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Optometrist Called as Visual Perception Expert Witness in Fatal Accident Lawsuit

A federal judge in Pennsylvania has approved the use of an optometrist called as an expert witness in a negligence case that arose from a fatal motor vehicle accident, but has expressly limited the extent to which she is able to speak about the case.  Citing the Federal Rules of Evidence, the judge warned attorneys not to allow the optometrist to speak beyond her field of expertise or make factual conclusions about the scene of the accident.

Optometrist to Testify as Expert Witness in Car Accident Lawsuit

In the early morning hours of September 4th, 2012, Zachary Edwards was driving a vehicle owned by his employer, R.J. Skelding of Allentown, PA, when he struck and killed Li Zhen, a Chinese national visiting America.  Zhen was a pedestrian walking along Pennsylvania State Route 8009 when Edwards’s vehicle made contact with her.  Her estate, represented by Philadelphia attorney Bruce Dolfman, filed a lawsuit against R.J. Skelding and Edwards seeking an undisclosed amount, alleging Edwards’s negligence behind the wheel caused Zhen’s death.

The defendants submitted Dr. Ellie Frances, an optometrist, as an expert witness in visual and human factors that influenced Edwards’s ability to see Zhen at the time the accident occurred.  According to Dr. Francis’s proposed testimony, a number of visual and environmental factors present at the time of the accident combined to negatively influence Edwards’s visibility, which may have prevented him from seeing Zhen in the pre-dawn light when the collision took place.

Plaintiffs Dispute use of Optometrist as Expert Witness

Mr. Dolfman protested the use of Frances as an expert witness, arguing that reconstructing the scene of an accident was beyond her area of expertise.  According to Dolfman, the testimony from the defendant’s optometrist would unfairly prejudice the jury by confusing them about the nature of Frances’s expertise. The plaintiff expressed concern that jurors could easily assume Frances had expert knowledge of reconstructing situations like the one Edwards found himself in, which would inflate the value of her expert opinion.

Judge Allows Optometrist Expert Witness Testimony

U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed to allow Dr. Frances to offer her visual and perception testimony, but cautioned defendants from asking her to opine on the sequence of events that led to the accident.  Rice found that the defendants’ expert witness had satisfied the standards of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which require an expert demonstrate she has scientific or specialized knowledge and has built her testimony on sufficient data that has been analyzed and collected using sound methodology.

Rice wrote, “Dr. Francis has outlined an acceptable methodology for her conclusions. She reviewed the lighting conditions, weather conditions, medical records, police reports, expert reports, and Edwards’ deposition testimony. She then applied those factors to the physiological process of perception and gave her opinion as to how quickly objects could be perceived under the reported conditions.”  Taken together with her background in visual perception, Rice determined that Dr. Frances could assist the jurors by explaining how the defendant and the victim perceived each other at the time of the accident.  Judge Rice pointed out that jurors may not be able to intuitively understand what each party was able to see when the collision occurred, and Dr. Frances’s expertise could shed light on the situation.

Optometrist Expert Testimony Limited at Trial

While Judge Rice welcomed Dr. Frances’s expert testimony on visual perception and reaction time given the environmental factors, weather conditions, lighting, and other contributors to the collision, he strictly forbade her from testifying about anything that could confuse jurors.  Specifically, Judge Rice told defendants that Dr. Frances could not testify about Edwards’ eye disorder or reconstruct the accident in front of the jury.  Dr. Frances is not a medical expert or an accident reconstruction expert, and, as such, will not be able to provide an opinion on either aspect of the collision.