The Court of Appeals of Georgia has ruled that a contractor did not qualify as an expert witness, but may still offer testimony about the value of a property.
The Woodrums are an insured couple who suffered property damage when a large tree fell onto their roof during a thunderstorm. They went through the appraisal process with their insurer, Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company. After a disagreement over the appropriate value of the insurance claim, the Woodrums filed a lawsuit against their insurance carrier seeking payment for diminution in value.
The Woodrums claimed breach of contract and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
The couple argued that the tree fall caused cracks in the foundation of their home, which diminished the value of their property. The couple argued that the diminished value was a covered loss under their policy that was not included in their appraisal award.
During the lawsuit, the insured couple presented their contractor who had repaired their home to testify about the diminution in their property value. The contractor opined that the value of the house had decreased by 25 percent because of the cracked foundation. The insurance company filed a motion to exclude the testimony of the contractor.
The trial court granted the motion to exclude the contractor’s testimony as both an expert and a lay witness. The trial court also granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment on both claims because neither claim could stand without the excluded testimony.
The Woodrums appealed.
On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the court did not err in excluding the contractor’s testimony as an expert witness because “[his] estimation of the diminution in value of the subject property ‘was not based on any market comparisons or related methodology’” and that the insureds “failed to establish that the methodology by which [the contractor] reached his conclusions was sufficiently reliable” to qualify him as an expert witness.
The appellate court reversed the order as to the contractor giving lay witness testimony as to value because the trial court record demonstrated that the contractor had the opportunity to form a reasoned opinion about the value of the house. The court also reversed the order of summary judgment.
The appellate court noted several facts contained within the contractor’s affidavit and deposition testimony that showed that he was qualified to give an opinion about the amount the foundation damage diminished the value of the property as a lay witness.
The court noted that the contractor was licensed; was experienced in home building and remodeling; was familiar with the costs of construction and valuation of homes; had experience inspecting homes for structural integrity and giving opinions as to value; had performed repairs to the home; and had helped build an addition to the Woodrum’s home. The court noted that the contractor’s opinion as to the diminished value of the property was based upon his experience.
As a general rule, courts allow property owners to express lay opinions about the value of their own property. It is not unreasonable to extend that rule to contractors, although doing so blurs the distinction between a lay opinion and an expert opinion. The court cited the contractor’s expertise to justify the admission of his opinion.
The appellate court’s opinion seems like an end run around the Daubert standard’s requirement that experts use a “reasonable methodology.” Questions arise about the rigid application of Daubert in cases like this one, where the expert is not a scientist. The traditional rule allows expert opinions to be based on knowledge and experience. Recognizing a contractor’s expertise in estimating the reduction in property value caused by damaged would be consistent with the traditional rule, and would not inconsistent with the flexible application that courts give to Daubert when testimony is not based on science.