The Georgia Supreme Court recently reversed a decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals and ruled in favor of two companies sued by a woman whose brother was killed in a car wreck. In HNTB Georgia, Inc. v. Hamilton-King, 287 Ga. 641 (2010), Plant Improvement Company was the prime contractor for the widening of nearly 7 miles of Interstate 95 in South Georgia. Plant contracted with HNTB Georgia, Inc., a professional engineering firm, to design the road and bridge widening and develop a temporary traffic control plan.
On April 8, 2003, Lakeisha Nicole Hamilton-King and her brothers, Justin and Johnny, were driving north on I-95 when a vehicle heading in the same direction veered into their lane. Attempting to avoid impact, Hamilton-King veered into a concrete barrier. The three of them got out of the car, but there was no road shoulder. Unfortunately, a van travelling down the road hit them, killing Johnny and injuring his sister and brother.
The Hamiltons sued, claiming Plant and HNTB were negligent in designing the traffic control plan and in failing to provide proper lighting and signage in the work area. Their expert engineering witness, Jerome Thomas, was prepared to testify that in his opinion, they should have designed a temporary shoulder and provided night lighting. Plant and HNTB moved to exclude Thomas based on Daubert, arguing that his opinions were not based on objective criteria. The trial court agreed and excluded him on Daubert grounds. The Court of Appeals reversed.
In a unanimous ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the trial court’s decision. The Court found that the expert failed to present any evidence supporting his conclusion that bridge construction design plans lacking shoulders or lighting are inherently defective. The court instead found that “his conclusions are based entirely on his ‘engineering judgment,’ unsupported by any criteria by which the court could measure its reliability.” HNTB, 287 Ga. at 643.
The lesson of HNTB is clear. The Daubert standards applicable to experts in Georgia are alive and well. Expert witnesses in any case must be chosen wisely and it is imperative with regard to any expert that the expert be able to provide an indication of the principles and methods utilized in reaching his conclusions that can be validated against accepted, tested, or reviewed standards.