Discovery into the Origin of Historian Expert Witnesses’ Opinions

As every trial lawyer in America knows, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were recently changed to protect expert witness draft reports and lawyer-expert witness communications from discovery.  See Rule 26. Duty to Disclose; General Provisions Governing Discovery (amended effective December 2010).

In particular, Rule 26(b) (4)(B), and (C) provides:

(4)(B) Trial-Preparation Protection for Draft Reports or Disclosures. Rules 26(b)(3)(A) and (B) protect drafts of any report or disclosure required under Rule 26(a)(2), regardless of the form in which the draft is recorded.

(C) Trial-Preparation Protection for Communications Between a Party’s Attorney and Expert Witnesses. Rules 26(b)(3)(A) and (B) protect communications between the party’s attorney and any witness required to provide a report under Rule 26(a)(2)(B), regardless of the form of the communications, except to the extent that the communications:

(i) relate to compensation for the expert’s study or testimony;

(ii) identify facts or data that the party’s attorney provided and that the expert considered in forming the opinions to be expressed; or

(iii) identify assumptions that the party’s attorney provided and that the expert relied on in forming the opinions to be expressed.

In some ways, this amendment was a retrograde step.  Although protecting drafts and communications from discovery helps ease the expense and inconvenience of working with expert witnesses, the amendment also serves to protect unscrupulous lawyers and expert witnesses who work in concert to present tendentious opinions.

In the sciences, tendentious opinions will ultimately be embarrassed by future facts, but in the field of history, the interpretative narratives are often unfalsifiable and malleable.  Discovery into the creative process of historian expert witnesses’ opinions needs to be complete and thorough.

Consider the consider the case of Barry Castleman, who has testified for decades for the asbestos litigation industry, on historical issues in asbestos personal injury cases.  Back in 1986, when Castleman was still “researching” his opinions, he received a letter from plaintiffs’ lawyer, Tom Hart:

 

Mr. Barry Castleman                                                                                   January 9, 1986
1722 Linden Avenue
Baltimore, Maryland 21217

RE: Kenneth Lynch

Dear Barry:

As a follow-up to our conversation on January 6, 1986, I have reviewed our files and find that we do not have a file on Kenneth Lynch. Apparently I was provided with some of these papers indirectly. I seem to recall that the attorneys from California came to South Carolina and conducted the search for Kenneth Lynch’s papers.

We have not been eager to pursue this due to our understanding that Dr. Lynch was not convinced that asbestos was a cause of cancer. Despite his earlier publications, he remained personally reluctant to state that asbestos was causally related to the formation of cancers until some time in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. This indecision on his part would be contrary to our best interests in the asbestos litigation and, accordingly, we have discouraged other counsel from exploring this further.

Since we do not have the specific documents you need, perhaps Marcia Hughes could provide them to you from Dick Gerry’s office in San Diego.

With best regards, I am

Very truly yours,

Thomas H. Hart, III

 

Dr. Lynch was a well-known South Carolina pathologist, who, along with Dr. William Smith, published a case report of lung cancer in a patient with asbestosis.  See Kenneth M. Lynch & William A. Smith, “Pulmonary asbestosis III: carcinoma of lung in asbestosilicosis,” 23 Am. J. Cancer 56 (1935).  Plaintiffs’ counsel were eager to over interpret this case report as showing an association, which was beyond the ability of a single, uncontrolled case to do.

The new Rule can be seen to have a few holes in it.  Discovery is permitted into facts or data provided by counsel, and which were considered by the expert witness.  Discovery is also permitted into the identity of assumptions given by the directing counsel, and relied upon by the expert witness.  The letter from Hart to Castleman above, however, illustrates that important insights may result from suggestions, implicit or explicit, not to look at certain facts.

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