Tuesday, February 26, 2008

S.C. Supreme Court clarifies Baggerly decision and admission of expert testimony

In Fields v. J. Haynes Waters Builders, the state supreme court revisited the admission of expert testimony. On of the issues at stake was whether the initial inspector of the Fields’ home, was qualified to testify as an expert witness inasmuch as he failed to comply with South Carolina’s home inspection licensing requirements. This gave the Supreme Court a chance to revisit Baggerly v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 370 S.C. 362, 635 S.E.2d 97 (2006), in which the Court rejected the legislature's attempt to require certain professionals to be licensed in SC before they could offer expert testimony.

This case throws an important aspect of our decision in Baggerly into sharp focus. Baggerly properly recognizes that local licensing requirements are arguably inconsistent with Rule 702’s operational framework for expert testimony. Rule 702 does not contain a set of mandatory qualifications that a witness must meet in order to be qualified as an expert. Instead, Rule 702 recognizes that there are a variety of ways in which a person can become so skilled or knowledgeable in a field that their opinion in a scientific, technical, or specialized area can assist the trier of fact in determining a fact or in understanding the evidence. Because a specific licensing requirement is potentially inconsistent with the variety of ways a person may gain specialized knowledge, Baggerly recognizes that a trial court’s decision to refuse to qualify a person as an expert based solely on the failure to meet a licensing requirement arguably impairs the truth-seeking function of courts.

At the same time, however, this Court’s jurisprudence emphasizes the role of the trial court as the gatekeeper in determining both the qualifications of an expert and whether the expert’s testimony will assist the trier of fact. See State v. Council, 335 S.C. 1, 20, 515 S.E.2d 508, 518 (1999). While Baggerly makes it clear that non-compliance with licensing requirements or with the statutory law in specialized areas should not require, a fortiori, a trial court to refuse to qualify a witness as an expert, Baggerly does not stand for the proposition that a trial court should not consider these factors when judging a purported expert’s qualifications. Instead, Baggerly supports the notion that in determining a witness’s qualification as an expert, the trial court should make an inquiry broad in scope. Specifically, the trial court ought to take into account the factors delineated in the rules of evidence, the statutory law, and any other sources of authority that may be relevant to a purported expert witness’s level of skill or knowledge; and the trial court must further determine whether the offered testimony will assist the trier of fact. In this case, the trial courtappears to only have considered the fact that Flaherty did not have the required license from the State of South Carolina. In our view, the trial court cannothave such a solitary focus. Although lack of licensing and violations of statutory law may often coincide with a lack of specialized skill or knowledge, these attributes are not always bedfellows.

In other words, not being licenses is a relevant factor a court can consider, but it is only one piece in the puzzle of expert qualification.

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