Subject: Daubert

A KIND Result After Insufficient and Biased Consumer Perception Evidence

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Consumer perception evidence is necessary for plaintiffs to survive summary judgment in a false advertising class action, but vacillating and flawed connections between the evidence and the key question of what a reasonable consumer would expect may lead to its exclusion.  The Second Circuit, in Bustamante v. KIND, LLC, 2024 WL 1917155 (2d Cir. May 2, 2024), provides an illustrative example of this, affirming the Southern District of New York’s exclusion of plaintiffs’ experts and grant of summary judgment to a snack foods manufacturer in a false advertising class action.

In Bustamante, Plaintiffs alleged they were deceived by the packaging of KIND snack bars as “All Natural” despite the inclusion of certain “non-natural” ingredients, and their lawsuit asserted warranty, unjust enrichment, negligent misrepresentation, and state consumer protection statute claims.  Although there were differing elements to Plaintiffs’ various claims, they were narrowed for the purposes of summary judgment to deception, materiality, and injury, with only the element of deception at issue on appeal.

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Expert’s Results-Driven Methodology Leads to Exclusion and Summary Judgment in Paraquat MDL

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An expert witness is not supposed to pick a desired result and then reverse engineer inputs and methods that reach that result.  As the Ninth Circuit observed 30 years ago, “[c]oming to a firm conclusion first and then doing research to support it is the antithesis of [the scientific] method.”  Claar v. Burlington Northern R.R. Co., 29 F.3d 499, 502-03 (9th Cir. 1994).  A recent opinion from the Southern District of Illinois offers a fine example of an expert with a results-driven approach and a court that called him out on it.

In re Paraquat Products Liability Litigation, 2024 WL 1659687 (S.D. Ill. Apr. 17, 2024), arises from a multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) in which the plaintiffs claim to have developed Parkinson’s disease as a result of exposure to an herbicide, paraquat.  Four plaintiffs whose cases had been chosen for the MDL’s first trials offered a statistician (the parties disputed whether he also qualified as an epidemiologist) as their sole expert to establish general causation.  He had a difficult task, as no peer-reviewed literature established a link between paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease.  Indeed, when the court asked the plaintiffs to identify such literature, the plaintiffs could cite only a single opinion article.  That article had been shared with another of the plaintiffs’ experts before it was published, leading the court to conclude in deciding a prior discovery dispute that there was reason to investigate “whether counsel for the MDL plaintiffs, their experts, or other third parties may have influenced the contents of the article for the benefit of one side in the MDL.”  2023 WL 8372819 (S.D. Ill. Dec. 4, 2023).

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Missing the Mark: Summary Judgment Granted Where Plaintiff’s Experts Opine on Defect but Fail to Support Causation

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Product liability claims require proof of causation.  To be sure, they also require proof of some defect in the product and/or its accompanying warnings and product literature.  But defect and causation are separate elements of a prima facie claim, and both must be established – usually, through expert testimony.  As we have discussed on multiple occasions (for example, here and here), a plaintiff’s failure to offer admissible expert testimony on each element can lead to summary judgment.  A recent decision from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania offers yet another illustration.

In Slatowski v. Sig Sauer, Inc., 2024 WL 1078198 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 12, 2024), the plaintiff was an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) officer who was injured when his pistol fired unintentionally during a marksmanship training exercise.  He sued the gun manufacturer, alleging that a design defect in the gun’s integral safety feature – specifically, the lack of a tabbed trigger – caused the firearm to discharge unintentionally. The plaintiff proffered two experts in support of the claim:  a gunsmith and a certified firearms instructor and range safety officer with a Ph.D. in ergonomics.  The defendant moved to exclude both experts’ opinions and also moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff had no admissible expert testimony to establish causation.

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Old Habits Die Hard: First Circuit Cites Newly Amended Language of FRE 702 But Follows Abrogated Precedent Instead

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The longer and more frequently a principle is repeated by the courts, the more difficult it can be for courts to acknowledge change.  As illustrated by the First Circuit’s opinion in Rodriguez v. Hospital San Cristobal, Inc., 91 F.4th 59 (1st Cir. 2024) – the first reported appellate decision to cite the language of the newly-amended Federal Rule of Evidence 702 since it took effect in December 2023 – even a change to the Federal Rules of Evidence themselves might not be enough for a court to stop citing outdated but familiar precedents.

Some background is in order.  In 1993, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) ushered in a new paradigm for evaluating the admissibility of expert opinion evidence.  Courts seized on Daubert’s comment that a court’s “focus, of course, must be solely on [an expert’s] principles and methodology, not on the conclusions that they generate.”  But just four years after Daubert was decided, the Supreme Court rejected an argument that a lower court had erred by evaluating an expert’s conclusions.  Because “conclusions and methodology are not entirely distinct from one another,” the lower court had not abused its discretion in evaluating whether the expert’s opinion was warranted by the data on which it was based.  General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997).

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Amended FRE 702 Arrives in MDL Practice: S.D.N.Y. Excludes Plaintiffs’ Experts in Acetaminophen MDL

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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.

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Something to Celebrate: A Brief Guide to the FRE 702 Amendments

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Fun fact:  There are 23 holidays that can be celebrated today, December 1st.  Some, like Rosa Parks Day and World AIDS Day, are solemn and serious.  Others are silly and fun, like National Peppermint Bark Day and National Christmas Lights Day.  And then there are those that are downright strange, like Bifocals at the Monitor Liberation Day.  (No, we didn’t make that up.)  But for those of us who practice in the federal courts, we can add one more celebration to this esteemed list.

Today, the long-anticipated amendments to Federal Rule of Evidence 702, governing admissibility of expert opinion evidence, finally take formal effect.  The amendments were unanimously approved by the Advisory Committee over two and a half years ago.  Courts have been citing the proposed amendments since shortly after they were first approved.  On the surface, the amendments to the text of Rule 702 itself may appear relatively modest.  Indeed, at least one court has observed that the new language “clearly echoes the existing law on the issue.”  Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp., 10 F.4th 268 (4th Cir. 2021).  But there is more to these new amendments than initially meets the eye.  In order to understand and effectively use the amendments, parties and litigators must understand and use the history and the Committee Note explaining the amendments.

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