A recent case from Washington state highlights weaknesses in expert testimony on electromagnetic fields of which public utilities should take note.

In Lakey v. Pudget Sound Energy, Inc., No. 87679-7 (Wash. Mar. 7, 2013), several homeowners sued a public utility company that had built an expanded electrical substation near Seattle, WA, asserting that the substation emitted harmful electromagnetic fields (EMF) onto their properties. The homeowners contended that their fear of the EMFs entitled them to damages and other relief.

The homeowners’ expert attempted to link EMFs to several medical conditions, including leukemia, Alzheimer’s and infertility. However, in preparing his opinions, he performed no original research, but instead reviewed and analyzed epidemiological studies that purportedly linked EMF exposure and illness. Importantly, the expert also disregarded certain toxicological studies and data that showed no correlation between EMF exposure and illness. Once this selective consideration of the relevant information was exposed, the trial court refused to admit the expert’s testimony and dismissed the homeowners’ EMF claims. The homeowners appealed.

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The court noted the “[expert] failed to follow proper methodology, rendering his conclusions unreliable and therefore inadmissible.”

Methodology and Conclusions Questioned

The Supreme Court sharply criticized the expert’s methodology. While he had considered data that suggested a link between EMF exposure and illness, he had ignored and failed to explain the larger pool of data showing no such link. Such methodology suggested that he had attempted to reach a desired result rather than allowing the evidence to dictate his conclusions. As a result, the court concluded that he had “seriously taint[ed] his conclusions” and that his testimony was properly excluded under the applicable rules of evidence.

Implications

This case underscores vulnerabilities shared by many EMF experts. Faced with a lack of original research, many tend to heavily rely upon scientific data that has been compiled by others. Unfortunately, some selectively ignore studies and data that contradict the link between EMF exposure and illness; the resulting expert opinions are unreliable.

A public utility’s best line of defense to keep this junk science away from a jury is a strong motion to exclude supported by careful cross-examination.