Supreme Court Rules on Testimony by Experts

The U. S. Supreme Court recently issued a unanimous ruling in a case which defendants in product liability cases are calling a victory. The decision in Kumho Tire Co. LTD v. Carmichael, 1999 Daily Journal, D.A.R. 2645, gives trial judges considerable leeway in determining whether experts can testify in nonscientific matters and expands the parameters for expert testimony in federal court set forth in the case of Daubert v. Merrell Pharmaceutical, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

This decision arises from an Alabama case where the plaintiffs contended a faulty tire was responsible for an automobile accident which left one passenger dead. An Alabama family was returning home after a cross-country trip. The father had recently purchased a used Ford Aerostar minivan with steel-belted tires made by the Kumho Tire Co. of South Korea. While driving, a rear tire blew out and the van rolled over, injuring seven members of the family and killing one of the passengers. The families sued Ford, which ultimately settled, and the manufacturer, Kumho Tire Co., contending that the tire failed because of a defect. Kumho's defense was that the tire was old and should have been replaced.

The plaintiffs relied on the testimony of a former tire tester for Michelin America, who had a degree in mechanical engineering. After looking at photographs of the tire, he concluded that the tire was defective. Lawyers for the manufacturer argued that the court should bar the expert from testifying because his opinions were unreliable and speculative. The trial court agreed with this argument and excluded the expert's testimony. The plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Appeals in Atlanta which reversed the trial judge's decision and ruled that only "scientific" testimony must be carefully screened. But the U. S. Supreme Court reversed this decision demanding "intellectual rigor" and "scientific reliability" for all experts.

This opinion held that in assessing the admissibility of any testimony which is based on technical or "other specialized" knowledge (under Fed. R. Evid. 702), the trial judge may apply the four factors used in the scientific context in the case of Daubert.

Six years ago, in the case of Daubert, the U. S. Supreme Court held that judges should act as "gatekeepers" with respect to testimony from scientific experts. The court stated that a chemist or medical researcher might have superb academic credentials, but it does not necessarily follow that his or her opinions about a new drug are scientifically valid. This recent ruling in Kumho now extends that rule to all experts, whether they are engineers, psychologists, biomechanics or accountants.

The four pronged test in Daubert, which has now been extended in Kumho, sets forth the requirements for an expert's testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Those factors are:

  • whether a theory or technique can be, or has been, tested;
  • whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication;
  • whether there are standards controlling a technique's operation; and
  • whether a technique enjoys general acceptance within the relevant scientific community.

The decision in Kumho has drawn praise from both the business and insurance communities which feel that it will have an impact in forcing trials dealing with scientific and technical testimony to be based on actual science and technology.

*article courtesy of Ms. Newman of Knapp, Petersen & Clarke, [email protected]