Rodolfo Prieto was thrown from a wheelchair while being transported in an ambulance from a dialysis center to his assisted living facility. He died a few months later. Bianca Prieto sued the dialysis center, Total Renal Care, for negligence. She alleged that Total Renal Care had a duty to follow Rodolfo’s doctor’s orders, which required Rodolfo to be transported by stretcher.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida. Bianca and Total Renal Care each moved to exclude testimony of the other party’s expert witnesses. Both parties also moved for summary judgment. The District Court judge denied all motions.
Facts of the Case
Rodolfo was 76 at the time of his death. His leg had been amputated in 2015. His treating nephrologist ordered that Rodolfo be transported to and from dialysis treatment on a stretcher.
In January 2016, American Services Company transported Rodolfo to Total Renal Care on a stretcher. He left the center in a wheelchair. American Services Company left him in the wheelchair during his transportation to his assisted living facility. During that drive, the transportation van came to an abrupt stop, throwing Rodolfo from the wheelchair.
Bianca contended that Total Renal Care had a duty to ensure that Rodolfo was transported to and from their dialysis treatment center via a stretcher. She further contended that the van’s abrupt stop would not have caused Rodolfo’s death if he had been in a stretcher rather than a wheelchair.
Total Renal Care argued that American Services Company was to blame because the company failed to secure Rodolfo to the wheelchair. According to Total Renal Care, the transportation company’s negligence was a superseding cause of Rodolfo’s injuries.
Bianca filed a Daubert motion to exclude the testimony of Charles Benedict, an accident reconstruction expert. In Benedict’s opinion, Rodolfo would have sustained the same or worse injuries if he had been transported in a stretcher rather than a wheelchair. Benedict concluded that Rodolfo’s injuries were caused by the driver’s failure to secure him to his wheelchair with a seatbelt.
The Daubert decision requires a trial judge to decide whether an expert is qualified to render the proffered opinion, whether the expert’s testimony would be helpful to the jury, and whether the expert’s opinion is reliable. Reliability is measured by whether the expert formed the opinion by applying a sound methodology to sufficient facts.
In some cases, at least, the Eleventh Circuit tests reliability by examining “1) whether the expert’s theory can be and has been tested; 2) whether the theory has been subjected to peer review and publication; 3) the known or potential rate of error of the particular scientific technique; and 4) whether the technique is generally accepted in the scientific community.”
Bianca contended that Benedict’s opinion was unreliable because it was not based on testing or on any peer-reviewed methodology that was subject to a known error rate. Bianca also challenged Benedict’s qualifications to render the opinion.
The court noted that an expert only needs to be “minimally qualified” and that the qualification standard is “not stringent.” Benedict’s education and experience were sufficient to meet that forgiving standard. The court also concluded that his testimony could help the jury decide the core issue: whether Rodolfo’s injuries were caused by Total Renal Care or by American Service Company.
Benedict considered Rodolfo’s medical records, reviewed deposition transcripts, and “used technical data to make comparisons.” Based on that information, Benedict concluded that the driver failed to restrain Rodolfo properly when the driver picked him up in a wheelchair and that the driver’s failure caused Rodolfo’s injuries. Benedict’s opinion was based on adequate facts
Although the court did not say so, the kind of opinion that Benedict ventured is probably not the sort of science-based opinion that must depend upon an accepted and tested theory with a known error rate. Rather than engaging in the microscopic examination of methodology that some judges favor, the court simply noted that “nothing suggests that the process by which Mr. Benedict formed his opinions is unreliable.” The court therefore denied the motion to exclude his testimony.
Bianca attached the affidavit of Erika Hall, an Adult Nurse Practitioner, to her complaint. The affidavit opined that Rodolfo would not have been injured if Total Renal Care had sent him home the same way he arrived — in “a properly restrained stretcher” rather than a wheelchair.
Total Renal Care moved to strike Hall as an expert witness because she was not timely disclosed as an expert, as required by the court’s scheduling order. Hall was disclosed on Biana’s witness list and was belatedly designated as an expert witness.
Total Renal Care took Hall’s deposition and cross-examined her about her opinion testimony. Total Renal Care received her expert affidavit when it was served with the complaint. Concluding that Hall’s status as an expert witness was no surprise to Total Renal Care, the court decided that excluding her testimony would be an unjust response to a harmless violation of the scheduling order.