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High Court Changes Evidentiary Standard: The new role of “Gatekeeper” in CA courts

December 10, 2012

California state court judges must now take on a stringent “gatekeeper” role, regarding expert medical causation opinions allowed in trial. In a previous post, we discussed the case of Sargon Enterprises v. University of Southern California questioning the judge’s role as “gatekeeper” for “faulty” damages calculations. The state Supreme Court held that the gatekeeper role must be in line with the U.S. Supreme Court imposed rulings in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals. There had been a feeling that in California state courts faulty expert witness opinions (as some call “junk science”) served as a catalyst to gain huge damages awards based on playing to a sympathetic jury.

A Rand study found that 86 percent of California civil trials involved expert testimony, with at least three experts on average testifying in every trial. The impact of the Supreme Court’s new expert admissibility regime should be particularly striking in tort cases turning on expert medical causation evidence.

The Supreme Court outlined the “gatekeeper” role that will force judges to determine the admissibility of an expert witness opinion based on substance and reliability. The Supreme Court explained:

“The trial court acts as a gatekeeper to exclude testimony that is (1) based on matter of a type on which an expert may not reasonably rely, (2) based on reasons unsupported by the material on which the expert relies, or (3) speculative. Other provisions of law, including decisional law, may also provide reasons for excluding expert opinion testimony.”

How will this impact cases?

Without provocative expert medical causation testimony, cases that might well have produced seven-figure jury verdicts under the previous lax admissibility regime may never even get to trial. As Daubert directed, “In a case involving scientific evidence, evidentiary reliability will be based upon scientific validity.”

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