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State v. Dearborn

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

August 7, 2014

State of New Hampshire
v.
Cameron Dearborn

The defendant, Cameron Dearborn, appeals his conviction, following a jury trial in superior court, on charges of negligent homicide, see RSA 630:3 (2007), and aggravated driving while intoxicated, see RSA 265-A:3 (2007) (amended 2012). The defendant contends that the trial court erred by "admitting [the expert's] opinion testimony about [the decedent's] position in the car at the time of the crash." (Capitalization omitted.) We affirm.

At the outset, we conclude that the defendant's challenge to the expert's qualifications was preserved by his motion in limine. See Zola v. Kelley, 149 N.H. 648, 650 (2003) (in general, definitive ruling by trial court on motion in limine preserves issue for appellate review).

Expert testimony is admissible if "scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, " N.H. R. Ev. 702, so long as the testimony rises to a threshold level of reliability. N.H. Dep't of Transp. v. Franchi, 163 N.H. 797, 800 (2012). An expert may be qualified on the basis of knowledge or experience, as well as skill, training, or education. N.H. R. Ev. 702.

We will not reverse a trial court's determination of expert qualification absent a clearly unsustainable exercise of discretion. Goudreault v. Kleeman, 158 N.H. 236, 245 (2009). Our inquiry is whether the record establishes an objective basis sufficient to sustain the discretionary judgment made. Id. To prevail on appeal, the defendant must demonstrate that the trial court's ruling was clearly untenable or unreasonable to the prejudice of his case. Id.

We begin by noting that the defendant challenges the expert's qualifications to opine about the decedent's location in the car based upon "assumptions about the shatter pattern characteristic of side-window glass, and in particular on the premise that a dense pattern of dicing injuries proved that [he] was seated very near the side window." He does not challenge the reliability of any methodology or technique she used.

To the extent that the defendant challenges the trial court's pre-trial ruling on the motion in limine to preclude the expert's testimony regarding the decedent's location in the car, we look to the information before the court when it made its ruling. See State v. Gordon, 161 N.H. 410, 414 (2011) (review of trial court decision on motion in limine limited to offers of proof at pre-trial hearing). The defendant's motion in limine stated only that the expert's "curriculum vitae gives no indication that the proposed witness has any qualifications, experience or training that would allow her to give an opinion as to where the deceased was seated prior to the crash." It did not specify what qualifications the expert lacked, nor did it request a pre-trial hearing. See State v. Pelletier, 149 N.H. 243, 252 (2003) (holding trial court has discretion to hold pre-trial hearing in cases involving disputed expert testimony). The State's objection represented that the expert was the deputy chief medical examiner for the State of New Hampshire and that she based her opinion regarding the decedent's location in the car upon the nature and location of his injuries. When the trial court denied the motion without a narrative order, the defendant did not move for reconsideration. Cf. N.H. Dep't of Corrections v. Butland, 147 N.H. 676, 679 (2002) (motion to reconsider required to address issues raised by trial court's order). Upon this record, we cannot say, as a matter of law, that the trial court lacked an objective basis sufficient to sustain its discretionary judgment that the expert was qualified to give an opinion as to the decedent's location.

We now turn to the trial court's admission of the expert's specific testimony regarding the decedent's location in the car. At trial, the defendant's objection to the expert's testimony rested only upon the fact that she had not seen the accident reconstruction report before she autopsied the decedent. The trial court ruled correctly that this asserted deficiency goes to the weight, not the admissibility of evidence. See Baker Valley Lumber v. Ingersoll-Rand, 148 N.H. 609, 615 (2002). The defendant was entitled to challenge the basis of the expert's opinion on cross-examination. See id. at 615-16. When he did so, the expert testified that she did not need the accident reconstruction report to determine the decedent's location.

We also reject the defendant's assertion that the expert lacked sufficient qualifications to opine regarding the decedent's location in the car, based upon the nature and location of his injuries. We conclude that the expert's testimony was sufficient to establish her qualifications. We have allowed experts to testify about a field beyond their specific training when they have experience adequate to render them an expert in that field. Figlioli v. R.J. Moreau Cos., 151 N.H. 618, 623 (2005). An individual witness's qualifications must be determined on a case-by-case basis, not by application of a per se rule of exclusion or inclusion. Id.

The expert testified that part of her job included determining the "manner of death, " which she described as the "circumstances behind the death, surrounding the death, how it came about." She also testified that she had training in occupant kinematics "as far as injury causation goes" and that "it's part of every traffic crash death that I investigate, which is several hundred."

The defendant contends that the expert's opinion regarding the decedent's location in the car "related not to occupant kinematics – the movement of unbuckled people within a car during an accident – but rather to the properties and distribution pattern during an accident of shattered side-window glass." However, the defendant did not explore the extent to which the expert's experience with occupant kinematics and manner of death determinations also provided her with experience concerning the properties and distribution patterns of shattered side-window glass. Neither did he show that a medical examiner with years of experience determining the manner of death in car crashes was unqualified to opine on the decedent's location in the car based upon the nature and location of his injuries. Cf. id. at 624 (expert's opinion inadmissible where no showing he had education or experience upon which to base opinion).

The defendant argues that the expert reached her conclusion about the decedent's location "through inferences about the properties of automobile side-window glass" and that "the State never demonstrated that [she] possessed the requisite expertise" to do so. To the extent that the defendant now argues that the State needed to further qualify the expert, we reject that argument. Therefore, we conclude that the trial court's admission of the expert's opinion is sustainable.

In light of the fact that we conclude that the expert was qualified to opine as she did, we need not address the defendant's argument that "the court erred in allowing the State to elicit [her] common-sense conclusion in the guise of expert opinion."

Affirmed.

CONBOY, LYNN, and BASSETT, JJ., ...


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