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Gostyla v. Chambers

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

September 19, 2017

JEFFREY F. GOSTYLA
v.
BRYAN CHAMBERS

          Argued April 26, 2017

          Martin McQuillan, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          John W. Mills, for the appellee (defendant).

          Alvord, Keller and Lavery, Js.

         Syllabus

         The plaintiff sought to recover damages from the defendant for negligence in connection with personal injuries he had sustained in a motor vehicle collision, in which his vehicle was struck by a vehicle driven by the defendant. In his answer, the defendant admitted that he acted negligently, but left the plaintiff to his proof with regard to the issue of causation. Prior to trial, the defendant disclosed a biomechanical engineer, M, as an expert witness. The parties conducted a videotaped deposition of M, and M testified, inter alia, that the motor vehicle accident was not, to a reasonable degree of scientific and biomechanical certainty, the cause of the plaintiff's injuries. Thereafter, the trial court denied the plaintiff's motion in limine to exclude the portion of M's testimony in which M opined that the collision did not cause the plaintiff's injuries, and the videotaped deposition of M, including M's testimony regarding causation, was played for the jury at trial. Following the trial, the jury returned a verdict for the defendant. Subsequently, the court denied the plaintiff's motion to set aside the verdict and rendered judgment for the defendant in accordance with the jury's verdict, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Held:

         1. The trial court abused its discretion in admitting M's testimony concerning causation, as M's testimony that this specific plaintiff's injuries were not caused by the collision exceeded his expertise in biomechanics and should have been excluded: although M, as a biomechanical engineer, was qualified to provide his opinion as to the amount of force generated by the collision and the types of injuries likely to result from exposure to that amount of force, M was not a medical doctor, and he did not possess the reasonable qualifications required to offer a medical opinion regarding the cause of specific injuries to a particular plaintiff, which would have required the expertise and specialized training of a medical doctor; furthermore, the fact that M formulated his opinion in part through reviewing a subset of the plaintiff's medical records and other documents related to the accident did not alter the analysis because the record did not reflect that M possessed the medical training necessary to identify the plaintiff's individual tolerance level and preexisting medical conditions, both of which could have had an effect on what injuries resulted from the accident.

         2. Although the trial court improperly admitted M's causation testimony, the plaintiff failed to provide this court with an adequate record to determine whether the admission of M's testimony was harmful; the plaintiff provided this court with only minimal excerpts from the trial proceedings, none of which contained the testimony of any witness other than M, the parties' summations, or the trial court's instructions to the jury, which precluded this court from evaluating the effect of the evidentiary impropriety in the context of the totality of the evidence adduced at trial.

         Procedural History

         Action to recover damages for personal injuries sustained by the plaintiff as a result of the defendant's alleged negligence, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of Hartford, where the court, Elgo, J., denied the plaintiff's motion to preclude certain evidence; thereafter, the matter was tried to a jury; verdict for the defendant; subsequently, the court denied the plaintiff's motion to set aside the verdict and rendered judgment in accordance with the verdict, from which the plaintiff appealed to this court. Affirmed.

          OPINION

          LAVERY, J.

         In this negligence action stemming from a motor vehicle collision, the plaintiff, Jeffrey F. Gostyla, appeals from the judgment of the trial court, rendered after a jury trial, in favor of the defendant, Bryan Chambers. The plaintiff claims that he is entitled to a new trial because the court improperly allowed one of the defendant's expert witnesses, a biomechanical engineer, to provide opinion testimony on a matter that went beyond the purview of his expertise in biomechanics, namely, whether the plaintiff's personal injuries were caused by the collision. Although we agree that the challenged testimony was improper, the plaintiff has not provided us with an adequate record to determine whether the error was harmful. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The following facts and procedural history are pertinent to this appeal. In 2013, the plaintiff commenced this negligence action seeking compensatory damages for personal injuries he sustained as a result of a motor vehicle collision that occurred on May 19, 2011. In his amended complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he was operating his vehicle behind the defendant's dump truck when the defendant suddenly stopped and began driving his truck in reverse, colliding with the plaintiff's vehicle and pushing it several feet. The plaintiff further alleged that, as a result of the defendant's negligence, he sustained, inter alia, knee and hip injuries and a core muscle injury in his abdomen that required surgery.[1]In his answer, the defendant admitted that he acted negligently, but left the plaintiff to his proof with regard to the issue of causation.

         Prior to trial, the defendant disclosed Calum McRae, a biomechanical engineer, as an expert witness. Because McRae would be unavailable to testify at trial, the parties conducted a videotaped deposition of him on July 24, 2015. The plaintiff did not object to McRae being considered an expert in the field of biomechanics. During his direct examination, McRae explained that bio-mechanical engineers use fundamental principles of physics and engineering to determine the amount of force necessary to cause certain kinds of injuries and whether a particular situation generated that level of force. McRae testified that, after reviewing a multitude of documents relevant to the plaintiff's injuries and the collision, [2] he was able to determine that the collision caused the plaintiff to experience, at the very most, a g-force of 2.3, slightly less than the force a person would experience from ‘‘sitting down quickly'' in a chair. McRae admitted, however, that he was not qualified to contest the accuracy of the diagnoses of the plaintiff's injuries. The defendant's counsel then asked: ‘‘[B]ased upon a reasonable degree of scientific and biomechanical certainty, was the motor vehicle accident in question here today the cause of the [p]laintiff's injuries?'' Over the plaintiff's objection, McRae answered: ‘‘No, sir, it was not.'' During cross-examination, McRae admitted that he was not a medical doctor and did not have experience ...


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