Daubert On The Defense?

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.


Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence: Third Edition–An Indispensable Tool

With little fanfare, the Federal Judicial Center and the National Research Council of the National Academies issued the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence: Third Edition, in 2011. Soon after the Supreme Court’s historic 1993 holding in Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in which federal judges were directed to serve as “gatekeepers,” the Federal Judicial Center published the First Edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, which became the leading reference source for federal judges seeking an understanding of difficult issues involving scientific testimony. The Second Edition was published by the Federal Judicial Center in 2000.  Considering advances in science, both in terms of how science is treated in the courtroom and in the laboratory, over the last 12 years, a new edition is certainly welcome. 

For the toxic tort practitioner, the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence is an indispensable reference work. As with previous editions, the Third Edition is organized according to the important scientific and technological disciplines often encountered by federal (or state) judges. It would be difficult to imagine preparing any toxic tort case for trial (or the filing of a Daubert motion) without reviewing, for example, the manual’s chapters on exposure science, epidemiology, toxicology, neuroscience and/or engineering. 

In particular, two critical issues germane to the interpretation of scientific evidence, namely issues of causation and conflict of interest, are highlighted in the new edition’s Preface. Judges are in a less favorable position than scientists to make causation assessments. Scientists have the luxury of delaying their decision while they or others gather more data. Judges, on the other hand, must rule on causation based upon existing information presented to the court. In the final analysis, a judge does not have the option of suspending judgment until more information is available, but must fulfill his gatekeeper role after considering the best available science. The Third Edition seeks to make that judicial task more manageable.

The Preface also discusses the problem of conflict of interest, which is an issue that cuts across most, if not all, scientific disciplines. What is the relationship between conflict and bias? According to the Preface, even though financial conflicts can be identified, the existence of a conflict, even one involving huge sums of money, does not necessarily mean that a given individual will be biased. Thus, having a financial relationship with a commercial entity produces a conflict of interest, but does not inevitably evoke bias. As the Third Edition points out, it is critical that judge and juries consider financial conflicts of interest when assessing scientific testimony, and the threshold for pursuing the possibility of such bias must be low.

I would appreciate comments from practitioners concerning how, if at all, the issuance of the Third Edition has impacted toxic tort trial practice or might do so in the future.