Insured’s Experts Excluded, But Insurer’s Motion for Summary Judgment Denied

Tred R. Eyerly | Insurance Law Hawaii

    Despite barring the insured’s expert witnesses from testifying as to the cause of the loss, lay witnesses were still available, making the district court’s award of summary judgment to the insurer improper. Greater Hall Temple Church of God v. Southern Mut. Church Ins. Co., 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 21934 (11th Cir. July 15, 2020).

    Hurricane Matthew damaged the Greater Hall Temple Church of God’s (Church) roof. Leaks occurred, causing water damage to the Church’s interior. A claim was submitted to Southern Mutual. The policy did not cover loss caused by water. Nor did it cover loss to the interior of buildings unless the rain entered through openings made by a specified peril. An independent adjuster found that the damage was caused not by wind, but by pre-exisiting structural issues. Southern Mutual denied the claim. 

    The Church filed suit. Southern Mutual moved for summary judgment and also moved to strike three of the Church’s expert witnesses. The district court agreed that none of the witnesses could qualify as experts. Two of the witnesses did not have the requisite experience nor had they used a sufficiently reliable methodology formulating their opinions. A third expert was barred because his expert opinion had not been timely disclosed. Thereafter, Southern Mutual’s motion for summary judgment was granted because the Church had not provided admissible evidence that damage to the Church’s roof was caused by Hurricane Matthew. 

    The Eleventh Circuit agreed that the district court properly found the witnesses could not qualify as experts. But had the district court properly found that the Church failed to produce sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment?

    The district court relied upon an unpublished Eleventh Circuit case stating the proving causation required expert testimony. But Georgia law controlled this case. Under Georgia law, expert testimony was not necessarily required to prove causation. An insured could satisfy its burden of proof with circumstantial lay testimony. 

    Although none of the Church’s witnesses actually saw Hurricane Matthew cause the roof damage, the Church’s proposed expert witnesses could provide enough circumstantial evidence for a jury to find that the hurricane did, in fact, cause the roof damage. One witness testified that when he saw the church after the storm, he noticed that “trees were uprooted and debris was everywhere.” He also saw leaks in the church building that he had never seen before. Another witness noticed that the entire roof had shifted. 

    Taken together, this evidence furnished facts from which a logical conclusion could be drawn that Hurricane Matthew caused the damage to the roof of the church. Therefore, the district court erred in granting summary judgment to Southern Mutual. The policy did not preclude the Church’s claim, and sufficient lay-witness evidence was demonstrated for a reasonable jury to find in its favor. 

Leave a Reply