Steptoe & Johnson PLLC: Court Excludes Causation Expert’s Opinion, Tosses Chemical Exposure Case

Steptoe & Johnson PLLC: Court Excludes Causation Expert’s Opinion, Tosses Chemical Exposure Case

By Devin C. Daines

A recent Pennsylvania Superior Court decision illustrates the importance of ensuring that a medical expert’s opinions meet the minimum threshold for admissibility.  As in most toxic exposure cases, this crucial step can often be the difference between an early win for the defendant or the case proceeding to a jury trial.

In the case, a deceased pipefitter’s estate sued his longtime employer, a chemical manufacturer, claiming that prolonged exposure at its facility caused the pipefitter’s terminal brain cancer.  The estate’s causation expert relied on a report noting that workers at this facility had a higher rate of brain cancer. The underlying report, however, was inconclusive as to the cause of the disease and any relationship it may have had to the chemicals.

The trial court ruled that the expert’s report was inadmissible because no scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge beyond that of a normal person was used to formulate the expert’s opinion.  Accordingly, the expert report was little more than an unscientific and subjective opinion given by someone who happened to be a medical doctor, and as such, it would not assist the jury.  The appellate court affirmed the decision, and also noted that the expert avoided the medical literature because his report contained no scientific authority (facts, testimony, or data) that empirically linked the pipefitter’s brain cancer to the chemicals at issue.  Since this expert was the estate’s only witness on the required causation element, and his opinions were inadmissible, the case was dismissed.

The key takeaway from this ruling for defendants sued in Pennsylvania is to examine whether the plaintiff’s causation expert identifies independent scientific authority in support of his or her opinion.  If not, then the opinion could be challenged and might be excluded from reaching a jury.     

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