William A. Ruskin: Daubert On The Defense?

William A. Ruskin: Daubert On The Defense?

By William A. Ruskin

We discussed in an earlier article how the Reference Manual for Scientific Evidence, published by the Federal Judicial Center, has become an indispensable tool for judges in managing cases involving complex scientific and technical evidence. The manual describes key scientific fields from which legal evidence is typically derived, and judges often refer to the manual to help them better understand and evaluate the relevance, reliability and usefulness of the evidence being proffered. It has been suggested by some practitioners that the Third Edition, published in 2011, retreats from the rigorous Daubert standards set forth in the Second Edition, and thus will assist the plaintiff's bar.

A distinguished panel comprised of members of the International Association of Defense Counsel ("IADC") will examine this issue at IADC's upcoming Annual Meeting in a program titled, "Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence: Take 3." The moderator of the panel will be Bruce R. Parker, a partner at Venable LLP in Baltimore, Maryland. The panel members will include James F. Rogers, a partner with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP in Columbia, South Carolina; James W. Shelson, a partner with Phelps Dunbar LLP in Jackson, Mississippi; and Jessalyn H. Zeigler, a partner with Bass Berry & Sims PLC in Nashville, Tennessee.

The panelists have jointly authored a paper titled, "Changes in the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence (3rd Ed.)" ("RMSE Third"). The authors discuss some of the changes to RMSE Third that suggest a weakening of the Daubert standard for the admissibility of expert testimony. In particular, there is significant concern that the First Circuit's decision in Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., 693 F.3d 11 (1st Cir. 2011) will undermine Supreme Court precedent requiring that expert testimony be admitted only when it is based on sound science.

The Milward case involved a plaintiff who alleged that his Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia ("APL"), an extremely rare disease, was caused by his exposure to benzene. The key issue on appeal was whether the expert opinion of plaintiff's toxicology expert, Dr. Martyn Smith, was admissible on the issue of general causation.

In reversing the district court, which had excluded Dr. Smith's testimony, the First Circuit held that the district court had erred in treating the separate evidentiary components to Dr. Smith's analysis "atomistically" in "reasoning that because no line of evidence supported a reliable inference of causation, an inference of causation based on the totality of evidence was unreliable." The First Circuit concluded that Dr. Smith's "weight of the evidence" approach was acceptable because Dr. Smith reasoned, "to the best explanation for all of the available evidence."

According to the IADC panel authors, Milward is bad law because: (1) its application of the "weight of the evidence" methodology permits an expert's opinion to be admitted solely on the basis of the ipse dixit of the expert - i.e., a statement that rests solely on the authority of the expert who made the statement. This is expressly contrary to Joiner which cautioned that the ipse dixit of the expert does not transform the expert's opinion into a reliable methodology; (2) reasoning to "the best explanation for all of the evidence available" is not alone sufficient because an expert's opinion must be excluded when the underlying scientific data do not permit a conclusion beyond hypothesis or speculation; and (3) the First Circuit was wrong to criticize the district court for "atomistically" or, separately, reviewing each evidentiary component of Dr. Smith's analysis.

Rule 702 requires that expert testimony be "based on sufficient facts or data" and a gatekeeping court must inquire into the data and reasoning underlying an expert's testimony. For more information concerning the legal discussion, you can look to the Defendants/Appellees' Petition for Rehearing and, best of all, the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari to the US Supreme Court, which did not accept cert. This issue may ultimately be taken up by the Supreme Court, however, because the First Circuit's decision is at odds with the Daubert jurisprudence of all of the other circuit courts of appeal that have considered these issues.

RMSE Third frames the issue of "atomization" by asking, "When there is a Daubert challenge to an expert, should the court look to all the studies on which the expert relies for their collective effect or should the court examine the reliability of each study independently?" RMSE Third incorrectly suggests that the former approach may be the more appropriate.

Although the "weight of the evidence" approach may be used by regulatory agencies to assess the risk of chemicals, that does not render this approach reliable and relevant under Daubert. It is well known that regulatory agencies will often err on the side of caution without clear scientific evidence, but that Daubert requires that testing and validation occur before evidence is admissible in court.

For more cutting edge commentary on developing issues, visit Toxic Tort Litigation Blog by William A. Ruskin of Epstein Becker & Green.

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