Tag Archives: wrongful death

Defense Expert’s Opinion About Life Expectancy Was Properly Excluded in Washington Wrongful Death Case

Doy Coogan operated an excavation business. During his lifetime, he repaired several cars, as well as industrial equipment that the business used. To make the car and equipment repairs, Coogan purchased brakes, clutches, and other asbestos-containing parts from local NAPA stores.

Coogan was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a disease that has only known cause: asbestos exposure. The cancer metastasized and Coogan’s condition deteriorated. After enduring severe pain as his organs progressively shut down, he died at the age of 67.

Coogan’s estate and his wife sued NAPA for wrongful death. The lawsuit was based on evidence that NAPA auto parts were the only source of Coogan’s asbestos exposure. After a 12-week trial, the jury found in favor of Coogan’s estate and awarded $81.5 million in damages. The verdict included $20 million for Coogan’s wife to compensate her for loss of consortium. The trial court denied a motion to overturn that verdict. 

The Washington Court of Appeals remanded the case for a new trial on damages. The court ruled that NAPA should have been allowed to introduce expert testimony regarding Coogan’s life expectancy if he had not been exposed to asbestos. It also concluded that the verdict was excessive because it “shocked the conscience.” 

The Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state Constitution places greater weight on the jury’s role in awarding damages than the court of appeals recognized. The supreme court concluded that the verdict was not unjust simply because it was substantial. In the absence of “some malign influence or egregious impropriety” that might have affected the jury’s verdict, the court of appeals had no basis for concluding that the verdict was the product of passion or prejudice. In Washington, the size of the verdict alone is not cause for substituting the court’s view of appropriate damages for the jury’s opinion.

Expert Testimony Regarding Life Expectancy

The court of appeals also concluded that the trial court erred by excluding the testimony proffered by one of NAPA’s expert witnesses. The appellate court’s remand for a new trial was based on the exclusion of that expert testimony.

The damages claim, including the loss of consortium claim, was premised on actuarial tables showing that a 67-year-old man has an average life expectancy of 15 years.  NAPA wanted to introduce the expert testimony of Dr. Gary Schuster that Coogan had a shorter life expectancy. Dr. Schuster is a specialist in internal medicine.

Dr. Schuster would have testified that Coogan had advanced cirrhosis of the liver due to a history of heavy alcohol use. In Dr. Schuster’s opinion, Coogan’s life expectancy was only 5 years.

The trial court excluded Dr. Schuster’s proposed testimony, finding it to be of “minimal probative value.” The court of appeals concluded that even if the probative value of Dr. Schuster’s opinion was minimal, it was admissible because it was probative of a central issue in the case: Coogan’s life expectancy.

Speculative Opinion Testimony

The Washington Supreme Court concluded that the trial court properly exercised its discretion in excluding Dr. Schuster’s testimony as “overly speculative.” Dr. Schuster based his opinion that Coogan suffered from cirrhosis (a stage 3 level of liver disease) on the fact that Coogan had ascites, or fluid buildup, around his liver and spleen. Dr. Schuster believed that ascites is indicative of cirrhosis because, in its absence, a patient is only at stage 2.

Schuster assumed that liver disease caused the fluid buildup. Coogan’s physicians, on the other hand, attributed the ascites to his mesothelioma. Dr. Schuster admitted that Coogan’s cancer was “a significant source” of the fluid buildup. He also admitted that there is no way to separate ascites caused by mesothelioma from ascites caused by liver disease. He acknowledged that whether liver disease caused zero percent or twelve percent or any specific percentage of the ascites was impossible to determine.

While Dr. Schuster opined that if Coogan’s enlarged spleen and large portal veins were indicative of cirrhosis, he admitted that those symptoms alone, in the absence of ascites, would not support a diagnosis of cirrhosis. Since he did not know the cause of the ascites, he could only speculate that the other symptoms supported a diagnosis of cirrhosis.

At Coogan’s age, a diagnosis of stage 2 liver disease would not have shorted his life expectancy. Dr. Schuster’s opinion that Coogan had only a 5-year life expectancy was dependent upon his assumption that Coogan had reached stage 3. While it is true that Coogan might have had cirrhosis, an expert opinion has little probative value when it is based on facts that might be true. It did not become more probative simply because it was rendered by an expert. Experts must base opinions on facts that are true or that the jury could reasonably believe to be true, not on speculation about facts that cannot be established.

The supreme court also concluded that the trial court was entitled to exclude Dr. Schuster’s opinion on the ground that it was more prejudicial than probative. Evidence that Coogan was a hard drinker might affect a jury’s view of Coogan for reasons that relate to his character. The evidence was only relevant to life expectancy.  To the extent that Coogan’s character was an issue in the case, it wasn’t an issue that could be proved by a doctor’s speculative testimony about the condition of his liver.

