By Teresa Stepzinski
BRUNSWICK – The Georgia Supreme Court has reversed a Court of Appeals decision and ruled in favor of two companies that a Savannah woman sued over her brother’s death in a crash on Interstate 95 in Glynn County.
At issue was whether the woman’s expert witness was qualified to testify in the matter under standards set by state law and a precedent-setting 1993 U.S. Supreme Court case.
In an unanimous opinion Monday, the state Supreme Court said Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett was right and the appeals court was wrong.
Scarlett ruled correctly when he determined the family’s witness was not an expert in the matter. Therefore, Scarlett was right to grant the companies’ motion for a summary judgment in their favor, the justices said.
Johnny Hamilton, 19, of Garden City was killed and his brother, Justin Hamilton, and their sister, Lakeisha Hamilton-King, were injured when a van struck them in a chain-reaction collision April 8, 2003, on I-95 at the Little Satilla River Bridge, which was being widened.
The three had gotten out of their car after it struck a concrete bridge guardrail when Hamilton-King attempted to avoid another car that drifted into her lane. There was no shoulder. As they stood close to the bridge barrier, the three were hit by the van.
The surviving siblings sued the HNTB Georgia Inc., the designer of the bridge-widening project. They also sued Plant Improvement Co., also known as Seaboard Construction Co., which was the prime contractor for the widening of nearly 7 miles of I-95 including the bridge.
They claimed the companies were negligent in designing the traffic control plan for the construction work, and in failing to provide proper lighting and signs in the work area. The siblings offered a civil engineer, Jerome Thomas, as an expert witness, to testify in support of their claim.
The companies asserted Thomas was not an expert under the qualifications set by state law and federal precedent. His testimony was inadmissible, they argued, because he did not present any evidence that bridge construction projects without shoulders and lighting were “inherently defective,” the companies argued.
Scarlett agreed, and excluded the testimony. Without admissible expert testimony, “there was no issue of fact to be decided by a jury,” Scarlett said in ruling for the companies.
The siblings appealed Scarlett’s decision, and won a reversal from the Court of Appeals. The companies then appealed it to the Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court.