In the recent South Carolina Supreme Court case, Graves v. CAS, the Court took the opportunity to clarify the law regarding expert testimony and design defect claims.
In this case, parents claim that the failure of a neonatal monitor to alarm caused the death of their infant child. The monitor was designed to alarm if the heartbeat of the child became too slow as a way of preventing death due to SIDS or infant apnea. The plaintiffs claimed, and had the expert testimony of a neonatologist to support the notion, that they would have been able to resuscitate the child had the alarm sounded.
However, the controversy was the basis of their claimed design defect. In South Carolina, plaintiffs to prove a design defect claim must show that the design was defective and that there is an alternative design that would have prevented the injury. Since a neonatal monitor is a complicated product that jury members are unlikely to understand, expert testimony is required for such a design defect claim to survive summary judgment.
The expert testimony in this case went principally to the nature of the software, and that testimony would have been acceptable, but the experts in “reasoning to the best inference” (which is by itself acceptable) failed to exclude the possibility that the alarm actually did go off. The experts assumed that since the plaintiffs said the alarm did not go off, the alarm couldn’t have gone off because no one would have been able to sleep through the alarm and the parents would not have let their baby die.
This is a worrying result as sleeping through alarms presumably isn’t the purview of computer experts and is presumably something that juries can easily understand.
Read the full opinion below the break.
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