Oregon Court of Appeals Rules on Biomechanical Testimony

Posted on Jul 24, 2015

Court of Appeals Rules on Biomechanical Expert Testimony

In two decisions issued on the same day, the Court of Appeals found that in certain circumstances, an expert witness could rely upon biomechanical analysis and testify whether not a certain type of auto collision could actually cause injury.

The case involved a low speed rear end collision. The defense expert reviewed photographs of the property damage and repair estimates to conclude that the forces exacted upon the Plaintiff were not sufficient to cause an injury. The Plaintiff called her own expert, who had not only reviewed damage estimates and photographs, but also inspected the vehicle and determined that there was additional damage. The Plaintiff’s expert explained that the forces were more significant than those estimated by the Defense expert, and that the forces were enough to cause an injury.

The Plaintiff made several arguments as to why Defense expert could not testify about biomechanical analysis. First, this expert was not a licensed engineer. Second, the Plaintiff argued that the methods this expert applied were not scientifically valid, and therefore could not be admitted into evidence. Third, Plaintiff argued that there was not enough evidence for this expert witness to give an opinion.

The Court of Appeals was not convinced, and essentially found that the witness, though not a licensed engineer, had sufficient background and education to give an opinion. The Court also found that there was enough information for the expert to base his opinion upon in concluding there was no potential for injury from this collision. Finally, the Court found there was enough information for the expert to base this opinion upon.

Biomechanical analysis involves an evaluation of how the body responds to certain forces. Essentially, biomechanist claims to treat the human body as a machine, and apply the rules of physics to see whether or not certain forces will cause injury to that machine. Although this kind of analysis is useful in some settings, there is abuse. In our experience, there are a lot of problems with this kind of expert testimony.

First, some biomechanical engineers do not really have an accurate understanding of the forces involved in a collision. There are so many variables involved, including the direction and nature of the force and the position of the person absorbing the force in the collision. Although a competent engineer can gather a lot of good information from accident reports and photos, as well as measurements, often times, there is no way to know exactly all the variables that play leading up to a car collision.

Second, many of the studies that these experts rely upon are not well designed, and have been criticized by other experts. For example, one often cited study involves engineers who subjected themselves to low-speed collisions in a controlled environment. Unfortunately, all of those engineers were men, with it a tight age range, and were well aware that they would be subjected to a 5 mile an hour collision. Even more troubling was the fact that these engineers made hundreds of thousands of dollars testifying as expert witnesses for Defendants insured by State Farm Insurance.  Not only was the study biased, but it was roundly criticized for concluding that these findings could be applied to all different kinds of people who are involved in all different kinds of car collisions.

This case may be appealed further, but until then, many injured Plaintiff’s will have to contend with biomechanical engineers.

Joe Di Bartolomeo
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