Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc., No. S-8097.

CourtSupreme Court of Alaska (US)
Writing for the CourtMATTHEWS, Chief Justice.
Citation996 P.2d 101
PartiesMichael (Mickey) BARRETT, Appellant, v. ERA AVIATION, INC., Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. S-8097.
Decision Date25 February 2000

996 P.2d 101

Michael (Mickey) BARRETT, Appellant,
v.
ERA AVIATION, INC., Appellee

No. S-8097.

Supreme Court of Alaska.

February 25, 2000.

Rehearing Denied March 21, 2000.


996 P.2d 102
Andrew K. Kurzmann, Anchorage, for Appellant

Marc G. Wilhelm, Richmond & Quinn, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Before MATTHEWS, Chief Justice, EASTAUGH, BRYNER, and CARPENETI, Justices.

OPINION

MATTHEWS, Chief Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

Michael "Mickey" Barrett sued Era Aviation, Inc., claiming that he suffered permanent damage to his inner ear as a passenger on an Era flight from Era's negligent maintenance of the in-flight pressurization system. The superior court excluded part of the testimony of Barrett's expert witness, prohibiting him from testifying about the standard of care for aircraft maintenance or about whether Era had negligently maintained the aircraft at issue. The court also sent the jury instructions that contained potentially conflicting definitions of negligence. Barrett appeals both the exclusion of his expert's testimony and the superior court's jury instructions. Because we find that the conflicting jury instructions constitute reversible error, we reverse and remand the case for a new trial.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

On December 25, 1990, Mickey Barrett flew as a passenger on an Era Aviation flight from Anchorage to Barrow. On September 9, 1992, Barrett filed a personal injury suit against Era, claiming that he had suffered severe and permanent damage to his inner ear as a result of pressurization problems caused by negligent maintenance on the flight.

Barrett hired John Spencer, a pilot familiar with the type of aircraft at issue, to testify as an expert witness on the subject of aircraft pressurization. Spencer testified that he had logged over 8,000 hours of flight time as a captain and over 4,000 hours of flight time as a co-pilot in similar aircraft. Spencer also testified that he was qualified as a check airman, ground school instructor, flight school instructor, and simulator instructor for this type of aircraft.

Prior to trial, Era filed a motion in limine seeking, inter alia, to exclude those portions of Spencer's testimony beyond his area of expertise. Era claimed Spencer lacked sufficient expertise to testify regarding the standard of care applicable to Era and whether or not Era breached this standard. The trial court granted Era's motion in part, ruling that Spencer could testify generally about aircraft pressurization problems, but could not testify about the applicable standard of care or about whether Era had been negligent.

At the close of the trial, the jury received instructions and retired to deliberate. After deliberating only a short while, the jury submitted

996 P.2d 103
a note, indicating its confusion as to how to reconcile Jury Instruction No. 14 (a general negligence instruction) and Instruction No. 16 (a common carrier negligence instruction). The judge consulted with counsel for both sides. Era's attorney requested that the judge either tell the jury he could give them no advice, or tell them to consider all of the instructions as a whole. Barrett's attorney requested that the judge instruct the jury to emphasize the common carrier instruction. The judge eventually directed the jury to refer to Instruction No. 34, which required jury members to read all of the instructions as a whole

The jury again deliberated without requesting further clarification. It ultimately returned a verdict in favor of the defendant, Era Aviation.

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review a trial court's exclusion of expert testimony for abuse of discretion.1 Jury instructions involve questions of law to which we apply our independent judgment.2 A jury instruction containing an erroneous statement of law constitutes reversible error if it prejudiced one of the parties; prejudice exists "if it can be said that the verdict may have been different had the erroneous instruction not been given."3

IV. DISCUSSION

A. Was Spencer Qualified to Testify as an Expert?

Era argued in its motion in limine that Spencer's testimony should be limited because he "is not trained or licensed in the area of aircraft maintenance." Era's argument on appeal is likewise based in part on the premise that because Spencer is not licensed as a mechanic he is not competent to testify as to the standard of care required of mechanics.

This argument erroneously assumes that a particular license is required before a witness is judged competent to testify.4 Instead, "[t]he true criterion" in determining whether one qualifies as an expert and whether his opinion is admissible "is whether the jury can receive appreciable help from this particular person on this particular subject."5

It is true that Spencer is a pilot, not a mechanic. But as a pilot, Spencer is required to possess significant knowledge about the proper maintenance of the planes he flies. At trial, Spencer testified that he had taught classes and trained maintenance personnel on the workings of pressurization systems and how to troubleshoot such systems. Earlier, in his deposition, Spencer testified that he had "taught school subjects" on pressurization systems and had "done a lot of training" using the type of aircraft in question.

