A recent South Carolina Supreme Court decision highlights the critical nature of expert witnesses when filing a wrongful death claim in South Carolina.
Our Greenville personal injury lawyers understand what it takes to build a case capable of winning in the courtroom. And we are dedicated to representing victims and families in wrongful death and personal injury litigation. That means we frequently work with the kind of medical experts and professional witnesses so often critical to proving a case. As we see in Graves v. CAS Medical Systems, such testimony can make or break a claim for damages.India Graves was a six-month old little girl who died while being monitored by one of CAS Medical Systems’ products. Her parents subsequently filed a product liability case against CAS Medical Systems, contending the product’s defective design failed to alert to India’s slowing heart rate and breathing.
One of three triplets born prematurely, all three girls spent the first six weeks in the hospital before being sent home with a CAS monitor. India was put in her bassinet about 2 a.m. and hooked to the monitor. But when her mother checked at 4 a.m., her sisters were fine but she was unresponsive. An autopsy revealed she died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
As an extra precaution, CAS had installed a separate system, which used a microphone to record whether the alarm sounded. The company contends the monitor reported nearly 30 episodes of heart or breathing issues and properly sounded the alarm on each occasion.
A circuit court granted CAS summary judgement after granting the company’s motion to exclude all of Graves’ expert witnesses. The Graves appealed. And, while the state’s high court acknowledged that the circuit court did err in excluding one doctor’s testimony, it still ruled the Graves were without expert testimony as to the presence of any defect in the monitor. Accordingly, the state supreme court sided with the circuit court’s dismissal of the case and upheld summary judgement on behalf of CAS.
While it may seem there should be nothing more basic than having testimony about a monitor’s defects if you are going to trial to allege a defective monitor, the law is never that simple. The education, experience and credentials of such professionals must pass muster with the court before such testimony can be given.
In this case, the Graves filed a strict liability suit attacking the computer code as a defect in design and designated three software experts to testify. However, in arriving at their conclusions, the court stated that none of the experts did much actual testing of the monitor. They agreed there was no hardware error, leaving open the possibility of either a software error or a complaint error (error of use or failure to hear the alarm).
A fourth expert witness, who was not an expert in SIDS, was designated by the Graves to testify that the infant likely could have been revived had the alarm sounded. CAS moved to exclude all witnesses as failing to meet the legal requirements to give scientific testimony under State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 515 S.E.2d 508 (1999).
The Graves filed a Rule 59(e), SCRCP motion, arguing even without expert testimony they presented enough circumstantial evidence for the case to survive, however the court disagreed.
In some cases, lack of resources available to build a case may be another reason a victim is not able to recover damages. Most reputable personal injury and wrongful death law firms are only paid if successful in recovering damages on your behalf. And these cases often require thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for the courtroom.
Experience is often the last piece of the puzzle. If the firm you choose is in over its head and just hoping to force a settlement, your chances of prevailing are generally poor.
As may have happened in this case, the appeal may not have been appropriately filed either. The court notes the Graves also sued CAS for negligence and breach of duty, however failed to include those claims on appeal. Instead, the family’s appeal focuses only on the alleged err of the court in granting summary judgement on the defective design claim, thereby abandoning their rights to appeal on the other grounds.
If you or a loved one is involved in an accident, contact Grimes Teich Anderson LLP. Call 1.800.533.6845. No Attorney Fees Until You’ve Been Paid.
Graves v. CAS Medical Systems, Justia US Law, South Carolina Supreme Court Decision, August 2012.
North Carolina Hospital Fire Highlights Risks at Home and Work, Published by Grimes Teich Anderson LLP, Nov. 13, 2012.