Seventh Circuit pulls back on Daubert expert witness exclusions

Stollings vs. Ryobi Technologies (7th Cir, August 2, 2013) involves a product liability suit for faulty design in which the Plaintiff sustained injuries on a power saw. Plaintiff planned to offer expert testimony from an academic named Graham that the installation of:

“… automatic braking technology on all power saws would be socially beneficial because the average cost of accidents per saw that would be prevented by the technology exceeded the cost of the braking system. Graham estimated that saws that lack the automatic braking technology cost society an average of $753 in accident costs over the lifetime of the average saw. He concluded that it would therefore make economic sense to install the technology on all saws if the cost of doing so was less than $753 per saw.”

The Seventh Circuit described the trial court’s and the appellate standards of review, as follows:

“Expert testimony is admissible at trial under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 if the testimony is relevant to a fact in issue, is based on sufficient facts or data, and is the product of reliable scientific or other expert methods that are properly applied. The district court is responsible for acting as a gatekeeper to ensure that all admitted expert testimony satisfies the Rule’s reliability and relevance requirements. But the district court’s role as gatekeeper does not render the district court the trier of all facts relating to expert testimony. The jury must still be allowed to play its essential role as the arbiter of the weight and credibility of expert testimony.

We review a district court’s decision to exclude expert testimony on the grounds that it is unreliable or irrelevant for an abuse of discretion. We conclude here that the district judge’s decision to exclude Graham’s testimony in this case was too great an intrusion into the role of the jury.” [Citations omitted]

In explaining this conclusion as to reliability, the Seventh Circuit wrote:

“Rule 702’s requirement that the district judge determine that the expert used reliable methods does not ordinarily extend to the reliability of the conclusions those methods produce—that is, whether the conclusions are unimpeachable. An expert may provide expert testimony based on a valid and properly applied methodology and still offer a conclusion that is subject to doubt. It is the role of the jury to weigh these sources of doubt. In Daubert the Supreme Court expressly envisioned this continued role for the jury when it reminded all that “[v]igorous cross-examination, presentation of contrary evidence, and careful instruction on the burden of proof are the traditional and appropriate means of attacking shaky but admissible evidence. As the Second Circuit has explained, trial judges acting as gatekeepers do not assume “the role of St. Peter at the gates of heaven, performing a searching inquiry into the depth of an expert witness’s soul” that would “inexorably lead to evaluating witness credibility and weight of the evidence, the ageless role of the jury.” [Citations omitted]

Rule 702’s reliability elements require the district judge to determine only that the expert is providing testimony that is based on a correct application of a reliable methodology and that the expert considered sufficient data to employ the methodology. …

The judge should have let the jury determine how the uncertainty about the effectiveness rate affected the weight of Graham’s testimony. Ryobi was free to use cross-examination to attack the assumption and to ask Graham how altering the assumption would affect his analysis.”

Addressing the relevance of the testimony, the Seventh Circuit applied a loose standard, as follows:

“Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, testimony is relevant as long as it “has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable” than it would otherwise be. Fed. R. Evid. 401; see also Fed. R. Evid. 702. Graham’s testimony satisfied this liberal relevance standard because it would have helped the jury weigh the saw’s utility by providing the jury with a basis to appreciate the saw’s costs to society, which is relevant under Illinois law. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 587 (noting liberal relevance standard).”

Because the exclusion of the Plaintiff’s expert was an abuse of discretion by the district court, the judgment was vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial.

This article describes a recent Third Circuit case in which a similar result was reached.


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