Key Decisions

July 2012 – In Shooting An Intruder

(filed under: | July 16, 2012)

Other Cases Of Interest

Expert Testimony Was Not Admissible On The Question Of A Homeowner’s Reasonableness In Shooting An Intruder

Burton v. Sanner
(Cal. Ct. of App., 4th Dist.), filed June 21, 2012 

Gary Sanner was sued for personal injuries and for wrongful death resulting from an incident in which he shot an intruder into his home and wounded others who had accompanied the intruder.

At trial, the trial court permitted the plaintiffs’ designated expert, a retired police officer, to opine on the reasonableness of Sanner’s conduct. The expert testified about how police are trained to use deadly force only as a last resort and how they are trained to try to pacify a situation. He ultimately opined that Sanner’s conduct was unreasonable.

The jury found Sanner liable.

In the ensuing appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded. It found that the trial court abused its discretion in permitting the expert to testify and that it was prejudicial.

A trial court’s determination that expert testimony is admissible is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Discretion is abused whenever, in its exercise, the court exceeds the bounds of reason.

As to the defense of necessity, or self-defense, the California Supreme Court has explained:

[A]cts that are intended or likely to cause serious injury are not categorically wrongful in character and do not inevitably result in liability. For instance, a person is privileged to use “[a]ny necessary force’ to protect or defend oneself or one’s property from ‘wrongful injury.” The right to use force against another has long been limited by the condition that the force be no more than “‘that which reasonably appears necessary, in view of all the circumstances of the case, to prevent the impending injury.’” When the amount of force used is justifiable under the circumstances, it is not willful and the actor may escape liability for intentionally injurious conduct that is otherwise actionable. But if force is applied in excess of that which is justified, the actor remains subject to liability for the damages resulting from the excessive use of force.

Generally, an expert’s opinion is admissible when it is related to a subject that is sufficiently beyond common experience that the opinion of an expert would assist the trier of fact. Also, testimony in the form of an opinion that is otherwise admissible is not objectionable because it embraces the ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact. However, 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. When an expert’s opinion amounts to nothing more than an expression of his or her belief on how a case should be decided, it does not aid the jurors, it supplants them.

Plaintiff’s expert did not aid the jury. His testimony was based on what a trained police officer should or should not do in a critical situation and there was no evidence Sanner was trained as such. Moreover, he was trying to supplant the jury’s role in deciding whether, under the circumstances, Sanner reasonably feared for his well-being and acted appropriately.

By permitting the expert to testify, the trial court prejudiced Sanner. Since Sanner had asserted – and correctly so – the issue was not one for experts, he had not designated or called an expert. As such, the plaintiff’s expert’s opinion was unchallenged. Additionally, the fact that Sanner did not even challenge it would have led the jury to conclude that he could not challenge it. That would have given it undue importance in the eyes of the jury.

The court rejected the cases on which the plaintiffs relied to argue that expert testimony was regularly used in shooting cases. It pointed out that such cases were police shooting cases, where testimony as to police training and procedures is relevant.