Federal Appeals Court Reinforces Importance of Reliable Expert Testimony

Written on Friday, July 25th, 2014 by Colin Holloway, Attorney at Law
Filed under: General

Earlier this year, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling on expert witness testimony that reminds parties that an expert must not only be qualified, but must be prepared to offer reliable testimony.  In dismissing a defective drug lawsuit, the 6th Circuit pointed out that the plaintiff’s expert, although capable, failed to present evidence relevant to the facts of the case.

Plaintiff Files Defective Drug Lawsuit

In Rodrigues v Baxter Healthcare Corp, the 6th Circuit affirmed the trial court’s refusal to admit an expert witness submitted by Fernando Rodrigues, who sued Baxter after allegedly receiving a contaminated dose of the company’s muscle relaxant, heparin.  Mr. Rodrigues was administered heparin, which was recalled in 2008 due to a spike in adverse reactions, prior to bypass surgery.  During his surgery, Mr. Rodrigues experienced severe swelling and drop in blood pressure that required he spend three days in the ICU, sedated, with his chest still open until the surgeons could close the incision.  Claiming the heparin he was administered was defective and the cause of his ordeal, Mr. Rodrigues filed a lawsuit against Baxter seeking damages for his bypass surgery complication.

Rodrigues Expert Witness Rejected by 6th Circuit

The district court judge ruled before trial that any expert witnesses in the case must be prepared to offer testimony linking heparin use to “one or more symptoms [that] were apparent within the sixty minute period” of the patient receiving the drug.  The trial court made this ruling because the available scientific evidence, notably data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), on the side effects of contaminated doses of heparin indicated that adverse reactions only occurred within sixty minutes of a patient receiving the drug.  Without evidence to support a causal link between heparin and surgical complications after sixty minutes of receiving the dose, the trial court determined that limiting expert witnesses was an appropriate measure.

Rodrigues was prepared to offer the testimony of Dr. Debra Hoppensteadt, a qualified physician, who claimed that the side effects of heparin could emerge after the sixty minute time window established by the CDC.  Despite Dr. Hoppensteadt’s qualifications, the 6th Circuit agreed with the trial court and found her expert testimony inadmissible because her supporting evidence was unreliable.  Dr. Hoppensteadt based her expert opinion about the side effects of heparin on one study, which only gave her enough support to speculate about the possibility that heparin could create complications more than sixty minutes after being ingested.  Without strong evidence to forge a causal link between heparin use and symptoms arising more than 60 minutes after dosage, the 6th Circuit determined that Rodrigues’ medical expert witness could not provide reliable testimony.

With Rodrigues’ only expert witness testifying that his symptoms arose more than sixty minutes after he received the drugs, his case was dismissed by the lower district court.  On appeal, the 6th Circuit agreed that the trial court had appropriately limited expert witness testimony under Daubert by only allowing experts who could rely on existing scientific evidence to link contaminated heparin to adverse medical complications.

Sixth Circuit Points to Expert Witness Reliability

In Rodrigues, the 6th Circuit reminded parties that the Daubert standards for admitting an expert witness require experts be qualified and be prepared to provide reliable testimony.  Determining whether or not expert testimony is reliable is measured on a number of factors, but reliance on established science and proven research is of particular importance to judges.  In Rodrigues, the 6th Circuit faulted Mr. Rodrigues for failing to recognize that professional qualifications are not the singular factor in admitting expert witnesses.  Pointing out that Daubert, which interprets Rule of Evidence 702, requires an expert have “more than subjective belief or unsupported speculation,” the 6th Circuit’s opinion reinforced the importance of expert witnesses satisfying all the necessary qualifications by providing qualified and reliable testimony.

About Colin Holloway, Attorney at Law

LinkedIn Colin Holloway is an attorney operating in the Washington DC area. He is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and Emory University School of law, and has practice experience in criminal defense, personal injury litigation, mediation, and employment law.

About Colin Holloway, Attorney at Law

LinkedIn Colin Holloway is an attorney operating in the Washington DC area. He is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and Emory University School of law, and has practice experience in criminal defense, personal injury litigation, mediation, and employment law.