Expert Testimony Properly Excluded

The supreme court concluded that the court of appeals erred by substituting its judgment for the trial court’s reasoned decision. While the court of appeals decided that prejudice could have been avoided by barring any reference to Coogan’s alcohol consumption, the trial court’s disagreement with that assessment was not unreasonable. It is difficult to believe that some jurors, at least, would not associate cirrhosis with heavy drinking. 

In any event, it does not matter that the court of appeals would have admitted the evidence because admissibility must be decided by the trial court. The only question for the reviewing court is whether the trial court’s decision to bar the evidence was reasonable. The supreme court concluded that the decision was reasonable and that it should therefore have been affirmed.

Forensic Experts Duel in Plane Crash Wrongful Death Suit

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by family of a man killed when Continental Airlines Connection Flight 3407 crashed into his home began last week, and will feature important expert witness testimony regarding how much the deceased suffered between the accident and his death. Flight 3407 crashed on February 12, 2009 into a house in Clarence Center, New York killing all 49 passengers and Douglas C. Wielinksi, who occupied the Clarence Center residence. Five years after the accident, only Mr. Wielinski’s case remains unsettled, and family members will turn to medical expert witnesses in an effort to prove they are due substantial damages for the victim’s pain and suffering after the crash.

Plaintiffs Allege Victim Was Alive After Plane Crash

Family of Mr. Wielinski filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Continental Airlines and Colgan Air, which owned and operated the plane, seeking compensatory damages for the 61-year-old’s wrongful death and pain and suffering. The timing of Mr. Wielinski’s death is important to the lawsuit because if family members can prove that he was alive between the time that Flight 3407 crashed and the time the resulting fire would have proven fatal, then they are entitled to significantly more damages for pain and suffering. The legal system has long recognized that even fleeting moments between an accident and death can warrant pain and suffering damages to wrongful death plaintiffs if the victim likely suffered pain or fear before succumbing to injuries.

In the case of Mr. Wielinksi, plaintiffs from his surviving family prepared three forensic expert witnesses to argue that the condition of the deceased’s body indicated he was not killed immediately as the airlines allege. The three doctors are all experts in forensic pathology:

  • Dr. Jonrika Malone:  Dr. Malone, who conducted Wielinksi’s autopsy when she was with the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office in 2009, noted that he had suffered multiple blunt force trauma to his chest and ribs, which led to his death. However, Dr. Malone, now a forensic pathology consultant in Alabama, agreed to testify on behalf of the Wielinski’s that the noted trauma did not kill Douglas or render him unconscious. Based on skull fragmentation, Dr. Malone argues that Wielinski was alive after the crash and burned to death by the resulting fire – causing him to suffer significant pain.
  • Dr. William R. Anderson: Dr. Anderson is a forensic pathologist and former medical examiner with over 6,000 autopsies under his belt, and he was hired by the Wielinski’s to conduct a medical review in order to testify that in his expert opinion Douglas was alive after 3407 crashed.  Although Dr. Anderson could not tell how long Wielinski lived after the crash due to a lack of toxicology results, he prepared testimony to say that the fluid in Wielinski’s lungs indicates that his heart was beating while his house burned. Anderson supported his opinion by pointing out that there is no evidence to suggest that Wielinski was instantly killed by the plane because his injuries were not indicative of severe enough trauma.
  • Dr. Joseph L Burton: Dr. Burton is another forensic medical expert who examined Wielinski’s cause of death and determined that tissue of his lungs indicated they were filled with fluid – indicating that Douglas was alive and breathing for a period of time between 3407’s crash and his death.

All three of the Wielinski family expert witnesses were approved by New York State Supreme Court Justice Frederick Marshall, and will be allowed to testify during the wrongful death trial.

Airlines Counter with Forensic Expert Witness

Continental Airlines and Colgan Air have hired Dr. James R. Gill as a medical expert witness to testify in support of Wielinski’s autopsy which lists his death as immediate. Dr. Gill disputed the finding that Wielinski’s lungs were filled with fluid because the condition was not noted in the autopsy report, and there was no evidence of soot in his respiratory system – which is a common symptom among victims of fire. Dr. Gill agrees with the medical examiner’s report of Wielinski’s death, and has prepared expert medical testimony that Douglas died immediately from blunt force trauma when 3407 crashed.

Attorneys for the Wielinski’s unsuccessfully tried to keep Gill from testifying by arguing he had not based his analysis on scientific methods, but Judge Marshall allowed the defense to present Gill by saying the jury could decide which party’s expert has a better supported position. The trial began last week.