Spencer possesses sufficient familiarity with the maintenance of aircraft pressurization systems to qualify as an expert. "It is not necessary that the witness devote full time to the subject matter of his expertise; it is sufficient that he has the requisite intelligence and reasonable contact with the subject matter to allow him to demonstrate his expertise with reasonable skill."6

As a general rule, the trial judge retains "wide latitude" in deciding whether to admit the testimony of an expert witness.7 In Lewis v. State, we held that the test for reversible abuse of discretion was "whether the reasons for the exercise of discretion are clearly untenable or unreasonable," noting that reasonableness depended on whether

996 P.2d 104
the trial judge balanced "the value of the evidence against the danger of undue prejudice, distraction of the jury from the issues, and waste of time."8

In the present case, we have very little indication that the trial court performed this balancing test. It heard no argument from the parties on the motion in limine. Instead, after reading the pleadings, it issued a ruling (which was followed by an order later the same day) stating that "it ... appears that the witness does not have sufficient expertise to testify about whether certain acts of maintenance were negligent or regarding standard of care relating to maintenance of an aircraft."9 This represents an insufficient basis upon which to rest the exclusion...

To continue reading

Request your trial
17 practice notes
  • Cora G. v. State, Supreme Court Nos. S-17254/17272 (Consolidated)
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • April 24, 2020
    ...witness" (first quoting INA Life Ins. Co. v. Brundin , 533 P.2d 236, 243 (Alaska 1975) ; then quoting Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc. , 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000) )); Marron , 123 P.3d at 998 ("[W]e generally review a trial court’s decision to admit expert testimony for abuse of discreti......
  • Cora G. v. Alaska Dep't of Health & Social Servs., Office of Children's Servs., Supreme Court No. S-17254
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • April 24, 2020
    ...expert witness" (first quoting INA Life Ins. Co. v. Brundin, 533 P.2d 236, 243 (Alaska 1975); then quoting Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc., 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000))); Marron, 123 P.3d at 998 ("[W]e generally review a trial court's decision to admit expert testimony for abuse of discre......
  • City of Hooper Bay v. Bunyan, No. S–15533.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • September 11, 2015
    ...2002) ).32 Id. (quoting INA Life Ins. Co. v. Brundin, 533 P.2d 236, 243 (Alaska 1975) ).33 Id. (quoting Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc., 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000) ) (internal quotation marks omitted).34 Id. (citing Marsingill v. O'Malley, 128 P.3d 151, 159 (Alaska 2006) ).35 974 P.2d 38......
  • Reich v. Cominco Alaska, Inc., No. S-9717.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • October 4, 2002
    ...970 P.2d 906, 912 (Alaska 1999). 29. Glamann v. Kirk, 29 P.3d 255, 259 (Alaska 2001). 30. Id. 31. Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc., 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000) (quoting Beck v. State, Dep't of Transp. & Pub. Facilities, 837 P.2d 105, 114 (Alaska 32. Cable v. Shefchik, 985 P.2d 474, 479 (Al......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
17 cases
  • Cora G. v. State, Supreme Court Nos. S-17254/17272 (Consolidated)
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • April 24, 2020
    ...witness" (first quoting INA Life Ins. Co. v. Brundin , 533 P.2d 236, 243 (Alaska 1975) ; then quoting Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc. , 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000) )); Marron , 123 P.3d at 998 ("[W]e generally review a trial court’s decision to admit expert testimony for abuse of discreti......
  • Cora G. v. Alaska Dep't of Health & Social Servs., Office of Children's Servs., Supreme Court No. S-17254
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • April 24, 2020
    ...expert witness" (first quoting INA Life Ins. Co. v. Brundin, 533 P.2d 236, 243 (Alaska 1975); then quoting Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc., 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000))); Marron, 123 P.3d at 998 ("[W]e generally review a trial court's decision to admit expert testimony for abuse of discre......
  • City of Hooper Bay v. Bunyan, No. S–15533.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • September 11, 2015
    ...2002) ).32 Id. (quoting INA Life Ins. Co. v. Brundin, 533 P.2d 236, 243 (Alaska 1975) ).33 Id. (quoting Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc., 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000) ) (internal quotation marks omitted).34 Id. (citing Marsingill v. O'Malley, 128 P.3d 151, 159 (Alaska 2006) ).35 974 P.2d 38......
  • Reich v. Cominco Alaska, Inc., No. S-9717.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Alaska (US)
    • October 4, 2002
    ...970 P.2d 906, 912 (Alaska 1999). 29. Glamann v. Kirk, 29 P.3d 255, 259 (Alaska 2001). 30. Id. 31. Barrett v. Era Aviation, Inc., 996 P.2d 101, 103 (Alaska 2000) (quoting Beck v. State, Dep't of Transp. & Pub. Facilities, 837 P.2d 105, 114 (Alaska 32. Cable v. Shefchik, 985 P.2d 474, 479 (Al......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT