On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman, J.
This appeal involves convictions for reckless manslaughter based in part on operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Defendant was tried before a jury on two counts of second-degree reckless manslaughter, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4b(1). The defense strategy was to demonstrate that defendant's conduct did not satisfy the recklessness standard. The question whether the victims' vehicle ran a stop sign was intertwined with the issue of recklessness. The State introduced testimony through a county medical examiner that defendant was operating his vehicle in a reckless manner at the time it collided with the decedent's vehicle.
The critical issues raised are (1) whether a medical examiner presenting opinion evidence regarding the manner in which a motor vehicle was operated at a given time must have qualifications beyond those required to be a medical examiner, and (2) if such additional qualifications are required, whether the medical examiner in this case possessed those qualifications. In an unpublished opinion, the Appellate Division concluded that although the medical examiner was unqualified to render such an opinion because he was not qualified as an automobile accident reconstructionist, the objectionable testimony was harmless error. We granted defendant's petition for certification. 149 N.J. 35 (1997).
We reverse and hold that the medical examiner in this case was qualified only as an expert in forensic pathology. Opinion evidence concerning whether a collision was accidental or the result of a driver's recklessness must be presented through someone with special qualifications, such as an accident reconstructionist. It is also beyond the expertise of a medical examiner to present opinion evidence concerning the credibility of a witness's testimony regarding whether a traffic sign was obeyed.
On Friday, January 31, 1992, defendant, Charles Jamerson, and his cousin, Eric Ingels, spent the day together celebrating Ingels's twenty- eighth birthday. Defendant arrived at Ingels's home at 9:30 a.m. and suggested that they get breakfast and go out for some beers. They walked to a bar where they had an early lunch between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m. They remained at the bar until approximately 12:30 p.m. While at the bar, defendant consumed more than forty-eight ounces of beer and three ounces of Sambuca. Thereafter, they walked to defendant's father's house to pick up some money and to borrow his car, a red Chevrolet Cavalier that was involved in the fatal accident. Defendant and Ingels then drove to defendant's sister's house, carrying with them a twelve-pack of twelve-ounce beers. After consuming some beers at defendant's sister's house, defendant drove his sister to a bank. Upon returning, defendant continued to drink. Shortly after 2:30 p.m., defendant and Ingels left to pick up defendant's mother from her job in Glassboro. Ingels brought the remaining cans of beer from the twelve- pack. During that trip, the fatal accident occurred in Elk Township.
The accident occurred at the intersection of County Route 608, also known as Clayton Avenue, and County Route 553, known as Buck Road. The day was gray and windy, but the road was dry. Route 608 runs east and west and Route 553 runs north and south with one lane in each direction. A double yellow line, signaling "no passing," runs down the center of Route 553. The speed limit on Route 553 is fifty miles per hour. On Route 608, the posted speed limit is forty-five miles per hour and there is a stop sign at the road's intersection with Route 553. The stop sign is posted forty-five feet before the intersection. Route 553, on which defendant was proceeding northbound at the time of the accident, is a through street.
Shortly before the accident, a Mercury Sable, operated by Robert McDermott, pulled onto Route 553 in front of defendant. McDermott testified that defendant and Ingels acted as though the Mercury Sable was "cutting them off," forcing them to slow down. From McDermott's point of view he did not "cut off" defendant. Rather, he maintains that when he pulled onto Route 553 defendant was quite a distance away, but gained rapidly at an estimated speed of between sixty-five and seventy miles per hour.
McDermott decided to make a right turn onto Route 608. As he slowed and signaled a right turn, he noticed a light-colored station wagon facing west (the opposite direction) on Route 608. The facts are in dispute concerning whether the station wagon was actually stopped at the stop sign on Route 608.
Seventy-seven-year-old John Ballard was the driver of the station wagon. His wife, seventy-four-year-old Anna Ballard was also in the car. McDermott testified that Mr. Ballard looked directly at him, and then looked in the opposite direction before proceeding into the intersection. According to McDermott, defendant crossed the double- yellow line, went into the left lane, angrily gestured, and passed as McDermott was turning. After the Ballards' car pulled into the intersection, the front end of defendant's vehicle struck the left center portion of the Ballards' vehicle in the southbound lane of Route 553 in the intersection.
Elk Township Police Officer Milton Sahms arrived at the scene at 2:49 p.m. The officer called for a helicopter to transport Ms. Ballard to Cooper Hospital. An ambulance took Mr. Ballard to Washington Memorial Hospital. He died within an hour.
Officer Sahms stated that when he arrived, defendant was acting "boisterous," "walking around the vehicle, hollering [and] speaking loudly," and had some minor injuries. The officer directed defendant to sit on the side of the road to await an ambulance. Defendant told Sahms that the accident occurred when he was going around a car turning right and that Ballard ran the stop sign. Sahms smelled a strong odor of alcohol on defendant's breath and observed beer cans inside and outside of defendant's car. Sahms did not observe defendant slurring his speech or staggering, nor did he ask defendant when he had had his last drink. Sahms did not perform any field sobriety tests. Defendant and Ingels were taken to Washington Hospital.
The Gloucester County Medical Examiner, Dr. Claus Speth, arrived at the accident scene shortly after 3:00 p.m. After observing the crash scene and interviewing police officers who had obtained statements from witnesses, Dr. Speth went to the emergency room at Washington Hospital. He requested a physician to obtain blood and urine samples from defendant. Dr. Speth learned that Mr. Ballard had been pronounced dead. Dr. Speth proceeded to the Cooper Trauma Center to determine Ms. Ballard's condition and to notify her of her husband's death.
Dr. Speth performed an autopsy on Mr. Ballard the next morning. He found crushing injuries to the left side of Mr. Ballard's body, consisting primarily of crushed ribs on the left side. Those crushed ribs caused the left lung to collapse. Mr. Ballard's pelvis, backbone, and spleen were crushed, and his liver and heart were torn. Death was caused by major injuries to the ribs, lungs, heart, liver, and spleen.
Ms. Ballard sustained a significant head injury, a ruptured spleen, several rib fractures, a bruised lung, and significant injuries above and below the diaphragm. On April 5, 1992, she died of complications caused by the accident.
Kathleen Sandelier was an eye witness to the accident and was called as a witness by defendant. She testified that she was driving behind defendant's car at the time of the accident. She testified that the Ballards' car entered the intersection without stopping for the stop sign. Her testimony was consistent with her statements to the investigating police officer at the accident scene. However, she gave conflicting statements to Dr. Speth in a post-accident interview. Sandelier acknowledged speaking to Dr. Speth and stated that he "had [her] extremely confused as to what [she] saw." She admitted during cross-examination that trees on the side of the road partially obstructed her view of Route 608 and that she did not see clearly whether or not Ballard stopped for the stop sign. It was her "impression," however, that Ballard ran the stop sign.
Valerie Kennedy was also an eye witness to the accident. She was traveling on Route 553 toward defendant when she observed McDermott turning right onto Route 608. She saw defendant's car come from behind McDermott and partially enter her lane. She was forced to pull halfway onto the shoulder to avoid a possible collision. She estimated that the majority of defendant's car was in her lane traveling at a speed of "high 50s [to] 60s." She observed defendant's vehicle strike the Ballard vehicle on the driver's side. She could not say whether the Ballard vehicle stopped for the stop sign.
Officer Seibert, who had investigated fatal accidents in Elk Township for six years, testified that the point of impact was in the southbound lane of Route 553. He found no skid marks on the road. Based on his investigation, he concluded that the cause of the accident was defendant's improper passing and drunk driving, and that Ballard did not seem to be at fault. He opined that if defendant had stayed in his lane and had not gone around McDermott the accident would not have occurred.
