Pathology Expert Witness Testimony in Wrongful Death Case is Allowed

Plaintiff’s expert witness testimony regarding cause of death was challenged by defendant. The motion to exclude was denied.

Facts: This case (Estate of Patrick Burns v. Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department et al – United States District Court – Central District of Illinois – July 21st, 2015) involves the apprehension, and ultimately, the death, of Patrick Burns. The police responded to a home invasion call on January 23, 2010 and found Mr. Burns sitting in a ditch and injured. He admitted to have had drank alcohol, smoked crack cocaine and had been taking Prozac and/or Wellbutrin. After trying to subdue Burns, the police used tasers and restrained him in a hogtie position.

Mr. Burns was placed in an ambulance and driven to the hospital. Right before arriving at the emergency room, Mr. Burns stopped talking, was tensing his muscles, and became passive. After arriving at the emergency room, Burns, still hogtied, was strapped in a stretcher in a prone, or semi-prone position, on his stomach. Once in an ER room, Mr. Burns was moved to a hospital bed where he became still and was not breathing. The hospital staff tried to resuscitate him, to no avail. He died on January 28th.

This present case involves the pathology expert presented by the plaintiffs to opine on the cause of death. The expert, Dr. John Ralston performed an additional autopsy and opined that the cause of death was anoxic brain injury from restrained in a prone position while hogtied. This brain injury was caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain. The defendants filed a Daubert motion to exclude the testimony of Dr. Ralston.

Discussion: The magistrate judge opined that Dr. Ralston’s testimony that positional asphyxia was a contributor to the of death of Mr. Burns was allowed for the following reasons: 1) The expert is a qualified forensic pathologist, 2) The facts that Burns was weakened due to cold weather, drug use, and his fighting with the authorities, 3) Burns was hogtied and placed in a semi-prone position, and 4) Burns had a cardiac arrest and brain injury.

In addition, the material relied upon by the expert, Medicolegal Investigation of Death, by Werner Smith, is scientifically reliable for the proposition that being hogtied can cause positional asphyxia. Dr. Ralston also had some experience with this cause of death. The judge maintained that this information enhances the admissibility of the expert’s testimony.

The defendant’s counter that Dr. Ralston did not review any peer-reviewed research on the topic or perform any of his own research, pushing towards reliability. The judge opined that the Spitz book is enough to support the reliability issue. In addition, the judge notes that the the testimony of Dr. Ralston will help the trier of fact. The defendant’s expert testified that hogtying does not cause positional asphyxia (the opposite conclusion of Dr. Ralston). This, along with cited literature and cases to back up their claims, will allow the trier of fact to have both explanations and can make an opinion based on these fact.

Held: Defendant’s challenge to exclude the testimony of Dr. Ralston is denied.

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