In a unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court has reaffirmed its prohibition on “net” expert opinions that are contradicted by the facts. Townsend v. Pierre concerns a fatal automobile collision. The defendants included the owner of property at the intersection where the accident occurred, as well as the property lessee. The plaintiff contended that overgrown shrubbery blocked the view of oncoming traffic at the intersection. At her deposition, the defendant driver acknowledged that while her view of the intersection was initially blocked by the shrubbery, she edged forward until she had a clear view while turning. A passenger in the defendant driver’s vehicle also confirmed that when the driver made the left turn, her view was not obstructed.
Nevertheless, an expert retained by the parents of the plaintiff deceased driver submitted an opinion stating that the defendant driver’s recollection of the accident must be mistaken, and that the shrubbery did impede her view. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to strike the opinion and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant property owner and lessee. While acknowledging that unconditional admission of the expert opinion would be inappropriate, the Appellate Division held that the expert could testify at trial in response to hypothetical questions regarding “alternative factual possibilities.” The Court therefore reversed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of the property owner and lessee.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by noting that under the “net opinion” rule, an expert must identify the factual bases and methodology underlying their opinion, and demonstrate that both are reliable. Accordingly, an expert cannot offer speculative opinions that are unsupported by the record.
The Court determined that the expert was precluded from offering an opinion regarding causation that was unsupported by the evidence. The Court further noted that the expert’s opinion could not be presented in the form of responses to hypothetical questions, as experts may only address hypothetical situations that have evidentiary support.
As there was no evidence to support that the defendant driver’s view of the intersection was obstructed by the shrubbery, the Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of the defendant property owner and lessee.
By reemphasizing that expert opinions must have support in the factual record, the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion in Townsend will help ensure that parties are precluded from offering speculative expert opinions as a means of countering the undisputed facts.