Charles Kearney, Senior Forensic Scientist at the New Jersey State Police Lab, tested defendant's blood using a gas chromatograph within an hour of the accident. He determined that defendant's blood alcohol level was .186. Dr. Charles Tindall, the Chief Forensic Scientist in charge of four State crime laboratories, was qualified as a witness in forensic toxicology. He testified that a man defendant's size with a blood alcohol level of .186 would have consumed approximately eight twelve ounce beers, or twelve ounces of 80 proof spirits. Dr. Tindall also testified that a person with a blood alcohol level of .186 is over twenty-five times more likely to be involved in an accident than a person who has not been drinking. He stated that with a .17 blood alcohol level, the lowest level that defendant would have had at the time of the accident, a person would not be able to drive safely.
Lieutenant Leo Selb, an accident reconstruction expert, reconstructed the accident for the prosecution. Based on his investigation, he asserted that the crash occurred in the southbound lane of Route 553 and that defendant's car was moving back into the northbound lane when the crash occurred. He opined that at impact, defendant was traveling within the legal limit at about fifty miles per hour, which is seventy-five feet per second. He conceded that defendant's driving may only have been careless, but taking into account that defendant did not slow down, was passing in a no-passing zone, and had a .186 blood alcohol level, Selb characterized defendant's conduct as reckless.
Selb made a supposition "that Mr. Ballard stopped at the stop sign" and then proceeded into the intersection, accelerating to approximately twenty-six miles per hour at impact. The stop sign was posted forty- five feet before the intersection. Selb theorized that Ballard noticed McDermott's vehicle as the immediate hazard and proceeded into the intersection only after yielding to him. *fn1 Thus, Selb testified that "had Mr. Jamerson remained in his lane . . . Mr. Ballard would have been able to safely negotiate that intersection and cross it." Furthermore, Selb indicated that once the drivers "got to where they were" in the intersection, they had .79 seconds to react. He concluded therefore, that neither driver could have avoided the accident, even if they had normal reaction time.
Dr. Speth's problematic testimony was introduced in the following manner. He was qualified at trial as a forensic pathologist and not as an accident reconstructionist. Apart from describing the injuries found at the time of autopsy and the physiological causes of the deaths, Dr. Speth was questioned by the prosecutor regarding the nonphysiological "circumstances" of Mr. Ballard's death. During direct examination, Dr. Speth stated:
Under the guidelines for a medical examiner, a medical examiner should be aware of the criteria by which one distinguishes what would be considered an accident versus a homicide. Now the medical examiner can use his determination as the evidence that any -- this goes beyond the expertise. It's the evidence that any common man would use to reach the same Conclusion. That's called prima facie evidence and the medical examiner uses the facts that he has collected to make determinations which are called prima facie; and based on all the evidence, I reached the Conclusion that this was a homicide.
Thus, Dr. Speth concluded that Mr. Ballard's death was a homicide rather than an accidental death.
He further explained what he meant:
Well the circumstances that would constitute that is that I determine [from] my own investigation and by my looking at the facts and the witness statements that the car crash had been caused by the red Cavalier and that this crash had caused the death of Mr. Ballard and that this -- that the operator of the Cavalier had been driving under the influence in a manner --
[Defense Attorney]: I object, Your Honor. He's not an expert. He's here as a pathologist. I certified him as a pathologist. I have never been given his report that he sets that forth. He's not an expert. We're going to hear from Dr. Tindall. I think that should be stricken. I do not certify that Dr. Speth, and I have a great respect for Dr. Speth, I've known him some time, but he's not here as an alcohol expert.
[Mr. Prosecutor], do you have some foundation upon which this Conclusion is based, that this witness can testify to, that is?
At that point defense counsel continued his objection, arguing that Dr. Speth was qualified only as a pathologist and not as an "alcohol expert." In response to the objection, the prosecutor elicited information from Dr. Speth that qualified him to testify as an expert regarding the effects of alcohol on the human body. Dr. Speth testified that on Mr. Ballard's death certificate, he listed the cause of death as "vehicular homicide," meaning that "the crash involved circumstances that would qualify it to be a homicide rather than ...