Here’s one to watch. The Ninth Circuit last week said it will rehear the case of a paper mill employee whose $9.4 million mesothelioma verdict was vacated by a panel of the appeals court. The court noted in a one-page order that it will rehear the case en banc, but did not provide any specifics. See Henry Barabin. et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., No. 10-36142 (9th Cir.); Henry Barabin, et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc. and Scapa Dryer Fabrics Inc., No. 11-35020 (9th Cir.).
We can certainly speculate, of course, and our guess is that the reason for the decision does not relate directly to the evidentiary issue the panel had when, in November, it overturned the award after finding that the trial court failed to adequately assess the reliability of the plaintiffs’ expert testimony.
Readers may recall that plaintiff sued alleging that his 2006 diagnosis of mesothelioma was caused by occupational exposure to asbestos during the more than 30 years he worked at the Crown-Zellerbach paper mill. The trial court originally excluded Kenneth Cohen, one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, because of his “dubious credentials and his lack of expertise with regard to dryer felts and paper mills.” But the court later reversed that ruling, after the plaintiff supplemented the record on the expert’s credentials, including that he had testified in other cases (in Frye jurisdictions though). The jury found in favor of plaintiffs.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit determined that the lower court had not properly considered all the Daubert factors, and instead had allowed the plaintiff to submit the expert’s “unfiltered testimony” to the jury. “Once presented with the additional information in the Barabins’ response to the motion in limine, at a minimum the district court was required to assess the scientific reliability of the proffered expert testimony … In failing to do so, the district court neglected to perform its gatekeeping role.”
Our guess is that the court is thinking more about the fact that the panel remanded the case for a new trial in light of the court’s 2003 decision in Mukhtar v. California State University, 299 F.3d 1053 (9th Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003). One of the concurring opinions questioned the rule from that case that requires the court to vacate and remand for a new trial, as opposed to deciding on the need for a new trial after making a new Daubert determination. From where we sit, the court had it right in 2003 and this time too. To remand for an evidentiary hearing post-jury verdict undermines Daubert’s requirement that some reliability determination must be made by the trial court before the jury is permitted to hear the evidence. Otherwise, instead of fulfilling its mandatory role as a gatekeeper, the district court clouds its duty to ensure that only reliable evidence is presented with impunity. A post-verdict analysis does not protect the purity of the trial, but instead creates an undue risk of post-hoc rationalization. This is hardly the gatekeeping role the Supreme Court envisioned in Daubert and its progeny. The rule in Mukhtar gives trial courts a real and important incentive to be proper, active gatekeepers.