Holderbaum v. Carnival Corp.: A Look at Expert Evidence in Personal Injury Litigation in Florida

Although we associate expert testimony with complex cases involving medicine or large explosions, expert testimony can be important in virtually any type of case, as long as the testimony will provide a jury with useful information that they may not possibly understand in the absence of expert guidance. For instance, expert testimony is used in many personal injury cases, and not only for assessing the nature of a plaintiff’s injury. Indeed, experts are also often enlisted to provide testimony regarding the circumstances of one’s injury. This sort of expert testimony was the subject of Holderbaum v. Carnival Corp., a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Holderbaum arose from an injury allegedly sustained abroad a Carnival cruise ship in 2013. The plaintiff claims that as she was about to descend a staircase on the ship, her shoe got stuck in the metal “wear-strip” at the top of the stairs. As a result, she fell down the stairs and suffered an injury to her lower leg and ankle. The plaintiff alleges that the metal strip was raised and that her shoe got caught in this gap between the metal strip and the carpeting. The plaintiff retained an engineer to examine the area where the injury occurred and provide analysis of the circumstances of her fall. The expert provided a report, and Carnival, the defendant, moved to exclude the expert evidence.

The overwhelming majority of judges and jurors are not scientists, and therefore expert testimony is often useful for properly assessing the facts of any given case. That said, expert testimony is not always useful and can be prejudicial to a party, given the heightened weight that a juror is likely to give to the testimony of a purported expert. Accordingly, courts must occasionally exclude testimony that is not otherwise relevant or reliable. The standards for the admission of expert testimony in federal courts are outlined in Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. In simple terms, expert testimony will be allowed as long as the purported expert is qualified to testify competently, the methods employed by the expert are reliable, and the testimony is inclined to help the trier of fact.

Carnival mounted several arguments against the introduction of the expert’s evidence, most of which were summarily rejected by the magistrate judge. However, the magistrate judge did recommend that the expert be precluded from testifying about several subjects. First, an expert can only provide testimony that is grounded in science, not speculation. Here, the court determined that the expert was speculating when he determined that the plaintiff’s body movements were indicative of a trip rather than a slip, since the expert had not actually inquired into the plaintiff’s medical records, and that the gap must have been the reason the plaintiff fell because the plaintiff had ascended the staircase without issue, since he had used no science to reach this conclusion. Similarly, the magistrate judge reasoned that the expert’s statement opining that the plaintiff would likely not had fallen had a warning been posted was also inadmissible. This statement, like those mentioned before, was not grounded in any scientific reasoning and thus not properly admissible as expert evidence. Finally, the magistrate judge recommended that several paragraphs of the report, which simply provided background statistics on falls, were not admissible because there was no reasonable connection between these general statistics and the particular fall at issue. These issues notwithstanding, the magistrate recommended that the remainder of the report be admitted and its findings presented to the jury.

Although expert evidence is often scrutinized for reliability and relevance, incorporating it into your case can be incredibly useful. Indeed, the jury in this case will likely benefit from having an expert describe how the gap in the floor was inclined to cause a fall, adding authority to the plaintiff’s case. Knowing what expert evidence would be useful to a particular case and crafting it to withstand judicial scrutiny, however, can be a demanding undertaking and one that is often benefited by the assistance of experienced counsel. The South Florida personal injury attorneys at Frankl Kominsky Injury Lawyers have represented many injured Floridians and are experienced in the nuances of the law regarding expert evidence. If you’ve recently been injured as a result of possible negligence and are curious about your legal options, feel free to contact us for a free case consultation.

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