WASHINGTON—Non-scientific expert witnesses in product liability lawsuits may be held to the same evidentiary standards as scientific witnesses, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case of far-reaching importance to U.S. business. In a unanimous decision March 23, the high court ruled for Kumho Tire Co. Ltd., its U.S. subsidiary Kumho U.S.A. Inc. and Hercules Tire & Rubber Co. Inc. in a case stemming from a blowout involving a tire Kumho made for Hercules.
The Kumho case was a lightning rod for the argument on how much leeway expert witnesses should be given in tort cases. Business interests including the Rubber Manufacturers Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers filed briefs on Kumho's behalf, agreeing expert testimony should be limited strictly.
On the other side, the Center for Auto Safety and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America claimed any limits on expert witnesses in effect limit the rights of injured parties to seek redress against companies that make defective products.
``We think it's an excellent decision for business,'' said Sussan Mahallati Kysela, counsel for the U.S. Chamber, regarding the Kumho ruling. ``It ensures that irrelevant, unsupported testimony is kept out of the courtroom.''
``This decision validates the points we made in our amicus brief, and augurs well for any future case in which expert testimony is introduced,'' added Donald B. Shea, president of the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
``The decision is a victory for business, and is widely seen as vindication for Kumho Tire,'' said David Poisson, executive vice president of the Tire Association of North America. ``We're very pleased with the high court's unanimous decision.''
Clarence M. Ditlow III, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said the case was a minor setback for plaintiffs, but will help them in the long run.
``I think this decision will make it easier, not harder, to get expert witnesses in,'' Mr. Ditlow said. ``It leaves that decision to the discretion of the courts, and it doesn't say you must require peer reviews of published articles. But you'd better have an expert whose opinions match the facts.''
An earlier Supreme Court case, Daubert vs. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., set stringent factual standards for scientific witnesses in product liability suits. In the Kumho case, the Supreme Court ruled the Daubert standards may apply to technical and other witnesses as well.
Trial judges have considerable flexibility in how they decide to apply the Daubert principles, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his decision for the court. ``Applying these standards, we determine that the district court's decision in this case—not to admit certain expert testimony—was within its discretion and therefore lawful.''
A child was killed and seven other passengers injured in the 1993 accident which resulted from the blowout on Patrick Carmichael's minivan. Mr. Carmichael sued in Alabama federal district court, claiming the tire was defective.
Backing Mr. Carmichael's claim was Dennis Carlson Jr., a former tire testing engineer for Michelin North America. Mr. Carlson based his conclusions on a process-of-elimination methodology he developed himself in his experience as a tire engineer.
Kumho and Hercules moved to strike Mr. Carlson's testimony, claiming it didn't meet Daubert's standards for verification of expert evidence. The district court granted the motion, and because Mr. Carlson's testimony was the only evidence of a defect, it also granted Kumho and Hercules' motion for summary judgment.
However, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court, ruling that since Mr. Carlson was an engineer and not a scientist, the Daubert standards didn't apply to him.
In ruling for Kumho, Justice Breyer noted there is ``no clear line'' dividing scientific from technical testimony.
``Disciplines such as engineering rest upon scientific knowledge,'' he wrote. ``Pure scientific theory itself may depend for its development upon observation and properly engineered machinery.
``We do not believe that (the Daubert rule) creates a schematism that segregates expertise by type while mapping certain kinds of questions to certain kinds of experts,'' he added. ``Life and the legal cases that it generates are too complex to warrant so definitive a match.''
While Mr. Carlson's professional qualifications are solid, Mr. Breyer wrote, there is no evidence that his methodology in determining tire defects is used widely in the tire industry.
``Indeed, no one has argued that Carlson himself, were he still working for Michelin, would have concluded in a report to his employer that a similar tire was similarly defective on grounds identical to those upon which he rested his conclusion here,'' he said.
The court also ruled 8-1 to uphold the district court's disqualification of Mr. Carlson's testimony. The lone dissenter, Justice John Paul Stevens, said this question was beyond the high court's purview and should have been remanded to the appeals court.