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California Supreme Court Mandates Use of Daubert-Like Standards for Experts

2013 | Topics: Class Actions, Product Liability

A recent California Supreme Court opinion will not only have a profound impact on the evidentiary landscape for expert testimony, but will also create a significant advantage for corporate defendants in the products liability context.

In Sargon Enterprises, Inc. v. University of Southern California (2012) 55 Cal.4th 747 (“Sargon”), the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that state court judges are “gatekeepers” of expert testimony, and that they are required to examine such testimony as to its reliability, methodology, and assistance to the jury.  Specifically, the Supreme Court held that California Evidence Code Sections 801 and 802 require state court judges to exercise essentially the same rigorous scrutiny that the U.S. Supreme Court imposed on federal court judges in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals (1995) 509 U.S. 579 to prevent the admissibility of speculative and unreliable expert testimony.  (Id. at pp. 769-772.)  In other words, California state court judges must apply Daubert-like standards to determine the admissibility of expert testimony.

Before the Supreme Court decided Sargon, there was considerable confusion in California law concerning the extent of trial courts’ responsibility to assess the foundation of expert opinion testimony.  Under Sargon, it is now clear that California trial courts “must” determine “whether, as a matter of logic, the studies and other information cited by experts adequately support the conclusion that the expert’s general theory or technique is valid.”  (Id. at p. 772.)  While emphasizing the need to exclude unreliable evidence, the Supreme Court also noted that a trial court’s gatekeeping role does not involve choosing between competing expert opinions, resolving scientific controversies, weighing an opinion’s probative value, or substituting its own opinion for the expert’s opinion.  (Id. at pp. 769-772.)

A trial court must focus on the principles and methodology underlying an expert’s opinion and must determine whether the information and reasoning on which an expert relies logically and adequately support that opinion.  (See id. at p. 772.)  As such, an expert opinion must be excluded when the trial court’s assessment reveals the opinion to be “invalid and unreliable.”  (Ibid.)  Notably, in pharmaceutical and toxic tort cases, plaintiffs’ medical experts often rely on case reports to support their general causation opinions.  Plaintiffs typically argue that case reports, alone or in combination with other information, provide an adequate foundation for a causation opinion.  Defendants usually disagree, and they now have added support for their position in Sargon.