LOS ANGELES - Fred Ufkes, an attorney with the Los Angeles law firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, said a 5-year-old California Supreme Court decision is giving judges greater empowerment to determine if expert testimony given during trials is reasonable and therefore admissible.
“It clarified it in a manner that allows state judges to decide if information presented during a trial is responsible and reliable enough to decide a case,” Ufkes told the Northern California Record.
Ufkes is a trial lawyer specializing in complex litigation including disputes over private products and has been a long-time expert in the evolving question of what constitutes admissible testimony during trial.
The landmark case Sargon Enterprises v the University of Southern California on Nov. 26, 2012, set new standards for the admissibility of expert testimony presented in a courtroom. In 1996 Sargon Enterprises Inc. contracted with the USC School of Dentistry to do a five-year clinical study of a dental implant the company had produced. In 1999 the company sued the university, alleging it had botched the clinical trial of the product, and as a result the plaintiff was unable to complete the trial and market the product to dentists worldwide.
The plaintiffs contended their small company would have grown and reaped large profits had the clinical study been successfully accomplished.
A California Supreme Court decision said testimony in the case that attempted to estimate the potential lost profits was only speculative, and would not assist a jury in deciding an amount of damages. Speculative, because the plaintiff was an “un-established” company and future profitability was estimated on the performance of larger, more established companies in the field.
An appeal was made. However, the issue then went again before the California Supreme Court which upheld the original decision.
The decision told trial court judges that they had a duty to ensure that a jury did not hear testimony based on unreasonable comparisons.
“Testimony also had to be reliable enough through logic and sufficient information to make a proper decision,” Ufkes said.
Previously, for decades, California courts had under a finding in the case Frye v United States required a general acceptance of methodology in a particular field of knowledge--- for example a consensus or agreement among medical doctors or scientists.
Federal courts revised their policy in 1995 after a case called Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharms and declared that expert testimony had to be relevant and reliable. No longer would general consensus among experts be the only criteria.
What the Sargon judgment did for California state courts also extended the requirements. Mere proof that an expert relied on information that is of a type experts in the field ordinarily rely upon and is not speculative, was no longer enough. Sargon dictated that trial courts be obligated to go further, to determine if the basis for an expert’s opinion was reasonable. Thus, it was no longer enough for a proponent to rely merely on studies to prove a medical cause for an illness, they must also show the studies provided a reasonable basis for the expert’s opinion.