Last month, the California Supreme Court affirmatively recognized that trial courts have a “gatekeeper” function in admitting expert testimony—signaling a small but important step away from California’s Kelly-Frye test and toward the federal Daubert test. Sargon v. University of Southern California, 55 Cal. 4th 747 (2012). Although Sargon is a breach of contract action, its holding is broad enough to make it an important case for all expert-driven litigation—including products liability. This ruling could allow companies defending against products liability claims to persuade courts to exclude expert opinions that lack an adequate basis, instead of merely ruling that these arguments go to the weight of the evidence.

Trial Courts Have Broad Discretion to Inquire into the Reasons Behind an Expert’s Opinions

In Sargon, the Supreme Court read California law to include the “gatekeeping” function that is central to Daubert. In its analysis, the court borrowed from some of Daubert’s most important language, including key elements of its test for determining the admissibility of expert testimony:

  • Does the expert provide a reasonable basis for the opinion?
  • Is there too great an analytical gap between the data and the proffered opinion?
  • Is the expert’s general theory or technique valid?

Although the Sargon decision shares some common language with Daubert when describing the nature of the court’s gatekeeping role, Sargon does not adopt the entire Daubert analysis. Daubert requires federal courts to conduct a four-part “preliminary assessment” before an expert may be admitted. Sargon provides no test or factors that a trial court must consider when evaluating expert testimony. Instead, Sargon directs lower courts to inquire into the sufficiency of the connection between an expert’s methodology and conclusions. In essence, the California Supreme Court harmonized existing case law and statutory authority on expert admission into a more cohesive “gatekeeper” function.

In a published decision, one court of appeal has already applied Sargon to affirm a trial court’s decision to exclude expert testimony as a proper exercise of its gatekeeping function. People ex rel. Dept. of Transp. v. Dry Canyon Enterprises, LLC, 211 Cal. App. 4th 486, 493, (2012). In Dry Canyon, the court of appeal recognized the trial court’s discretion to find that an expert’s methodology used to value goodwill was inappropriate and unfit for admission in the context of the case.

Potential Impact: A Better Opportunity for Earlier Dispositions

While the practical impact of Sargon has yet to be determined, it does provide a new layer of authority, language and justification for trial judges to exclude expert opinions that lack adequate foundation. This uncertainty may encourage plaintiffs to settle matters while Sargon motions are pending, rather than risk losing their case along with their experts. Similarly, the severe budget crisis that is decimating California’s court system may encourage judges to use Sargon’s holding to resolve matters that would otherwise be tried. Only time will tell.

Although much remains unknown, Sargon brings hope to the prospect that the admission of testimony from plaintiffs’ experts in California will not be near-automatic, but subject to real and meaningful review.