Temporal Proximity not Adequate, need Expert Testimony: holds Court of Appeals

Introduction

In the case of United States v Mathison [2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 12272], the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff’s suit of negligence against the United States government required an expert testimony to support it. The case in question involved loss of hearing due to increase in volume of public address system of a federal prison. The Court held that just because the two events (increase in volume of the PA system and the loss of hearing) happened at around the same time, one cannot be said to the cause of the other. This link requires proof of a nature not available to lay persons and hence the need for an expert witness.

Background

The relevant incident happened when the plaintiff had been incarcerated in a Federal Prison in Florence, Colorado. It was proved by the plaintiff that he had no problems with his hearing before being housed in prison. In February 2011, the volume of the PA system was increased to a painful level. Even though the plaintiff complained of the volume to the prison authorities, there was no action taken. A subsequent test proved that the plaintiff had lost his hearing. The temporal closeness of events had been proved and the plaintiff argued that was sufficient for the Court to hold that the negligence on part of the prison authorities was responsible for his hearing loss. The Court disagreed and using existing case law on the issue held that the plaintiff required the testimony of an expert witness to prove his case of negligence.

Discussion

The main point of discussion in this case was whether the fact that the event of the high volume of the PA and the loss of hearing were sufficiently linked for the Court to pass a verdict of negligence against the prison authorities. The Court’s reasoning was thus: an expert is required when explanation of certain facts required knowledge or experience beyond that of lay persons. In this case, the Court held that the loss of hearing was complex problem, the genesis of which required an expert medical witness to prove. The contention of the plaintiff that the temporal proximity of the two events were enough to prove negligence was struck down by the Court using the case of In re Swine Flu Immunization Prods. Liab. Litig [533 F. Supp. 567, 579-81 (D. Colo.1980)], which laid down that the temporal aspect was insufficient to discharge the burden of proof.