Judicial Dodgers – Rule 702 Tie Does Not Go to Proponent

The Advisory Committee notes to the year 2000 amendment to Federal Rule of Evidence 702 included a comment:

“A review of the case law after Daubert shows that the rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule. Daubert did not work a ‘seachange over federal evidence law’, and ‘the trial court’s role as gatekeeper is not intended to serve as a replacement for the adversary system’.”[internal citation omitted]

In stating its review of the caselaw, perhaps the Committee was attempting to allay the anxiety of technophobic judges. But was the Committee also attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is”?  Before the Supreme Court decided Daubert in 1993, virtually every admissibility challenge to expert witness opinion testimony failed. The trial courts were slow to adapt and to adopt the reframed admissibility standard. As the Joiner case illustrated, some Circuits were even slower to permit trial judges the discretion to assess the validity vel non of expert witnesses’ opinions.

The Committee’s observation about the “exceptional” nature of exclusions was thus unexceptional as a description of the case law before and shortly after Daubert was decided. And even if the Committee were describing a normative view, it is not at all clear how that view should translate into a ruling in a given case, without a very close analysis of the opinions at issue, under the Rule 702 criteria. In baseball, most hitters are thrown out at first base, but that fact does not help an umpire one whit in calling a specific runner “safe” or “out.”  Nonetheless, courts have repeatedly offered the observation about the exceptional nature of exclusion as both an explanation and a justification of their opinions to admit testimony.[1] The Advisory Committee note has thus mutated into a mandate to err on the side of admissibility, as though deliberately committing error was a good thing for any judge to do.[2] First rule: courts shall not err, not intentionally, recklessly, or negligently.

Close Calls and Resolving Doubts

Another mutant offspring of the “exception, not the rule” mantra is that “[a]ny doubts regarding the admissibility of an expert’s testimony should be resolved in favor of admissibility.”[3] Why not resolve the doubts and rule in accordance with the law? Or, if doubts remain, then charge them against the proponent who has the burden of showing admissibility? Unlike baseball, in which a tie goes to the runner, in expert witness law, a tie goes to the challenger because the defender of the motion has failed to show a preponderance in favor of admissibility. A better mantra: “exclusion when it is the Rule.”

Some courts re-imagine the Advisory Committee’s about exceptional exclusions as a recommendation for admitting Rule 702 expert witness opinion testimony as a preferred outcome. Again, that interpretation reverses the burden of proof and makes a mockery of equal justice and scientific due process.

Yet another similar judicial mutation is the notion that courts should refuse Rule 702 motions when they are “close calls.”[4] Telling the litigants that the call was close might help assuage the loser and temper the litigation enthusiasms of the winner, but it does not answer the key question: Did the proponent carry the burden of showing admissibility? Residual doubts would seem to weigh against the proponent.

Not all is lost. In one case, decided by a trial court within the Ninth Circuit, the trial judge explicitly pointed to the proponent’s failure to identify his findings and methodology as part of the basis for exclusion, not admission, of the challenged witness’s opinion testimony.[5] Difficulty in resolving whether the Rule 702 predicates were satisfied worked against, not for, the proponent, whose burden it was to show those predicates.

In another case, Judge David G. Campbell, of the District of Arizona, who has participated in the Rules Committee’s deliberations, showed the way by clearly stating that the exclusion of opinion testimony was required when the Rule 702 conditions were not met:

“Plaintiffs have not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that [the expert witness’s] causation opinions are based on sufficient facts or data to which reliable principles and methods have been applied reliably… .”[6]

Exclusion followed because the absent showings were “conditions for admissibility,” and not “mere” credibility considerations.

Trust Me, I’m a Liberal

One of the reasons that the Daubert Court rejected incorporating the Frye standard into Rule 702 was its view that a rigid “general acceptance” standard “would be at odds with the ‘liberal thrust’ of the Federal Rules.”[7] Some courts have cited this “liberal thrust” as though it explained or justified a particular decision to admit expert witness opinion testimony.[8]

The word “liberal” does not appear in the Federal Rules of Evidence.  Instead, the Rules contain an explicit statement of how judges must construe and apply the evidentiary provisions:

“These rules shall be construed to secure fairness in administration, elimination of unjustifiable expense and delay, and promotion of growth and development of the law of evidence to the end that the truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined.”[9]

A “liberal” approach, construed as a “let it all in” approach would be ill-designed to secure fairness, eliminate unjustifiable expense and time of trial, or lead to just and correct outcomes.  The “liberal” approach of letting in opinion testimony and let the jury guess at questions of scientific validiy would be a most illiberal result.  The truth will not be readily ascertained if expert witnesses are permitted to pass off hypotheses and ill-founded conclusions as scientific knowledge.

