The typical fodder for MassTortDefense includes a recent case decision, new legislation or regulatory action, and developing science. Today’s post starts in a more local spot: in the midst of a recent strategy discussion, a young colleague asked, “If the motion is not frivolous, and you are not convinced the judge won’t consider it, why would you ever NOT file a Daubert challenge to a plaintiff’s expert?” Not a bad question, and maybe worth sharing the discussion.
Knowing when and when not to file a Daubert motion requires evaluating the risks of filing, and balancing a number of possibly competing relevant factors, even beyond the merits of the motion and the identity of the trial judge.
Our younger colleague knew that Federal Rules of Evidence 701-703 govern the admissibility of expert opinion evidence. And that in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), the Supreme Court re-emphasized the trial court’s role as gatekeeper of proper scientific evidence. In a nutshell the Court adopted a new or refined test for admissibility focused on relevancy, reliability, and fit of the proffered expert’s opinion. Important factors may include whether technique has been tested; subjected to peer review and publication; the potential and known error rates; any standards and controls applicable to the science; and the degree of acceptance in scientific community. And he knew that in Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999), the rule was applied not only to “scientific” evidence, but also to technical or other specialized knowledge. Stressing that the Daubert factors are flexible, not rigid, the application and importance of each one may or may not be pertinent, depending on the issues, the expert, and the opinion.
So why not make a seemingly valid motion? What’s the harm? Certain risks may exist. The first set of factors might loosely be thought of as timing issues. By filing the motion, are you showing your hand too soon? You may be losing the element of surprise, and suffer a loss of effectiveness in cross-examination. One of the issues here is whether you are showing a hand they have seen; or will see soon in Motions In Limines; or in defense reports or in the depositions of your experts, or are indeed giving them intelligence. Also, is the timing such that the plaintiff will still have a chance to cure? ATLA teaches young plaintiff attorneys to “ask the court to schedule Daubert motions before the discovery cut-off so that if there is a curable deficiency, there is time to cure it.” Ann.2003 ATLA-CLE 851 (July, 2003).
Whether the expert’s deficiency is correctable (and in time) depends on the specific issues. Arguably an incomplete analysis could be fixed. Viterbo v. Dow Chem. Co., 826 F.2d 420, 423 (5th Cir. 1987)(oral history taken by expert of plaintiff was incomplete). But the absence of peer review probably can’t be fixed in time in most cases. Valentine v. Pioneer Chlor Alkali Co., 921 F. Supp. 666 (D. Nev. 1996)(discussing meaning of peer review). A another type of issue, when the expertise of the witness is too far removed from the proffered area of testimony, arguably can be fixed only by substitution. Whiting v. Boston Edison Co., 891 F. Supp. 12 (D. Mass. 1995) (doctor with epidemiology experience excluded from opining on dose reconstruction). Similarly, ask whether the issue for the motion is an issue on which you can effectively lock in the expert before trial, or whether there is sliding room. It may be helpful to a motion that an expert says she or he has no knowledge on a key issue, but if cured after the unsuccessful motion and before trial, the cross at trial about “well, you know stuff now that you didn’t know then” may be ineffective.
A second set of concerns may relate to the court and judge. Even if the motion is not a “sure winner” (and are any?), how important is it to “educate” the judge? And perhaps it is important to educate the court as to key science and evidentiary issues sooner rather than later. However, there may be other opportunities to do so. Another issue related to the tendencies of the specific judge, is will the judge have expected you to file the motion, so that voir dire, motions in limine, trial objections, or other attacks on the expert will not be well received if you don’t? Some issues may be more appropriate for judge than jury, which might push you in one direction. Technical errors in complex statistical analysis may bore the jury to tears, making the motion more valuable; but a doctor who offers a litigation opinion inconsistent with his clinical practice might be more vulnerable in front of the jury. And there may be some kinds of experts you don’t want a jury to hear no matter what the strength of the cross. E.g., In re Welding Fume Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1535, 2006 WL 4507859 (Feb. 19, 2008, N.D.Ohio) (plaintiff’s business ethics expert excluded).
A third factor that comes to mind is whether the challenge is to all or part of the opinion? If some opinion will survive, do you want the weak opinion left in to use on cross to discredit the rest of the testimony, which appears stronger? If some opinion will survive, and summary judgment is not available, will exclusion of weak opinion make expert more credible at trial—because what is left is less subject to challenge?