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Supreme Court Raises Bar on Trial Experts

Wednesday, March 24, 1999

 

By DAVID G. SAVAGE, Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON--The Supreme Court told federal trial judges Tuesday to screen out dubious testimony by all expert witnesses whose opinions are not based on solid science.

The 8-1 ruling, a clear victory for American manufacturers, will make it harder to sue the makers of everything from automobiles to medical devices and breast implants.

To win such lawsuits, injured persons must prove that defective products are responsible, and to do so they usually rely on hired experts. But the high court has shown a deep skepticism toward these hired courtroom experts.

Six years ago, the court said that judges should act as "gatekeepers" and carefully examine testimony from scientific experts. A chemist or medical researcher might have superb academic credentials, the court said, but that alone does not mean that his or her opinions about a new drug are scientifically valid.

Judges should look beyond scientists' qualifications and examine the basis of their conclusions, the court said in 1993.

Tuesday's ruling extends that rule of skepticism to all manner of experts, whether they are engineers, psychologists, accountants or handwriting analysts. Before they are permitted to testify to juries, experts must show that their opinions are based on "scientific principles," the justices said again Tuesday, not just a hunch based on years of practical experience.

The decision blocks the testimony in an Alabama court of a tire expert who, before examining a tire, concluded that it must have blown out because of a manufacturing defect rather than excessive wear. "I think this decision will greatly enhance the reliability of decision-making by juries. It will keep out a lot of crazy expert testimony we've seen," said Washington attorney Kenneth S. Geller, who represented the South Korean tire maker that was sued in the case.

Over the last decade, manufacturers have complained loudly about "junk science" in the courtroom. Their companies often have been wrongly held liable for selling defective products based on dubious trial testimony by hired experts, they have said. They have urged the court to set a high barrier that experts must surmount before they can offer their opinions in court. By contrast, trial lawyers have maintained that a jury should be allowed to hear experts from both sides and then weigh the conflicting testimony. "We believe this testimony should have been heard by the jury. [Until now], a basic tenet of the federal rules had been to let the evidence in, to let the jury sift through it and decide," said Sidney W. Jackson, a trial lawyer from Mobile, Ala.

Advocates for the big-business side of the "junk science" debate have pointed to lawsuits that drove off the market Bendectin, an anti-nausea drug that had been blamed for birth defects, as well as silicon breast implants, which were blamed for an array of crippling injuries suffered by women.

In both instances, juries handed down big verdicts against the manufacturers. Key testimony was provided by medical experts, although their conclusions were later called into question by further scientific studies. The case that reached the high court began on July 6, 1993, when an Alabama family was returning home after a cross-country trip. Patrick Carmichael, the father, had recently purchased a used Ford Aerostar minivan with steel-belted tires made by the Kumho Tire Co. of South Korea. While he was driving on an interstate highway near Mobile, a rear tire blew out and the van rolled over, injuring seven members of the family and killing a young girl traveling with them. The families sued Ford, which paid a settlement, and the tire maker. They contended that the tire failed because of a defect.

The company said that the tire was old and worn and should have been replaced. The family's case depended on the testimony of Dennis Carlson, a former tire tester for Michelin America who had a degree in mechanical engineering. After looking at photographs of the tire, he wrote a report concluding that the tire was defective. Later, an hour before giving a deposition, he inspected the damaged tire briefly.

Lawyers for the manufacturer, pointing to the Supreme Court's 1993 ruling, urged the judge to act as a "gatekeeper" and to bar Carlson from testifying. The judge agreed, saying that Carlson's opinions about the failed tire were "simply too unreliable, too speculative" to present as evidence.

The family appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which reversed the trial judge and ruled that only "scientific" testimony must be carefully screened. It said that an expert's experience and observations can be valuable, even if they are not based on science. But the Supreme Court took up the tire manufacturer's appeal and came down squarely on the side of demanding "intellectual rigor" and "scientific reliability" for all expert testimony.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved