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Johnson v. Stella-Jones Corporation

United States District Court, W.D. Kentucky, Paducah Division

February 18, 2015

LARRY D. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,


THOMAS B. RUSSELL, Senior District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon the Motion to Exclude Opinion Testimony of Dr. Belinda Merritt, (Docket No. 42), filed by Defendant Stella-Jones Corporation ("Stella-Jones" or "the Company"). Plaintiff Larry D. Johnson has responded, (Docket No. 44), and Stella-Jones has replied, (Docket No. 45). Fully briefed, this matter stands ripe for adjudication. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will DENY Stella-Jones' motion.

Factual Background

On August 24, 2012, Johnson delivered a load of crossties to the Stella-Jones wood treatment facility in Fulton County, Kentucky. As the crossties were unloaded, a stack of lumber fell from the trailer and landed on Johnson's right hip and foot. He fell to the ground, unable to stand under the lumber's weight. After the accident, he complained of pain in both his neck and his right foot. In the instant personal injury action, Johnson alleges that Stella-Jones' negligence caused him to fracture his C3 and C4 vertebrae.

On the day of the accident, physicians at the Jackson-Madison County General Hospital ("Jackson-Madison County") performed a CT scan and an MRI of Johnson's cervical spine. The CT scan report recorded a "noncorticated linear lucency through the anterior bridging osteophytes at C3-C4 which may represent a fractured osteophyte."[1] ( See Docket No. 42-1, Radiological Consultation Report, CT Scan.) The radiologist who summarized the MRI noted "some mild edema seen at the level of the anterior osteophyte arising from the superior margin of C4 that would be consistent with probable fracture involving this osteophyte." ( See Docket No. 42-2, Radiological Consultation Report, MRI of Cervical Spine.) No pre-accident images were available for a comparative study.

From August 28, 2012, through September 12, 2012, Johnson received treatment at the Cane Creek Rehabilitation Hospital ("Cane Creek") in Martin, Tennessee. Dr. Merritt, a physiatrist, treated Johnson on three occasions. Dr. Merritt did not interpret Johnson's radiological studies, nor did she diagnose his fracture. Instead, she relied upon the diagnosis provided in his discharge summary from Jackson-Madison County. ( See Docket No. 42-3, Deposition of Dr. Merritt of 6/17/14, at 7.) At deposition, Dr. Merritt opined to a reasonable medical probability that Johnson's injuries were consistent with the history that he provided-that is, that the crossties fell on him and caused a fractured osteophyte at the C3 and C4 vertebrae. (Docket No. 42-3, Deposition of Dr. Merritt, at 5.)

On cross-examination, Dr. Merritt acknowledged that before the fall, Johnson had been diagnosed with diffuse idiopathic skeletal hypertrophy, or DISH, which causes spurring down the vertebrae. (Docket No. 42-3, Deposition of Dr. Merritt, at 7.) When asked if it was possible that Johnson had suffered a fracture in the C4 osteophyte before the accident, Dr. Merritt replied, "Is it possible? I'm not trying to be flip or anything, but anything could be possible"; however, she emphasized that such a preexisting injury would be implausible. (Docket No. 42-4, Deposition of Dr. Merritt, at 2.) According to Dr. Merritt, a fractured osteophyte would generally cause pain, swelling, or problems breathing and swallowing; however, she did not ask Johnson if he suffered from such symptoms, and they were not reflected in her records. (Docket No. 42-4, Deposition of Dr. Merritt of 6/10/2014, at 4.)

Stella-Jones now characterizes Dr. Merritt's testimony as unreliable and inadmissible. The Company therefore urges the Court to preclude Dr. Merritt's opinion regarding causation at the March 23, 2015, jury trial of this matter.

Legal Standard

Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence governs the admissibility of expert testimony. Rule 702 provides:

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:
(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles ...

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