In an August 2023 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court issued an important ruling clarifying when and how investigating police officers must meet certain evidentiary standards for expert testimony in civil cases arising from vehicle accidents. Under the old case law, Judges sort of gave police officers a hall pass and assumed they automatically qualified as experts in certain matters.
In Miller v. Golden Peanut Company, the relatives of a woman killed in a tractor-trailer collision sued the driver and the tractor trailer company. At trial, the judge allowed the investigating officer to provide expert opinions on the cause of the accident without analyzing whether his conclusions met the Daubert standard for reliability. The Court granted the motion for summary judgment, partially based on the officer’s opinions, and threw the case out of court. The plaintiff’s appealed the ruling and the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court, so it was on to the Supreme Court for justice.
On appeal, the central question was whether police officers are automatically considered experts based on their crash investigation training, or if the Federal standard for whether an expert is qualied as an expert, known as Daubert standards, still apply. After examining differences between lay and expert testimony, the Court concluded the officer was providing expert conclusions based on specialized knowledge and therefore should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other expert witness.
This overturned decades of precedent that had treated investigating officers as presumptively qualified experts exempt from Daubert. Instead, the Court ruled that when officers offer opinions beyond factual observations, trial judges must act as “gatekeepers” and carefully assess relevance, reliability and whether the testimony will help the jury. While qualifications alone may not ensure reliability, failing to conduct a full Daubert analysis is an abuse of discretion. The case was remanded so the trial court could properly vet the disputed testimony.
This clarifies that in Georgia, investigating officers are not automatically experts and their conclusions must meet the same scientific validity and fit standards as all other experts. It provides important guidance for judges but leaves room for more specific benchmarks in applying Daubert in this context. Overall, the ruling establishes that accident reconstruction by police is the type of specialized knowledge governed by Daubert, reinforcing the trial court’s critical role in weeding out unreliable expert testimony. It should impact how such cases are handled going forward.
This will come in handy in tractor trailer collision cases where a police officer may have some training but leaps to conclusions about the causes of the crash and ignores certain evidence that would give our client’s justice. In many instances, inexperienced officers can be called on to make complex calculations and they want to get home to their families and off the highway, so they can take shortcuts and make snap decisions just to complete the report. It’s not that they are trying to hurt they case, but sometimes their lack of experience shows.