Category: Evidence

Supreme Court to Resolve Attorney-Client Privilege Split

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For the first time in 25 years, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the scope of the attorney-client privilege in the case In re Grand Jury, No. 21-1397. The Court heard oral arguments earlier this week about when the attorney-client privilege protects communications involving both legal and nonlegal advice (dual-purpose communications).

In re Grand Jury

A grand jury subpoenaed documents from the petitioner, a tax law firm, related to a criminal investigation into the law firm’s client. In re Grand Jury, 23 F.4th 1088, 1090 (9th Cir. 2021). The law firm withheld documents that had dual-purpose communications based on the attorney-client privilege. After the government moved to compel, the district court used the “primary purpose test” to determine whether the dual-purpose communications were privileged. The court used the test to determine “whether the primary purpose of the communication [was] to give or receive legal advice, as opposed to business or tax advice.” Id. at 1091 (citation omitted). In the end, the district court ordered the law firm to produce documents to the government after redacting tax-related legal advice. When the law firm refused, the court held it in contempt, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed the contempt order.

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The Zantac Rule 702 Order: TLBR (Too Long, But Read)

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On opening an opinion, lawyers habitually roll their eyes when they see a table of contents.  Even more so when they learn the opinion is over 300 pages.  The MDL order granting defense motions to exclude experts and for summary judgment in In re Zantac (Ranitidine) Products Liability Litig. (S.D. Fla. Dec. 6, 2022), however, is a worthwhile read.  The court’s analysis and prose is thorough, clearly reasoned, well-supported, … and highly readable.  It reveals a court willing to roll up its judicial sleeves, tackle and explain the fundamental science in detail, and rigorously apply Rule 702 to perform its essential gatekeeping function – to insulate the jury, and the defendants, from flawed advocacy masquerading as scientific evidence and holding retained experts to reasonable standards of intellectual rigor.

The Zantac litigation involves claims that the active ingredient in popular heartburn medication ranitidine breaks down to produce excessive levels of NDMA, a probable human carcinogen, under certain storage and biological conditions.  That sounds scary.  FDA has set a low daily intake limit of NDMA, a byproduct of, among other things, a common diet.

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Listen Up Class: The Role of Daubert at the Class Certification Stage in the Ninth Circuit

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Class certification is the feature fight of any putative class action lawsuit. If granted, it can multiply the stakes of a case several hundred- or thousand-fold. If denied, it can signal the end of the litigation. Because of its importance, parties often invest heavily in the class certification fight, including by offering – and challenging – expert testimony.

As this trend has become more common, more focus has been devoted to answering a key question – to what extent should Rule 702 apply at this critical juncture? A number of circuits have held that Rule 702 applies in full force and that opinions deemed inadmissible under Rule 702 should not be considered in regard to class certification; others, such as the Ninth Circuit, have taken a somewhat different approach. Recently, the Southern District of California, in Stewart v. Quest Diagnostics Clinical Labs., Inc., 2022 WL 5236821 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 5, 2022), weighed in on this question.

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Experts’ Disagreement with Medical Literature Leads to Exclusion

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Peer-reviewed literature can be a powerful tool in attacking an opposing expert’s opinions.  A solid, on-point article can do more than merely satisfy several of the so-called Daubert factors for assessing reliability – by showing a court that others in a challenged expert’s field disagree with his or her opinions, literature can remove any expert “aura” that might discourage a lay judge from discharging his or her duty as a gatekeeper.  Presenting literature that directly undermines the expert’s opinion can make the difference between winning and losing a motion to exclude, especially where the expert’s opinion is not supported by other literature accepted in the field.

A recent example is U.G. v. United States, 2022 WL 7426212 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 13, 2022), a medical malpractice action under the Federal Tort Claims Act in which plaintiff suffered a shoulder injury during his birth and was later diagnosed with permanent Erb’s palsy, or brachial plexus injury.  He alleged that the obstetrician caused the injury by using excessive force on his head and shoulders during delivery.  In support of his claims, he offered two causation experts – an obstetrician/gynecologist and a pediatric neurologist– both of whom claimed the “totality of the circumstances” ruled out several possible alternate causes and thus showed that the defendant caused the injury.

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Ipse Dixit – It’s Not Just for Analytical Gaps Anymore

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There are few legal phrases more fun to say than “ipse dixit.” The phrase is most commonly used in motions to exclude experts who base their opinions on nothing more than their own say so.  As the Court noted in General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997), an ipse dixit – Latin for “he said it himself” – leaves an impermissible “analytical gap” between the expert’s opinion and the facts on which it is based.  But ipse dixit arguments can and should stretch beyond just the “basis” part of the expert argument. Courts should also exclude experts who provide unsupported and self-serving testimony to suggest that their method is accepted generally in the community.

That is precisely what happened in Knepfle v. J-Tech Corporation, 2022 WL 4232598, — F.4th — (11th Cir. 2022).  Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident when she ran her motorcycle into the side of a vehicle that had turned in front of her, causing her to be thrown from the motorcycle.  Although the helmet she was wearing protected her head during the initial impact with the other vehicle, she alleged that it came off and failed to protect her head when it struck the pavement.  She brought product liability claims against multiple defendants in the manufacturing and distributing chain of the helmet.

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Pathologist Stopped Short of Offering Could-Have, Should-Have Opinions

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In personal injury and wrongful death cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving medical causation, which almost universally requires testimony from a competent expert.  Some plaintiffs offer testimony from forensic pathologists—also known as medical examiners, or physicians specializing in postmortem cause-of-death determinations—to prove causation.  These forensic pathologists (or the parties proffering their testimony) may push evidentiary boundaries with respect to opinions corollary to their cause of death determinations. While some courts have allowed juries to hear these questionable corollary opinions, relying on cross examination to level the playing field, others have excluded such testimony on the basis of insufficient qualifications or lack of reliable methodology.  Recently, the Southern District of Georgia excluded a forensic pathologist’s opinions on both grounds in a wrongful death action. Although not a product liability case, the court’s well-reasoned holding is sure to affect product cases going forward.

In Griffin v. Coffee County et al., 2022 WL 2045650 (S.D. Ga. June 7, 2022), a man in custody at a county jail in Georgia died from a methamphetamine overdose. His estate brought claims for deprivation of rights and medical malpractice against the jail, the hospital, and various individuals associated with those entities. In support of its claims, the estate proffered testimony from a forensic pathologist who offered opinions about medical treatment.

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