MISSISSIPPI – Expert Witnesses – Required or Not?

Mississippi  Court  of  Appeals:  an  expert  witness  is  not  required  to  prove  negligence where laymen can observe and understand the negligence as a matter of common sense and practical experience.  If it seems our cases are being overrun by expert witnesses, here the appeals court slowed the conquest in a case involving an automobile mechanic in the restoration of an antique truck.

Russell Gill v. Professional Auto Collision

Unhappy with the restoration of his antique Chevrolet truck, Russell Gill sued William Webb and Professional Auto Collision.  Asserting contract and tort claims, Gill complained about the quality of the paint job.  Questions of fact existed in the trial record over the subject of preparation work required for the restoration.  Nevertheless, the trial court entered summary judgment for Professional Auto on the ground that Gill did not advance an expert witness.

Professional Auto argued that “if an alleged negligent act was committed in the performance of professional services or occupational skills, the plaintiff must present expert testimony to establish the standard of care.”  The defendant insisted that the plaintiff prove by expert testimony what a reasonably prudent professional would have done or not done under the circumstances. Gill, however, argued that an expert was not necessary “for causation when the defendant admits that the job itself was in fact defective.”  Relying on a medical negligence case involving statute of limitations, Chitty vs. Terracina, 16 So. 3d 774 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009), the circuit court agreed with the lower court’s entry of summary judgment.

The Mississippi Court of Appeals disagreed.  The circuit court had gone too far in stretching the rationale from a medical malpractice statute of limitations case to fit a negligence claim against automobile mechanics.  Experts are not required in all cases; such as “where a layman can observe and understand the negligence as a matter of common sense and practical experience.” Palmer v. Infirmary Benev. Ass’n, 656 So. 2d 790, 795 (Miss. 1995).  The court cited Lovett v. Bradford, 676 So. 2d 893, 895 (Miss. 1996) for the proposition that, for example, insurance  salesmen are not in a profession that requires expert testimony to prove  malpractice.  “The circuit court’s broad ruling that the lack of an expert witness forecloses all claims at this early juncture is at best premature.”

Finally, the appeals court pointed to a genuine issue of material fact in the record.  There was conflicting evidence over the degree of preparation of the antique truck.  That dispute  impacted whether a breach of duty had occurred.  In summary, “expert testimony may not be required here if ‘a layman can observe and understand the negligence as a matter  of  common sense and practical experience.’” Palmer, 656 So. 2d at 795. The appeals court reversed and remanded.

Read the full opinion here:  Russell Gill v. Professional Auto Collision, In the Court of Appeals of the State of Mississippi, No. 2017-CA-01490-COA (06/01/2017)

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