The Virginia Supreme Court recently affirmed a lower court’s decision in a wrongful death claim stemming from a single-vehicle accident that took the lives of both occupants. According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff, the administrator of the estate of one of the occupants, filed a lawsuit against several parties, including the other occupant of the vehicle. The lawsuit contends that the other occupant fell asleep at the wheel of his tractor-trailer, thereby causing the accident that killed the plaintiff. In response, the defendants argued that the plaintiff was the driver.
On appeal, the court reviewed several of the plaintiff’s arguments, including that the lower court erred in excluding portions of the medical examiner’s autopsy report and the plaintiff’s experts’ opinions regarding the driver’s identity. The plaintiff sought to introduce evidence from the Chief Medical examiner, where she concluded the cause of the defendant’s death was blunt force trauma. Her report relied on the police report to tell her who was driving the tractor-trailer in the case.
The plaintiff argues that under Virginia Code § 8.01- 390.2, medical examiner reports shall be received as evidence in court. Therefore, although the examiner’s report stems from her opinions based on the police report, it should be admissible. Statutory interpretation requires a court to review the plain language of a statute unless the terms are ambiguous. In this case, the court found that nothing in the statute provides that a medical examiner is permitted to make an opinion on an ultimate fact in issue. Further, the statute does not permit medical examiners to base opinions and facts from information garnered through lay testimony. Therefore, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the statute should be construed to admit the medical examiner’s opinion solely because the opinion is in a report.