Ninth Circuit Vacates Asbestos Verdict on Daubert Basis

The Ninth Circuit earlier this month vacated a $9 million award for a plaintiff who allegedly contracted mesothelioma working for decades at a paper mill, because the trial court failed to assess the reliability of expert testimony for the plaintiffs under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm.,
Inc
., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). See Henry Barabin et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., et al., Nos. 10-36142 and 11-35020 (9th Cir.). 

Plaintiff's employer used dryer felts containing asbestos allegedly made or sold by defendants. During his employment, he allegedly worked in various jobs that exposed him to the dryer felts that defendants had provided. He also took pieces of dryer felt home to use in his garden.  In November, 2006, Plaintiff was diagnosed with pleural malignant epithelial mesothelioma.  It was undisputed that exposure to respirable asbestos can cause mesothelioma (general causation).

Defendants filed a motion in limine to exclude plaintiff's expert witnesses on specific causation. The district court excluded one (Dr. Cohen) as an expert because of his “dubious credentials and his lack of expertise with regard to dryer felts and paper mills. . . ” Additionally, the district court limited a second (Dr. Millette), requiring disclosure to the jury that Dr. Millette’s tests were “performed under laboratory conditions which are not the same as conditions at [plaintiff's workplace].”  However, during a pre-trial conference, the district court reversed its decision to exclude Dr. Cohen’s testimony. The district court explained that plaintiffs had clarified Dr. Cohen’s credentials, including that he had testified in other cases. The district court did not hold a Daubert hearing.

After the jury verdict and post-trial motions, defendants appealed.  The court of appeals noted that in its role as gatekeeper, the district court determines the relevance and reliability of expert testimony and its subsequent admission or exclusion. See Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 657 F.3d 970, 982 (9th Cir. 2011). Admission or exclusion under Daubert rests on the scientific reliability and relevance of the expert testimony.  The expert’s opinion must be deduced from a “scientific method” to be admissible. The test under Daubert is not the correctness of the expert’s conclusions but the soundness of his methodology. Compliance with Rule 702 is gauged by the district court’s assessment of the reliability of the proffered expert testimony. Specifically, the district court is charged with determining whether the proffered expert testimony is trustworthy. In a case involving scientific evidence, evidentiary reliability will be based upon scientific validity. Scientific validity is, in turn, assessed in large part by the degree to which the theories propounded by the expert have been subjected to and survived scrutiny in the relevant scientific community.  The "decision to admit or exclude expert testimony is often the difference between winning and losing a case."

Since the decision to permit the testimony was based on reconsideration, the record was limited. Once presented with the additional information in the response to the motion in limine, at a minimum the district court was required to assess the scientific reliability of the proffered expert testimony.  Unfortunately, said the court of appeals, because no Daubert hearing was conducted as requested, the district court failed to assess the scientific methodologies, reasoning, or principles Dr. Cohen applied. None of the Daubert factors was considered. "Instead, the court allowed the parties to submit the experts’ unfiltered testimony to the jury."  In failing to do so, the district court neglected to perform its gatekeeping role.  Rather than making the required determinations, the district court left it to the jury to determine the relevance and reliability of the proffered expert testimony in the first instance, said the panel. The 9th Circuit panel seemed influenced in part by the fact that, in its order, the district court wrote: In the interest of allowing each party to try its case to the jury, the Court deems admissible expert testimony that every exposure can cause an asbestos-related disease. (emphasis added).

"Let the parties try their cases; let the jury sort it out" is not what Daubert allows or requires.  The district court committed reversible error when it failed to assess the proferred expert testimony for relevance and reliability, concluded the court. Prior decisions dictated that a new trial be provided in this circumstance.

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