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Evidence & Causation

Evidentiary rulings under Daubert standard are to be reviewed with abuse of discretion standard - General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U. S. 136 (1997)

Plaintiff was a longtime electrician with a Georgia city water and light department, who was exposed to transformer oils containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and their breakdown products (furans and dioxins) in the workplace. He developed oat cell cancer of the lung and sued GE and Westinghouse Electric (transformer and dielectric fluid manufacturers) and Monsanto (PCB manufacturer) in state court, on theories of strict liability, negligence, and fraud. He was a smoker and had a family history of cancer, so he alleged that the PCB "promoted" his cancer, transforming the cells initiated by cigarette smoke into malignant cells.

Defendants removed the case to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, where they moved for summary judgment. The court ruled that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether plaintiff had been exposed to PCBs. But it nevertheless granted summary judgment for petitioners because the court felt that (1) there was no genuine issue as to whether plaintiff had been exposed to furans and dioxins, and (2) the testimony of plaintiff's experts had failed to show that there was a link between exposure to PCBs and small cell lung cancer. The court believed that the testimony of plaintiff's experts on this issue did not rise above "subjective belief or unsupported speculation," and hence was inadmissible.864 F.Supp. 1310 (N.D.Ga. 1994).

 

A divided panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (with three opinions produced by a three-judge court) reversed: "Because the Federal Rules of Evidence governing expert testimony display a preference for admissibility, we apply a particularly stringent standard of review to the trial judge's exclusion of expert testimony." Applying that standard, the Court of Appeals held that the district court had erred in excluding the testimony of plaintiff's expert witnesses, and cited two fundamental errors. First, the district court excluded the experts' testimony because it drew different conclusions from the research from those of the experts. The Court of Appeals opined that a district court should limit its role to determining the "legal reliability of proffered expert testimony, leaving the jury to decide the correctness of competing expert opinions." Second, the district court was said to be incorrect in holding that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether plaintiff had been exposed to furans and dioxins; testimony in the record supported the assertion of such exposure. 78 F.3d 524 (1996).

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in response to a petition by defendants complaining of the Circuit Court's standard of review. The circuits had been split on the issue: six circuits had ruled that a trial judge could be reversed only when "manifestly erroneous," four only when he had committed "abuse of discretion," and two adopted the "particularly stringent standard" used in the instant case.

In a opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the court reversed and remanded, holding unanimously that the "abuse of discretion" standard is the appropriate one. The core of this ruling was the determination that the exclusion of testimony under Daubert is not a determination of a factual issue, and thus is subject to the same standard of review as other determinations of law by the district judge. It found that in "applying an overly 'stringent' review to that ruling, [the appeals court] failed to give the trial court the deference that is the hallmark of abuse of discretion review."

The court reviewed the grounds on which the district court rejected the scientific studies relied on by plaintiff's expert. This review makes clear their opinion that the district court conducted a proper Daubert analysis and gave clear reasons for its rejection of the specific studies relied on by plaintiff. (Some were animal studies involving different cancers and much larger dosages, others were epidemiologic studies that actually found no association between PCBs and cancer in the workplace.)

Finally, the Chief Justice stated that whether the plaintiff was exposed to furans and dioxins, and whether the excluded opinions would be admissible in the presence of such exposure, remain open question. The court reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Justice Breyer joined the court's opinion, and filed a concurrence stressing that judges should use the devices provided by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to avail themselves of expert help. He endorsed increased use of pretrial conferences to narrow the scientific issues in dispute, pretrial hearings where judges may examine potential experts, and the appointment of special masters and specially-trained law clerks.

Justice Stevens joined in the parts of the court's opinion dealing with the standard of review. However, he dissented on the question of whether the district court properly had excluded the testimony of plaintiff's experts, stating that he was unsure that the issue had been adequately briefed, and that the circuit court was a more appropriate forum for dealing with that question. He would have remanded the case for application of the proper standard of review. He said that the Daubert analysis should be restricted to the methodology used, not the conclusion drawn. In his view, Daubert does not reach conclusions drawn by experts, as long as they rely on methodologically sound studies. Thus, if the epidemiologic studies were properly done, Justice Stevens felt that the plaintiff's expert should be allowed to testify that he reached a different conclusion from the authors of the study.

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