Illinois Engineering Expert Qualifications Clarified by Illinois Supreme Court in Thompson v. Gordon, et al.

In the Illinois auto accident lawsuit of Corinne Thompson v. Christie Gordon, et al., No. 110066 (IL Sup. Ct.), the Illinois Supreme Court held that an engineer does not have to be professionally licensed in Illinois in order to qualify as an “expert” witness in an Illinois civil lawsuit. The Supreme Court’s decision affirmed the decision made by the appellate court; however, it reversed the circuit court’s ruling that the civil engineer hired by the plaintiff needed to be licensed in the state of Illinois in order to testify as an expert witness in the pending civil suit.

In Illinois, qualifications for various types of trial witnesses are established under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 213. A civil engineer, such as the one in Thompson, who is hired to testify as to the standard of care within his or her professional field, would be handled under Rule 213(f)(3). This section deals with “controlled expert witnesses,” i.e., the party’s retained expert, and requires the party to provide the expert’s qualifications to provide opinions on the specialized subject matter.

In Thompson, it was these qualifications that were up for debate. While the plaintiff held that its civil engineer was qualified to testify based on his experience and education, the defendants held that without being professionally licensed in Illinois he could not provide opinions as to the standard of care required of the defendants’ engineers and contractors. The defendants brought a motion to strike the civil engineer’s testimony as to the design defects of a highway intersection, which was granted by the circuit court. Plaintiffs appealed this decision; without the civil engineer’s expert testimony it would be almost impossible for the plaintiff to prove her claims against the defendants.

The facts in Thompson arose out of an Illinois intersection accident that left two of the plaintiff’s companions dead. Corinne and Amber Thompson were passengers in a vehicle driven by Trevor Thompson when it was struck by a vehicle driven by Christie Gordon. Gordon had swerved to avoid being hit by an oncoming car, only to then jump a raised median and collide head-on with the Thompson vehicle.

Corinne Thompson brought an Illinois personal injury and Illinois wrongful death lawsuit against Christie Gordon, the driver of the car which killed her two relatives. In addition, she filed separate claims against Leisch and CH2M, the designers of the intersection of Illinois Interstate 94 and Route 132. In the second complaint, the plaintiff alleged that Leisch and CH2M were negligent by electing not to implement a median barrier analysis or design proposal that would have improved the safety of that highway intersection.

In order to support its design defect claims, the plaintiff hired a civil engineer, who opined that the defendants had failed to meet the engineering standard of care when they failed to design a median that lacked the necessity of a crossover protection on the bridge deck that would have separated the traffic at the Route 132/I-94 interchange. Furthermore, the civil engineer provided an opinion stating that if the defendants had designed and constructed the median properly, that Gordon’s vehicle would not have been able to jump the median into the path of the Thompson vehicle.

In response to these opinions, the defendants filed a motion to strike the expert’s testimony, citing that he was not qualified to testify regarding professional engineering standards in Illinois because he did not hold an Illinois professional engineering license. Specifically, the defendants claimed he need to be licensed under the Professional Engineering Practice Act of 1989 (the “Engineering Act”) (225 ILCS 325/1 et seq.) (West 2002), in order to testify as an Illinois Supreme Court Rule 213 retained opinion witness at a civil trial.

The trial court agreed with the defendants and granted their motion to strike the civil engineer’s testimony. It held that the affidavit the expert had provided, which stated he was a civil engineer who had been actively involved in the analysis, design, and construction of roadways for over 30 years, was not enough evidence of his qualifications to testify as a civil engineer in this matter. Rather, the trial court held that unless an engineer is licensed in the State of Illinois, the engineer cannot participate as an expert witness in any pending litigation in the State of Illinois because that person’s participation would constitute the practice of professional engineering without a license in violation of §39(b)(4) of the Engineering Act.

The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision, which was eventually brought before the Illinois Supreme Court. The court held that Illinois licensing under the Engineering Act is not a mandatory prerequisite for an engineer to provide an expert opinion. The court held that more relevant considerations as to whether or not an expert can provide opinion testimony would be that person’s knowledge, skill, experience, training and education. Therefore, when one applies these qualifications, Thompson’s civil engineer was more than qualified to testify as to the design defects of the highway intersection.

In support of its decision, the Supreme Court looked to the purpose of the Engineering Act and stated that

if the legislature wanted to condition any testimony by a professional on whether the individual holds a state license, it would enact a statute setting standards for such expert witnesses, as it has done in cases in which the standard of care applicable to a medical professional is an issue.

So while doctors and nurses need to provide proof of licensing in the specific medical area in which they are testifying in Illinois medical malpractice lawsuits, there is no such requirement for engineers. Thus, the court held that the lack of an engineering license is not enough to bar expert testimony in a civil case in Illinois. Therefore, Thompson will be remanded to the civil court to continue the trial.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois auto accident cases for more than 35 years in and around the Cook County and Chicago area, including Tinley Park, Riverside, Mount Prospect and Des Plaines.

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