, engineer or mechanic.

For years in Florida, we vetted the testimony of these witnesses under a set of guidelines known as the “Frye Standard.” This standard asked simply whether the expert opinion was based on a scientific technique that was generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community. However, a law that became effective in 2013 (to the delight of civil lawsuit defendants) required instead that the state begin using the Daubert standard. The revision of F.S. 90.702 means that expert witnesses now must endure a significant amount of pre-trial scrutiny, which in turn has made it tougher for plaintiffs to succeed in getting their case to trial. However, the Florida Supreme Court is currently weighing whether to revert back to the Frye Standard (a power it has, despite the legislative action, because it involves court procedure). 

Texas, too, uses the Daubert standard, and as we saw in the recent case of Sims v. Kia Motors Corp., before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, it can result in significant hurdles for plaintiffs in car accident lawsuits.

According to court records, decedent (a father and grandfather) was seated in the back seat of a 2010 Kia Soul when the driver collided with another vehicle. The force of that impact caused the vehicle to be tossed like a pinball across the intersection, slamming into various objects in its path. One of those objects was a Yield sign. Part of that sign got stuck underneath the vehicle and pierced the gas tank. When the vehicle came to a stop, the driver and front seat passenger got out safely. But decedent two other passengers in the back were trapped because the doors wouldn’t open. With the gas tank ruptured, it exploded and the vehicle burst into flames. The three passengers died in the fire.

Plaintiff, one of decedent’s sons, sued the car manufacturer, alleging defective design. He asserted the manufacture should have made a gas tank that wasn’t prone to explosion and further that if a fire in the gas tank does occur, the vehicle doesn’t immediately explode so the people inside have a chance to get out.

Plaintiff presented the testimony of two expert witnesses to back his claim, both engineers. One was to testify about the way in which the sign pierced the underside of the vehicle and the other who would assert there was a doable, safer alternative design that would have prevented this kind of deadly fuel tank rupture. Defense moved to exclude these testimony under the Daubert standard, arguing it was not reliable.

The trial court granted that motion and plaintiff appealed. The 5th DCA affirmed. In keeping in line with the Daubert standard, the court ruled, the expert witness testimony was inadequate. Without that expert witness testimony, plaintiff did not have enough evidence to take the case to trial.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Sims v. Kia Motors Corp., Oct. 5, 2016, Miami Car Accident Lawyer Blog

More Blog Entries:

$35M Wrongful Death Verdict in Trucking Accident Lawsuit, Oct. 3, 2016, Miami Car Accident Lawyer Blog


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