Trial Judges Have Wide Discretion On Scientific Testimony, Court Says
By Joan Biskupic
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously yesterday that trial judges have great discretion to decide what type of scientific testimony can be presented to juries, a decision that could have a significant impact in product liability cases around the country.
Scientific experts have become ubiquitous in personal injury trials, with their testimony forming the basis of highly publicized complaints against manufacturers in breast implant, toxic waste and other liability lawsuits. For that reason, yesterday's case had been closely followed by business and labor, scientists, and the medical and legal community. Expert testimony is intended to enlighten a jury about a difficult, complex subject, but judges increasingly worry that parties to a case can find an "expert" to testify to anything and that flawed or distorted research "junk science" can mislead jurors.
The key question yesterday was how much deference an appeals court must give a trial judge's decision to exclude or admit "expert" testimony. The answer: Quite a lot.
Only if the trial judge "abuses" his or her discretion, that is, acts unreasonably or in a way totally unsupported by law, can an appeals judge reverse the decision on whether to admit expert testimony. The ruling clarifies a 1993 Supreme Court decision expanding trial judges' authority to decide whether testimony is sufficiently reliable and relevant for trial.
In their decision yesterday, the justices emphasized that trial judges, acting as "gatekeepers" of scientific evidence, should examine not only the conclusions of an expert but also his or her methodology. The justices said it was appropriate in this case brought by a man claiming he got lung cancer after handling chemical PCBs for a trial judge to bar testimony focused partly on studies of mice.
The studies involved infant mice that had developed cancer after being exposed to massive doses of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). But the lawsuit concerned a man whose alleged exposure had been far less than that in the animal study.
"The studies were so dissimilar to the facts presented in this litigation that it was not an abuse of discretion for the district court to have rejected the experts' reliance on them," Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court. Further, Rehnquist said, referring to other studies linking PCBs to lung cancer, a judge "may conclude that there is simply too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion offered."
Yesterday's case was brought by Robert K. Joiner, a longtime electrician for the Water and Light Department of Thomasville, Ga., who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1991. Joiner said his work maintaining and repairing transformers exposed him to coolant fluid containing PCBs, furans and dioxins, which caused or promoted his cancer. (He acknowledged that the cancer might have been caused in part by his cigarette smoking.)
Joiner sued General Electric and Westinghouse, which made the transformers, and Monsanto, which manufactured PCBs from 1935 to 1977. (Congress in 1978 banned the production and sale of PCBs, now considered hazardous to human health.)
The manufacturers countered that there was no evidence that Joiner suffered significant exposure to PCBs or that whatever level of exposure he may have received brought on Joiner's cancer. Joiner sought to offer statements from experts that showed PCBs cause and promote cancer. But a judge ruled for the manufacturers, saying the testimony from Joiner's experts lacked sufficient reliability. The judge also said Joiner failed to show he had been exposed to furans and dioxins.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed, applying a particularly stringent standard of review to the trial judge's decision to exclude the expert testimony.
In overturning the part of that ruling regarding the PCB evidence yesterday, the justices said the trial court's actions did not rise to an "abuse of discretion." Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote separately in General Electric Co. v. Joiner to observe that cases presenting science issues have increased significantly and to urge judges to seek help from specialists in trying to understand difficult subjects, perhaps through pretrial hearings, the appointment of special masters or specially trained law clerks.
Justice John Paul Stevens joined the rest of the justices in saying appeals courts must give great deference to trial judges, but dissented from the part of the opinion assessing the evidence in Joiner's case. He said the court did not have a sufficient record before it to review the experts' methodology and conclusions.
John G. Kester, a Washington lawyer who represented General Electric, said the ruling sends a message to lower courts to scrutinize the methodology behind an expert's conclusions and to ensure that studies introduced at trial are relevant.
Kenneth J. Chesebro of Boston, who represented Joiner, said it is unlikely to give either manufacturers or people alleging injuries the upper hand. "The range of discretion can go either way . . . to get rid of evidence or keep it in," he said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company