Three years ago, Florida lawmakers altered the standards for admissibility of expert witness testimony in the courtroom. We went from being a “Frye” state (based on the 1923 precedent in Frye v. U.S.) to a “Daubert” state (based on the 1993 case of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.).
The latter is a more stringent standard of weighing scientific methodology. This change has had a profound impact on civil litigation in Florida, requiring that expert witness testimony (needed in so many cases, from medical malpractice claims to car accident injury lawsuits) be thoroughly vetted. The Frye test required that the methodology or theory from which a scientific deduction was made had to have gained acceptance in that particular field. Daubert, meanwhile, the judge is responsible for being the gatekeeper of the expert witness’s qualifications and also ensuring that the testimony is both relevant and reliable. With regard to methodology, this generally means the court has to consider whether the theory or technique has been or can be tested, whether it has been subject to peer review, what the known or potential rate of error is and whether the theory is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.
In a recent product liability case considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, justices reversed a $3 million award in favor of the plaintiff after finding the trial court judge failed to perform the proper gatekeeping duties with regard to plaintiff’s expert witness. Further, without that testimony, plaintiff did not have enough evidence to prove his claim, and therefore justices issued an order remanding the case for entry of a judgment in defendant car manufacturer’s favor.
According to court records, plaintiff suffered serious injuries in 2009 when the pickup truck he had just purchased suddenly could not decelerate. He first realized the issue while driving down the road at 50 mph and finding that releasing the accelerator did nothing to slow his speed. Neither did pressing on the brake. In an effort to avoid striking pedestrians or other vehicles, he opted to turn his vehicle off road and crash into the side of a brick road.
Soon thereafter, he and his wife filed a product liability lawsuit against the vehicle manufacturer. As part of that case, he presented prior to and during trial the expert witness testimony of an electrical engineer. It was noted that the general design and function of the throttle control system in the 2001 vehicle is typical of any modern passenger vehicle. The issue, opined the expert witness, was that there was debris built up in the casing cap attached to the motor, which affected the speed control guide tube. This, he opined, was what caused the plaintiff to be unable to stop.
This evidence was presented to the jury, who decided the case in favor of plaintiff.
However in reversing that finding, justices noted that the methodology used by the electrical engineer would not have allowed him to actually see a buildup of debris in the casing cap, as he had asserted. Additionally, he did not present evidence indicating what his basis was for finding that debris had built up there. Defense argued the opinions put forth by the engineer weren’t based on any reliable methodology and there had been no testing or scientific literature that indicated the speed control assembly could be bound in the way he described. The court agreed and reversed.
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Nease v. Ford Motor Co., Feb. 1, 2017, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
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Report: Car Insurance Unaffordable for Millions of Americans, Feb. 3, 2017, Orlando Car Accident Lawyer Blog