Stedman v. Cooper Re-examines Tencer Testimony

Another case was decided in the Washington Court of Appeals late last year regarding the testimony of Dr. Allan Tencer.  The disputes between plaintiffs and defendants in personal injury cases over Dr. Tencer’s testimony are no stranger to trial courts and appellate courts in the state of Washington.

The general dispute goes like this: First, there is a plaintiff who has been injured in some way.  It is usually an automobile accident, but presumably it could be another type of injury that involves colliding forces.  At trial, the defense will try to introduce the expert testimony of Dr. Tencer, who is a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Washington.  Dr. Tencer’s testimony consists of analysis of the various speeds, forces, and accelerations occurring in the collision.  The testimony then provides a “G-force” that the plaintiff underwent in the collision.  Then, Dr. Tencer will conclude with an opinion that, at the level of “G-force” acting on that plaintiff at the time of the collision, the type or severity of the injury alleged by that plaintiff would have been impossible.

When it comes to admission of evidence at trial, the trial judge has wide latitude to determine what is allowed and what is inadmissible for the jury to hear.  If evidence is not legally relevant, the evidence is kept out of the trial.  In this instance, the defense argues that the expert testimony is relevant because it opines about the typical types of forces and the impact of the collision in question.  On the other hand, the plaintiff argues that Dr. Tencer’s testimony does not reflect an opinion about what actually happened to this plaintiff, much like the plaintiff’s doctor’s opinion, for example, would tell the jury about what actually happened, rather than what might have happened.

Because both sides in this hypothetical have strong arguments for and against admissibility of this evidence, trial judges have unsurprisingly come down both ways on the question.  This most recent case is entitled Stedman v. Cooper (292 P.3d 764 (2012)).  In Stedman, the trial judge held that the testimony was inadmissible and excluded it from trial.  The defendant appealed.  The appellate court affirmed that the trial court did not err in excluding the testimony.  Therefore, for our firm and other firms that represent plaintiffs like this, Stedman is a victory of sorts.

However, because the trial judges have wide latitude on this question, the Stedman court intimated that if the trial judge had come down the other way, it is possible that it might still have affirmed the decision.  So, it appears that the Plaintiffs’ battles against this type of testimony from Dr. Tencer will continue to be fought in trial courts for the foreseeable future.

(This post is intended to be educational and should not be construed as legal advice.  If you have questions or believe these issues affect you or your case, please contact an attorney.)

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