Let’s start with a shameless plug: the author of this post, along with Sean Wajert (Shook Hardy & Bacon), will present a Strafford webinar on June 21 entitled, “Daubert/Frye Motions in Product Liability Litigation: Bringing or Defending Challenges to Expert Witness Evidence.” Here is the link. We will cover a lot of areas and a lot of cases. Odds are good that the most recent case covered will be Wendell v. GlaxoSmithKline, LLC, 2017 WL 2381122 (9th Cir. June 2, 2017). That’s too bad, because it is not a well-reasoned case. It is a backwards step in Daubert analysis. For people who favor rigorous application of Daubert to keep junk science out of the courtroom, the Ninth Circuit’s Wendell decision is the worst sort, because it reverses a district court’s exclusion of expert opinions lacking support in epidemiology, animal studies or biologicals plausibility — meaning Wendell said it was an abuse of discretion for the district court to exclude the opinions. That is the kind of precedent that can turn nervous judges from gatekeepers to matadors who grimly wave junk science along to the jury.
The plaintiffs in Wendell alleged that their son died because medicines used to treat inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) caused him to develop cancer. The plaintiffs proffered two causation experts, but the district court found their opinions unreliable and, therefore, inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The court subsequently granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants. A key issue on appeal was the district court’s exclusion of the plaintiff experts’ opinions. The district court had identified several problems with those opinions. Here are some:
– The opinions were litigation-driven, were based on no independent research, and would not satisfy the standards for peer-reviewed journals. – No animal or epidemiological studies showed a causal link. – The studies cited by the experts did not show that the specific combination of drugs prescribed to the plaintiffs’ decedent actually caused the injury at issue. – The experts did not present any scientific evidence excluding IBD itself as a risk factor for the injury.
The Ninth Circuit called it “a close question” in concluding that the district court erred in excluding the expert testimony. In the eyes of the appellate court, the litigation-driven, non-study-supported, non-alternate-cause-excluding nature of the expert opinions should not overcome the facts that the experts were “highly qualified doctors” who had performed a “differential diagnosis” in arriving at their opinions. The Ninth Circuit’s analysis is unsatisfactory. First, the qualifications of the experts is a different issue from reliability of their methodologies. Under Rule 702, a qualified expert may testify if her testimony would be helpful to the jury, if she relied upon the appropriate facts/data, if she employed reliable methods, and if she reasonably applied those methods to the facts of the case. That is, qualifications are a precursor to reliability, not a substitute for it. If a Nobel prize winner renders an opinion based on astrology or phrenology, that opinion should be excluded no matter how impressed we are to be in the presence of such a luminary. Second, the Ninth Circuit looks at each of the methodological problems identified by the district court one-by-one, and repeatedly holds that the deficiency by itself (e.g., lack of animal studies), cannot exclude expert testimony. Maybe so, but when the opinions of an expert (no matter how well qualified) are beset by so many deficiencies, how can it be an abuse of discretion for a diligent district court to decide that the opinions do not pass muster? In truth, the Ninth Circuit did not apply anything close to an abuse of discretion standard of review. Rather, it engaged in a de novo review of the expert opinion issue, and did so in a remarkably wrong-headed fashion. The results of this precedent could be seriously damaging. If sparkling CV’s and invocations of “differential diagnosis” (and that’s not what was done by the experts by the way, but that’s a different point) can get causation opinions and a case to a jury, then Daubert has been diluted to the point of meaninglessness.
We will mimic the style of the great television critic Alan Sepinwall and end with some random observations:
– Along with two Ninth Circuit judges, the Wendell panel included a Vermont district judge who had authored an outlier opinion predicting that Vermont would adopt innovator liability.
– The Wendell opinion cites the Ferebee opinion from the D.C. Circuit. Ferebee is seldom a harbinger of anything good for defendants.
– The Wendell opinion is sufficiently bad and problematic to merit en banc or Supreme Court reversal.