The Committee Notes to the newly implemented amendments to Federal Rule of Evidence 702 make clear that the “[j]udicial gatekeeping” of expert evidence is “essential.” Federal courts in New York have played an important role in pioneering and developing this concept. Indeed, the idea of courts as gatekeepers in the expert context finds its roots in the Eastern District of New York, with the late Chief Judge Weinstein coining the term in a 1985 opinion in In re Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation. Three decades later, the Southern District of New York offered one of the most thorough illustrations of careful judicial gatekeeping in In re Mirena IUS Levonorgestrel-Related Prod. Liab. Litig. (No. II). Now, New York can also call itself home to the first MDL-wide decision to exclude experts under Rule 702’s new formulation.
It is axiomatic that a plaintiff must offer evidentiary support for each element of her claim in order to survive summary judgment. And a ubiquitous feature of product liability actions is the use of expert witnesses by both sides. These principles are, of course, related – the plaintiff usually must offer expert testimony in order to make a prima facie case, and the defense then attacks that prima facie case through expert testimony. But sometimes a plaintiff loses sight of the connection and, despite retaining an expert, fails to elicit the opinions she needs to make her case. As a recent decision from the Western District of Wisconsin illustrates, it pays for a defendant to carefully evaluate whether a plaintiff has checked all of the necessary boxes.
In Moore v. National Presto Industries, Inc., 2022 WL 1555875 (W.D. Wis. May 17, 2022), Plaintiff alleged that she was injured when she opened her pressure cooker while it was still pressurized, ejecting its contents onto her arm, causing burns. Plaintiff sued the cooker’s manufacturer, asserting strict liability claims for design defect and failure to warn as well as a claim for negligence. Defendant moved for summary judgment on each of these claims.
Early last year, the In re: Incretin-Based Therapies MDL court held that the plaintiffs’ warnings claims were preempted, excluded plaintiffs’ general causation experts, and granted summary judgment to all defendants on dual preemption and causation grounds. In re: Incretin-Based Therapies Prods. Liab. Litig., 524 F. Supp. 3d 1007 (S.D. Cal. 2021). For context, that was the second time the defendants won summary judgment; the Ninth Circuit had reversed an earlier preemption victory in an opinion that predated the Supreme Court’s decision in Albrecht. In re Incretin-Based Therapies Prods. Liab. Litig., 721 F. App’x. 580 (9th Cir. 2017). Now, however, the Ninth Circuit has affirmed summary judgment as to one defendant (Novo Nordisk A/S (“Novo”)). In re: Incretin-Based Therapies Prod. Liab. Litig., 2022 WL 898595 (9th Cir. Mar. 28, 2022).
For over two decades, dating back to Daubert and the ensuing amendments to Rule 702, federal district courts have been charged to act “as gatekeepers to exclude unreliable expert testimony.” Fed. R. Evid. 702 advisory committee’s note to 2000 amendments. However, some courts have not embraced that role, letting jurors weigh questions about an expert’s qualifications or methodology as though they go to credibility rather than admissibility. Indeed, the Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules proposed an amendment to Rule 702 to address the “pervasive problem” of courts holding that issues of admissibility are questions “of weight for the jury.” See, Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp., 10 F.4th 268, 282-84 (4th Cir. 2021). (quoting Advisory Comm. on Evidence Rules, Agenda for Committee Meeting (Apr. 30, 2021)).
A recent decision out of the Northern District of Illinois, however, provides an excellent example of a court discharging its duty to preclude inadmissible expert opinions. The Plaintiff in Pessman v. Trek Bicycle Corporation, 2021 WL 5769530 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 6, 2021) was injured in a bicycle accident. Plaintiff’s engineering expert opined that the cause of the accident was a crack in the carbon fiber frame of Plaintiff’s Trek bicycle attributable to a design defect. The engineer claimed that carbon fiber frames are prone to cracking and that the crack was mistaken for simple paint chipping by a dealer who had inspected the bicycle several days before the accident, allegedly due to Trek’s failure to train the dealer properly.
Today, the New Jersey Supreme Court reconciled New Jersey’s framework for analyzing the reliability of expert testimony under N.J.R.E. 702 and the federal standard set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. The court incorporated the Daubert factors into New Jersey’s framework for civil cases, while simultaneously holding that the trial court appropriately played its gatekeeping role in excluding plaintiffs’ expert testimony regarding certain epidemiological studies.