On October 7, 2020, Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a defense verdict in favor of a medical device manufacturer and in doing so approved of the trial court’s use of the risk-utility test and not the consumer expectations test in the jury instructions. Cavanaugh v. Stryker Corp., — So. 2d —, 2020 WL 5937405 (Fla. 4th DCA Oct. 7, 2020). The wrongful death lawsuit was filed against multiple defendants, including the manufacturer of a medical device used to remove blood and clear the surgical field, following the death of a patient during lung removal surgery. The claims against the medical device manufacturer included strict liability design defect, strict liability failure to warn, and negligence.
The plaintiff settled with several health care professionals and only the claims against the manufacturer proceeded to trial. At trial, the plaintiff proposed a jury instruction where the jury could find that the product was unreasonably dangerous if the plaintiff established either the consumer expectations test (which determines liability based on whether the product fails to perform as safely as an ordinary consumer would expect when used as intended or when used in a manner reasonably foreseeable by the manufacturer) or the risk-utility test (which determines liability based on whether the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefit). The defendant manufacturer, however, proposed that the jury instruction include only the risk-utility test (a product is unreasonably dangerous if the risk of danger in the design outweighs the benefit). The trial court rejected the plaintiff’s proposed instruction and adopted the defendant’s risk-utility instruction.
You can find the first two parts of this story here and here.
In 2013, spurred by the decisions in Marsh and Hood, the Florida Legislature amended F.S. 90.702 to mirror Federal Rule of Evidence 702. In a preamble to the final bill, the Legislature expressed its intent to (1) adopt the standards set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Daubert trilogy and (2) prohibit “pure opinion testimony as provided in Marsh…”
The Plaintiff’s Bar Parries
Ordinarily, this definitive a legislative adoption of Daubert and rejection of Frye and pure opinion would be the end of the story. But Florida plaintiffs’ lawyers immediately mounted a challenge to the amendment based on the separation of powers provisions of the Florida Constitution, and they had a liberal and receptive Supreme Court.
You can find the first part of this story here.
The Aftermath of Marsh
When the Marsh case was decided in 2007 its broad interpretation of the “pure opinion exception” and narrow vision of the role of Frye took Florida expert evidence admissibility law well out of the mainstream. Florida law was starkly at odds with the reliability concerns addressed by Daubert and its progeny and counterparts.
The steady but sometimes slow adoption by the states of the Daubert standard for expert admissibility, and the accompanying recession of the Frye standard, is something of a coming of age for the national jurisprudence. Frye has become outmoded and anachronistic in an era of dizzying technological and scientific advancement ─ and riddled with exceptions. Daubert’s focus on reliability and fit incorporates the necessary flexibility, rigor, and judicial engagement to warily allow the expert wheat while turning away the chaff. The transition has played a pivotal role in fine-tuning the tort system in search of well-founded fact-finding and more rational adjudications.