Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Federal Judge Rules That Expert Testimony is Required to Assert That Smoking Impacts Life Expectancy


A number of notable civil litigation issues were reviewed by Chief District Judge Mark R. Hornak of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in the case of Kirkpatrick v. Geico, No. 2:17-cv-00236 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 8, 2019).  

According to the Opinion, this matter arose out of a motor vehicle accident after which the Plaintiff sued Geico on a UIM claim. The case proceeded to trial and the jury entered the verdict in favor of the Plaintiff.  After the trial, Geico filed a Motion for Relief from a Judgment or, Alternatively, for a New Trial.  In the end, the court denied that motion.  

The carrier raised several issues in its post-trial motion.  One of the issues raised was an argument that the Plaintiffs’ substantial award for past and future earnings was not supported by the evidence. 

According to the Opinion the Plaintiff presented an expert in support of the claims as well as provided his own testimony regarding his work in his car restoration business, as well as the testimony of his wife who managed the finances for that business.  

Geico asserted that the evidence revealed that the Plaintiff admitted that he had not yet finished or sold any cars in that business by the time of the subject accident such that any award by the jury was not based upon reliable evidence and should therefore be overturned.

The carrier argued that the lack of any profits in the business prior to the accident foreclosed any finding by the jury that the accident diminished the Plaintiff’s future earning capacity.  

The court rejected this argument by indicating that the earnings of a Plaintiff subsequent to an injury, as compared with his or her earnings at the time of the injury, are merely evidence, and not conclusive evidence, as to whether the Plaintiff’s earning capacity as been diminished by the accident.  

In his Opinion, Western District Federal Court Judge Hornak emphasized that damages for loss of earning capacity arise out of an impairment of that capacity, and not out of loss of earnings.   The court emphasized that the determination of whether there was a loss of earning capacity requires the jury to ask whether there was a loss of earning power, and of the ability to earn money.  

Stated otherwise, the question is whether the economic horizons of the injured party have been shortened because of the injuries resulting from the accident.    The court emphasized that the evidence presented at trial indicated that to his injuries, the Plaintiff was unable to work in the same capacity as he had prior to the accident.  

More specifically, the Plaintiff asserted that his ability to perform his work at the same pace that he performed prior to the accident was reduced by half due to his injuries.  He additionally testified that his inability to work to the same capacity as he did prior to the accident caused him to have less money in the business which prevented him from buying additional cars to restore.  

Overall, the court found that the jury had sufficient evidence from which to conclude that the Plaintiff’s injuries from the accident led to a shorter economic horizon for the Plaintiff’s business.  

On another issue, the Defendant carrier objected to the court’s preclusion of any reference to the Plaintiff’s smoking habit on the grounds that such evidence was unfairly prejudicial.  The Defendant asserted that this ruling was in error because the jury should have been able to consider the Plaintiff’s smoking habits when they contemplated the Plaintiff’s personal habits and other factors in order to determine the Plaintiff’s life expectancy.  Geico argued that it is common knowledge that there is no safe level of smoking such that the jury did not need any medical testimony to properly incorporate that evidence into its deliberations.

The court rejected this argument and ruled that evidence of a smoking habit unaccompanied by any competent medical evidence that such habit reduces a particular individual’s life expectancy has little probative value.   See Op. at 10 [other citations omitted].  The court stated that, although it is common knowledge that smoking has adverse health consequences, “it is far from common knowledge what impacts smoking a pack of cigarettes a week for an unknown period of time would have on [this particular Plaintiff’s] life expectancy.”  Id. 

Given that the UIM carrier Defendant had not presented any expert testimony on this issue of the Plaintiff’s smoking habit, the court found that the risk of both prejudice and confusion from such evidence substantially outweighed any probative value of the evidence found in the Plaintiff’s social history comment with regards to his smoking to his own doctor.   As such, the court felt that it did not err in precluding any reference to the Plaintiff’s smoking habits.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK.

I send thanks to Attorney Scott Cooper of the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania office of Schmidt Kramer for bringing this case to my attention.  

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