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WASHINGTON -- Business groups believe the Supreme Court's decision in a case involving expert testimony will make it harder for what they consider "junk science" to be used in court.
The case, General Electric Co. et al. vs. Joiner et ux., reaffirmed the 1993 Supreme Court decision in Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., which made district courts -- not appellate courts -- responsible for evaluating scientific evidence for reliability and relevance before being admitted.
The Daubert decision clarified what district court judges must do before allowing expert testimony to be heard, including determining whether the reasoning or methodology on which the testimony is based is scientifically sound and whether the reasoning and methodology are relevant to the facts in a particular case.
Despite the standards set by the high court in Daubert, the 11th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in reviewing the Joiner case overturned a district court's decision banning the testimony of certain expert witnesses and decided to undertake its own review of the expert testimony in question.
In its review of the circuit court's action, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 last week that the appellate court had been wrong to second-guess the district court.
The high court's decision won praise from legal experts and business groups.
"I think the court's decision is good news for those of us who are concerned about junk science in civil litigation. The role of the trial judge as a gatekeeper, which was first established in Daubert, was reaffirmed, and the duty of the trial judge to examine scientific evidence and assure that it is both relevant and reliable is underscored in Joiner," said former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, who has written on the issue.
"The court makes it clear that the only test to be applied in reviewing the judge's gatekeeper role is whether or not the trial judge abused his or her discretion and rejected the notion that there is some kind of 'preference' for admissibility; that's what the 11th Circuit had held and that was reversed in this case," said Mr. Thornburgh, counsel to Kirkpatrick & Lockhart L.L.P. in Washington.
The Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. praised the decision.
"RIMS is pleased with the Supreme Court's decision, and we hope the decision will encourage more judges to exercise their gatekeeper responsibilities. By using all the tools available to them, judges may be able to guard against at least some of the abuses that currently burden our legal system," said Paul Brown, RIMS' director of government and legal affairs.
The Joiner case began when Mr. Joiner, an electrician for the city of Thomasville, Ga., discovered he had small-cell lung cancer in 1991. He sued GE and two other manufacturers of electrical equipment in 1992, claiming he had been exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls -- better known as PCBs -- as well as PCB derivatives polychlorinated dibenzofurans and polychlorinated dibenzodioxins while working with the equipment. He claimed the substances and the PCBs had caused his lung cancer.
He relied on expert witnesses to substantiate his claim. But the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia held that Mr. Joiner's experts failed to show there was a link between exposure to PCBs and development of Mr. Joiner's type of cancer. In fact, the court said the expert testimony did not rise above "subjective belief or unsupported speculation."
But the court of appeals held last year that the district court had gone too far in banning the testimony. The court held that 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." The appeals court said the experts' testimony had a sound scientific basis when considered in its entirety rather than individually.
The majority of the high court disagreed. After discussing the particulars of the case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote:
"We hold, therefore, that abuse of discretion is the proper standard by which to review a district court's decision to admit or exclude scientific evidence. We further hold that, because it was within the district court's discretion to conclude that the studies upon which the experts relied were not sufficient, whether individually or in combination, to support their conclusions that Joiner's exposure to PCBs contributed to his cancer, the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding their testimony."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that district court judges, faced with complex scientific questions, should take advantage of offers of review from respected outside experts when examining evidence. Justice Breyer noted that the New England Journal of Medicine had proposed such a cooperative effort in a brief in the Joiner case.
Justice John Paul Stevens concurred with part of the decision and dissented in part.
Business groups cheered the majority opinion as providing better balance in determining what sort of testimony can be admitted in cases involving scientific evidence.
"It's great for business. It reaffirms what the Supreme Court held in 1993, which is (that) it is the role of the trial judges to act as gatekeepers in deciding whether to admit or exclude so-called expert testimony. I think this is just going to make things more balanced," said Robin Conrad, vp of the National Chamber Litigation Center in Washington.
But an attorney who had filed a brief supporting Joiner before the high court disagreed that the decision was pro-business. "This is not a pro-plaintiff or pro-defendant decision; it is a pro-district court decision," said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
"It gives much more discretion to the district court to either exclude or permit expert witness testimony; it gives much less authority to the appellate courts to overturn or control those decisions. What it means as a practical matter is whether cases get to the jury will depend a great deal on who the district court is. Before some district courts, there will be a bias in favor of allowing a case to go to jury. In some district courts, there will be even-handed approach, and in some district courts there will probably be a bias against letting cases go to the jury," he said.
"The decision ultimately creates a lot less work for the courts of appeal by giving much greater discretion to the district court. Unfortunately, it creates a system where whether you get to the jury or not will depend a great deal on who the judge is. It creates a system where the exact same case will go to the jury in front of one judge and not to a jury in front of some other judges, which may save appellate courts some work but is hardly the best way to run the system if you're interested in uniformity of result," said Mr. Bryant.
But business groups had little problem with any lack of uniformity of result.
"It could be double-edged in some cases, but the point that we wanted to make is that the fundamental decisions over the admissibility of evidence should be made at the trial court, because the standard that the Supreme Court established in Daubert gives the trial judge proper guidances on what to admit, and it's not necessary to second-guess those judges through expensive and time-consuming appeals," said Quentin Riegel, deputy general counsel of the National Assn. of Manufacturers.
Mr. Thornburgh said: "I think there are enough safeguards. I am particularly impressed by the concurring opinion by Justice Breyer, who points out the usefulness of the court's appointing its own experts to help in the assessment of admissibility."
Washington-based NAM's Mr. Riegel added that the decision fit into a larger framework that includes the high court's 1996 decision in the landmark punitive damages case BMW of North America Inc. vs. Ira Gore, which said punitive damage awards could be so disproportionate to actual damages as to be unconstitutional.
The Joiner decision is "kind of relevant to the punitive damages issues. We have been arguing for years that punitive damages should be subject to certain constitutional limits, and finally the Supreme Court issued guidance to the trial courts on how to specify when punitive damages are appropriate, so the ball is back in the trial court's court, so to speak," said Mr. Riegel.
General Electric Co. et al. vs. Joiner et ux., U.S. Supreme Court; No. 96-188, Dec. 15, 1997.