Daubert Bewigged

Claire McIvor, a senior lecturer, at the Birmingham Law School, has published an interesting U.K. perspective on the use of epidemiologic and statistical evidence in health-outcome litigation. See “Debunking some judicial myths about epidemiology and its relevance to UK tort law,” in 21 Med. Law Rev. (2013), in press.

McIvor argues that British judges have failed to engage with epidemiologic evidence, and have relegated epidemiologic evidence to a status inferior to clinical evidence, even when testifying clinicians have little to offer the fact finder.  If the be-wigged judges have done this shame on them, but McIvor suggests that a pre-trial hearing is necessary to address the proper (and improper) range of methodologies and inferences:

“The very fact that methodologically problematic evidence can end up before a trial court is indicative of the need for a pre-trial admissibility test for scientific evidence in UK civil law. Such a test would afford the court an opportunity to evaluate the scientific reliability of any epidemiological evidence that the parties wish to introduce at trial.”

McIvor at 22.  In advancing this recommendation, McIvor expands upon a recent Law Commission recommendation for what she describes as “a pre-trial admissibility test for scientific evidence in criminal litigation, similar to that which is used in the USA.”  McIvor at 32 (citing Law Commission, Expert Evidence in Criminal Proceedings in England and Wales (Law Comm’n No. 325, 2011)).

This recommendation and discussion, however, are confusing and perhaps confused.  The test in the United States is not a pre-trial test, although a party may ask for a determination in advance, either in conjunction with a motion for summary judgment, or to limit the evidentiary display at trial.   Nonetheless, objections to expert witness opinion testimony can certainly be made at trial.  Indeed, if the pre-trial motion is denied, the moving party may well have to renew its objection at trial in any event.

MacIvor’s recommendation is puzzling for other reasons.  First, most civil cases are tried to the bench, and the need to challenge the expert opinion pre-trial is certainly less pressing.  Lengthy, methodological challenges are virtually impossible before a jury but they would be made in front of the presiding judge, in any event.  Second, having recommended the pre-trial procedure, and the substantive standard for reliability and validity, McIvor proceeds to tell us that it [the Daubert standard] has “proven to be a rather controversial test in practice.”  Id. at 32 n.84 (citing no less of an authority than Carl Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law and the Possibility of Justice 62-90 ( 2006)).  Cranor is hardly an unbiased, reliable source, but if McIvor accepts his pronouncements, her recommendation is hard to understand.  Third, McIvor gives us an example of a class of cases, which at first blush, suggest that judges on the other side of the Atlantic just do not understand science.  In McTear v. Imperial Tobacco, [2005] 2 SC 1, the trial judge, Lord Nimmo Smith, ruled in favor of a tobacco company in a lung cancer personal injury case.  His ruling was largely based upon a rejection of the epidemiologic evidence, which McIvor suggests is unreasonable, but then tells us that the rejection might have resulted from the plaintiffs’ reliance upon reports without the benefit of an epidemiologist to explain and teach the trial judge about the meaning of the evidence.

Indeed, McIvor tells us that Lord Nimmo Smith complained in his opinion that he had not been:

“‘sufficiently instructed by the expert evidence about this discipline’ to be able to form his own judgment of the evidence. This was not an unreasonable point, at least as regards the issue of individual causation.”

McIvor at 32 (quoting Lord Nimmo Smith).  Well, it does suggest that the good Lord may have been a stubborn Scot, who was not going to give any weight to the common wisdom, but rather insist that the plaintiff make his case in court.  Even McIvor goes on to characterize the plaintiff’s counsel’s strategy as “unwise, in hindsight.”  Id.

Rule 702 is an extremely important part of the law of evidence in federal courts, and in many state courts.  The U.K. would do well to adopt it, with allowance for the very different role of judges in civil cases on the other side of the Atlantic.

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