Key Decisions

August 2012 – Expert Testimony Is Not Always Necessary

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | August 16, 2012)

Other Cases Of Interest

Expert Testimony Is Not Always Necessary In A Police “Use Of Force” Case

Allgoewer v. City of Tracy
(Cal. Ct. of App., 3d Dist.), filed July 5, 2012

Steven Allgoewer sued the City of Tracy and two of its police officers for, among other things, using excessive force in arresting him. Before Allgoewer finished putting on his evidence at trial, the trial court granted the City and officers’ motion for a nonsuit. It did so on the ground that Allgoewer could not prevail without offering expert testimony on “what force a reasonable law enforcement officer would have used under the same or similar circumstances.”

In the ensuing appeal, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court prejudicially erred in concluding that expert testimony on the issue of reasonable force was required in the particular case. It reversed and remanded.

The court discussed the need for expert testimony, saying:

“Generally, the opinion of an expert is admissible when it is ‘[r]elated to a subject that is sufficiently beyond common experience that the opinion of an expert would assist the trier of fact . . . .’” (PM Group, Inc. v. Stewart (2007) 154 Cal.App.4th 55, 63, quoting Evid. Code, § 801, subd. (a).) “If the matter in issue is one within the knowledge of experts only and not within the common knowledge of laymen, it is necessary for the plaintiff to introduce expert opinion evidence in order to establish a prima facie case.” (Miller v. Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. (1973) 8 Cal.3d 689, 702.) That is usually the case, for example, in medical malpractice actions. “Because the standard of care in a medical malpractice case is [generally] a matter ‘peculiarly within the knowledge of experts’ [citation], expert testimony is required to ‘prove or disprove that the defendant performed in accordance with the standard prevailing of care’ . . . .” (Johnson v. Superior Court (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 297, 305.) This rule does not apply, however, when “the negligence is obvious to a layperson.” (Ibid.) “Where the jury is just as competent as the expert to consider and weigh the evidence and draw the necessary conclusions, then the need for expert testimony evaporates.” (People v. Torres (1995) 33 Cal.App.4th 37, 47.)

The court concluded that there was nothing about the particular use of force in the particular case that was so far removed from the comprehension of a lay jury as to necessitate expert opinion testimony on the applicable standard of conduct or on what amount of force was reasonable under the circumstances that confronted the officers who arrested Allgoewer.