Illinois Law Requires That Expert Trial Testimony Not Be Speculative

It is sometimes overlooked in trial practice or not given enough emphasis that the conduct of a defendant must be proved to have proximately caused the injuries or damages claimed in the pleadings. Also, expert testimony must meet the rules of scientific reliability. 

For example, Gary McCann, an engineer for more than 17 years for the defendant, Illinois Central Railroad, sued the railroad in a 4-count complaint. He claimed damages for carpal tunnel syndrome caused by the railroad’s inadequate and defective cab seats, rough track, oversized ballast and defective switches.

In this case, McCann claimed negligence under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA), 45 U.S.C. §51 et seq.; negligence per se; violations of the Locomotive Inspection Act, 49 U.S.C. §20701; and negligence for causing his carpal tunnel syndrome.

During the course of discovery, McCann offered deposition testimony of two doctors to prove that his work as an engineer caused his carpal tunnel syndrome. One of those doctors also told McCann that he needed to lose as much as 170 lbs. and stop smoking, but did not treat him for carpal tunnel. Another expert, who was board certified as an industrial ergonomist, spoke to McCann only on the phone and read his medical records, but he never gave an opinion that the railroad caused his carpal tunnel syndrome.

Illinois Central filed a motion to bar both the medical doctor and the ergonomist because their opinions were speculative, lacked scientific methodology and reliability. The defendant also moved for summary judgment because of lack of proof of causation between the railroad work and carpal tunnel syndrome. This case was filed in federal court.

The first issue considered by the district court judge was Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence, which governs the admissibility of expert testimony in federal court. The requirements are that an expert must be qualified and the subject matter of the expert’s testimony must consist of specialized knowledge that would be helpful or essential to the fact finder in deciding the case. Further, the offered expert’s opinion must be:  (1) based upon sufficient facts or data; (2) the product of reliable procedures or methods; and (3) applied reliability to the facts of the case.  Fed.R.Evid. 702.

The federal district court judge in this case turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, which emphasized that as a gatekeeper, the court must ensure that any and all scientific testimony or evidence admitted is not only relevant, but reliable. In this case, the testimony of the physician, Dr. George Schoedinger, as to causation was not based on any testing or review of scientific data, but was rather based upon assumptions and speculation. Dr. Schoedinger did not know much of anything about the plaintiff’s job and his tests; also, there was no factual basis for concluding that the plaintiff’s neck problems were caused by his work for Illinois Central. 

Dr. Schoedinger did not discuss McCann’s non-work activities in order to eliminate them as causes of his condition. This was important because the plaintiff had admitted that he first had neck pain after riding his motorcycle. The court in this case agreed that Dr. Schoedinger did not use a methodology sufficient to meet the liability prong of the Daubert analysis. (Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).)  The district court judge also noted that the doctor did not reveal how he knew what was required of a railroad engineer or conductor, stating that “knowledge of the duties of a railroad engineer or conductor is not part of ordinary medical training.” Accordingly, the court agreed with Illinois Central that Dr. Schoedinger could not present admissible expert testimony on the issue of causation. 

As to the other expert that McCann offered, it was shown in his testimony that he had little or no knowledge regarding the actual “risk factors” that McCann was exposed to and, instead, based his report and testimony on generalized knowledge regarding the railroad industry and specific knowledge about work sites where McCann did not work. The industrial ergonomist’s testimony was also found to be insufficient because it was speculative. In addition, it was found that the ergonomic expert’s opinions were not sufficiently reliable and his opinions were not subjected to scientific method and consisted mainly of unsupported conclusions. 

Therefore, the district court found that the plaintiff McCann had failed to produce any admissible evidence to support a necessary element of his FELA claim and summary judgment was warranted. 

McCann v. Illinois Central Railroad Co., 711 F.Supp.2d 861 (C.D.Ill. 2010).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling work injury cases, construction site injury cases, automobile accident cases and medical malpractice cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Glenview, Skokie, Wheeling, Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Elk Grove Village, Northlake, Franklin Park, Forest Park, Burbank, Alsip, Blue Island, Oak Lawn, Calumet Park, Chicago (Pullman, Lake Calumet, East Side, Chatham, Lawndale, Roscoe Village, Jefferson Park, Edgebrook) and Lincolnwood, Ill.

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