Expert Testimony Not Needed to Help Jury Understand Everyday Lifting Experiences
On April 26, 2023, in the case Thibodaux v. Gulf Coast Tugs, Inc., a United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted a defense Motion in Limine to exclude the opinions and expert testimony of Kenneth Ronald Laughery, Jr. Ph.D., a Human Factors and Ergonomics expert. This ruling illustrates that a court can exclude expert testimony from evidence at trial if the expert does not provide technical or scientific knowledge required to assist the trier of fact.
On June 9, 2021, Nolan Thibodaux ("Plaintiff") was a Jones Act seaman working aboard M/V ELIANA M. GONDRAN, a vessel owned and operated by Gulf Coast Tugs, Inc. ("GCT"), when he injured his foot and right ankle while lifting an ice chest to load groceries onto a vessel as he had done many times before. As Plaintiff was standing on the vessel's deck, he leaned over the side of the vessel to pull a Styrofoam ice chest weighing 50 to 60 pounds from the adjacent dock. As plaintiff pulled the ice chest towards himself at chest level, he felt pain in his lower right leg. Plaintiff sued GCT for their negligence and for the unseaworthiness of the M/V ELIANA M. GONDRAN because it did not have a gangway two people could use to carry the ice chest on to the vessel.
Prior to trial, GCT moved to exclude the testimony of Plaintiff's human factors expert who would testify that GCT created an unsafe work environment by routinely asking Plaintiff to lift excessive weight and failing to train Plaintiff on when he should ask for mechanical or human help lifting. First, GCT argued that no technical or scientific knowledge was required for the jury to understand the everyday occurrence of lifting an ice chest. GCT further argued that the expert relied on erroneous information, irrelevant guidelines and inapplicable standards in formulating his opinions. Plaintiff opposed the motion claiming the expert's opinions would help the jury understand ergonomics, human factors and maritime standards.
A district court judge has discretion to admit or exclude expert testimony to ensure it is relevant and reliable. An expert must bring more to the jury than the lawyers can offer in argument. The party offering the expert's opinions must establish the opinions are relevant and reliable. The court found that lifting an ice chest – and a person's ability to lift it – are routine, ordinary occurrences within the realm of an average juror's common sense, understanding, and experience. As such, the jury did not need expert testimony or a job safety analysis to understand the task. The Court granted GCT's motion to exclude the expert's testimony because the proposed evidence was irrelevant and inadmissible.
C. Why Is This Important?
- Lifting and carrying a common object is a task within the experience of a juror for which expert testimony is not relevant.
- Working with counsel who can successfully exclude suspect expert evidence can enhance the value of your case and/or reduce the value of your opponent's case.
- Expert testimony must be reliable and relevant.