Supreme Court Rules for Defendants in Bizarre Case Regarding the Necessity of Expert Testimony

Defendant Nathan Widener was a truck driver employed by United Transportation, Inc. (“UTI”). His brother-in-law, Roby Cowart, had fallen on hard times. Mr. Cowart was unemployed, had no money, and had been living out of his car. Widener and his wife had been feeding and clothing him. Mr. Cowart suffered from a number of health problems, including esophagitis caused by gastric acid coming into contact with his esophagus. As a result, Cowart experienced oozing of blood in his throat and it was not unusual for him to cough up small amounts of blood.

Widener was planning to leave for a delivery trip to Ohio when Cowart asked if he could come along. Cowart stated that he felt good although Widener noticed him coughing up small amounts of blood. As the two men traveled north on Interstate 75 near the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Cowart told Widener that his “throat was closing in on him” and that he was spitting up blood. Widener told Cowart that he looked ill, but Cowart said he was feeling fine, that he wanted to lay down in the sleeper compartment, and not to bother him. Cowart then went into the sleeper compartment, closed the curtain separating it from the front of the cab, laid down in the bottom bunk and died.

Widener noticed that Cowart was dead approximately 3 hours later when he began to smell an extremely foul odor from the sleeper cab. He pulled over at a truck stop and called his wife, Cowart’s sister, who was a nurse, and asked her what he should do. She told him to check and see if Cowart was alive. Widener confirmed that Cowart had no pulse and was not breathing and was dead. Widener then returned to the driver’s seat and continued on his route to Ohio. He later explained that he was concerned about how his brother-in-law’s dead body would get back to Georgia if he did not bring it with him in the truck when he returned home.

In Ohio, Widener was involved in a minor collision at a rest stop and an Ohio Patrol Officer noticed that Widener was nervous and kept glancing toward the sleeper compartment. The officer asked him to open it, telling him jokingly that she needed “to make sure he didn’t have any dead bodies back there.” Widener responded, “Well, my brother-in-law is back there, but I don’t think he is dead.” The officer discovered the body, which was in fact dead, and Cowart was taken to a morgue at a local hospital.

The coroner who examined the body concluded that Cowart’s death likely resulted from natural causes and that no autopsy would be performed unless requested. Cowart’s sister did not request an autopsy and the cause of death was listed as “exsanguination” after two hours of “gastrointestinal hemorrhage” resulting from years of peptic ulcer disease. The two hour figure was an approximation based on when Widener said he last saw Cowart alive and the coroner’s estimate of how long Cowart had been dead when he examined the body. The coroner testified that a person hemorrhaging internally can be asleep and not realize what is happening.

Cowart’s estate filed a wrongful death suit against Widener, UTI and UTI’s insurance carrier under the theory that Widener negligently or intentionally deprived Cowart of necessary medical attention thereby causing his death and that UTI was vicariously liable for Widener’s actions. The trial court granted summary judgment to all of the defendants and the Court of Appeals agreed.

The Supreme Court’s opinion deals with the necessity of expert testimony and establishes that in a case involving common knowledge and experience there is no requirement that expert testimony must be produced by a plaintiff in order to prevail at trial. However, where “medical questions” relating to causation are involved, plaintiffs must come forward with expert evidence to survive a defense motion for summary judgment.

The majority of the Supreme Court also explained what it meant by a “medical question.” A “medical question” describes situations where the existence of a causal link between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injuries cannot be determined from common knowledge and experience and instead requires the assistance of experts with specialized medical knowledge. In common language, a “medical” question is any question “of or connected with the practice or study of medicine.”

This does not mean that any issue involving medicine requires expert testimony. Most medical questions relating to causation are perfectly capable, according to the Court, of resolution by ordinary people using their common knowledge and experience without the need for expert testimony. For example, in a wrongful death case based on the theory that the defendant proximately caused the decedent’s death by stabbing her in the gut, the plaintiff is not required, in response to a motion for summary judgment, to come forward with expert testimony explaining in medical terms precisely how the wound lead to her death. However, where the link between a defendant’s actions and the plaintiff’s injury is beyond common knowledge and experience, such as in a toxic tort case, expert testimony is necessary.

The Supreme Court found that this was such a case and that expert testimony was necessary to provide evidence that Widener caused Cowart’s death by failing to render aid or seek assistance for Cowart. The Court saw no evidence in the record indicating that Widener should have realized that there was anything unusual about Cowart until he smelled the foul odor coming from his sleeper cab.

Three Judges dissented from this opinion and found that the deposition testimony of Widener itself presented triable issues of material fact for a jury. The dissent described Widener’s actions in continuing to drive while his brother-in-law was sick as “Ohio or bust.”

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About the Author

Michael Rust graduated from Emory University in 1980 and Emory University School of Law in 1983 where he was Notes and Comments editor of the Emory Law Journal (Law Review). Since that time, he has maintained an active trial practice in the state of Georgia both in State and Federal Courts. Mr. Rust teaches litigation as part of Emory University School of Law’s annual Trial Practice Program. He has received AV rating from Martindale Hubble, the highest rating afforded to lawyers by their peers.