Avoiding the rigidity of the Frye standard, which was so rigid that it was virtually never applied, certainly seems like a worthwhile judicial goal. But how do courts go from the Justice Blackmun’s “liberal thrust” to infer a libertine “anything goes”? And why does liberal not connote seeking of the truth, free of superstitions? Can it be liberal to permit opinions that are based upon fallacious or flawed inferences, invalid studies, or cherry-picked data sets?

In reviewing the many judicial dodges that are used to avoid engaging in meaningful Rule 702 gatekeeping, I am mindful of Reporter Daniel Capra’s caveat that the ill-advised locutions used by judges do not necessarily mean that their decisions might not be completely justifiable on a carefully worded and reasoned opinion that showed that Rule 702 and all its subparts were met. Of course, we could infer that the conditions for admissibility were met whenever an expert witness’s opinions were admitted, and ditch the whole process of having judges offer reasoned explanations. Due process, however, requires more. Judges need to specify why they denied Rule 702 challenges in terms of the statutory requirements for admissibility so that other courts and the Bar can develop a principled jurisprudence of expert witness opinion testimony.


[1]  See, e.g., In re Scrap Metal Antitrust Litig., 527 F.3d 517, 530 (6th Cir. 2008) (“‘[R]ejection of expert testimony is the exception, rather than the rule,’ and we will generally permit testimony based on allegedly erroneous facts when there is some support for those facts in the record.”) (quoting Advisory Committee Note to 2000 Amendments to Rule 702); Citizens State Bank v. Leslie, No. 6-18-CV-00237-ADA, 2020 WL 1065723, at *4 (W.D. Tex. Mar. 5, 2020) (rejecting challenge to expert witness opinion “not based on sufficient facts”; excusing failure to assess factual basis with statement that “the rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule.”); In re E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. C-8 Pers. Injury Litig., No. 2:18-CV-00136, 2019 WL 6894069, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 18, 2019) (committing naturalistic fallacy; “[A] review of the case law … shows that rejection of the expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule.”): Frankenmuth Mutual Insur. Co. v. Ohio Edison Co., No. 5:17CV2013, 2018 WL 9870044, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 9, 2018) (quoting Advisory Committee Note “exception”); Wright v. Stern, 450 F. Supp. 2d 335, 359–60 (S.D.N.Y. 2006)(“Rejection of expert testimony, however, is still ‘the exception rather than the rule,’ Fed.R.Evid. 702 advisory committee’s note (2000 Amendments)[.] . . . Thus, in a close case the testimony should be allowed for the jury’s consideration.”) (internal quotation omitted).

[2]  Lombardo v. Saint Louis, No. 4:16-CV-01637-NCC, 2019 WL 414773, at *12 (E.D. Mo. Feb. 1, 2019) (“[T]he Court will err on the side of admissibility.”).

[3]  Mason v. CVS Health, 384 F. Supp. 3d 882, 891 (S.D. Ohio 2019).

[4]  Frankenmuth Mutual Insur. Co. v. Ohio Edison Co., No. 5:17CV2013, 2018 WL 9870044, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 9, 2018) (concluding “[a]lthough it is a very close call, the Court declines to exclude Churchwell’s expert opinions under Rule 702.”); In re E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. C-8 Pers. Injury Litig., No. 2:18-CV-00136, 2019 WL 6894069, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 18, 2019) (suggesting doubts should be resolved in favor of admissibility).

[5]  Rovid v. Graco Children’s Prod. Inc., No. 17-CV-01506-PJH, 2018 WL 5906075, at *13 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 9, 2018), app. dism’d, No. 19-15033, 2019 WL 1522786 (9th Cir. Mar. 7, 2019).

[6]  Alsadi v. Intel Corp., No. CV-16-03738-PHX-DGC, 2019 WL 4849482, at *4 -*5 (D. Ariz. Sept. 30, 2019).

[7]  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc. 509 U.S. 579, 588 (1993).

[8]  In re ResCap Liquidating Trust Litig., No. 13-CV-3451 (SRN/HB), 2020 WL 209790, at *3 (D. Minn. Jan. 14, 2020) (“Courts generally support an attempt to liberalize the rules governing the admission of expert testimony, and favor admissibility over exclusion.”)(internal quotation omitted); Collie v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., No. 1:16-CV-227, 2017 WL 2264351, at *1 (M.D. Pa. May 24, 2017) (“Rule 702 embraces a ‘liberal policy of admissibility’, under which it is preferable to admit any evidence that may assist the factfinder[.]”); In re Zyprexa Prod. Liab. Litig., 489 F. Supp. 2d 230, 282 (E.D.N.Y. 2007); Billone v. Sulzer Orthopedics, Inc., No. 99-CV-6132, 2005 WL 2044554, at *3 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2005) (“[T]he Supreme Court has emphasized the ‘liberal thrust’ of Rule 702, favoring the admissibility of expert testimony.”).

[9]  Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 102 (“Purpose and Construction”) (emphasis added).

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