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New Jersey High Court Rejects Junk Science in Product Liability Cases

Fri May 10th, 2019 on     Insurance Claims,    

New Jersey has joined the majority of states by supporting the federal “Daubert standard” for assessing the reliability of expert testimony.  In a recent decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the “gatekeeper” role of judges, allowing them to prevent juries from hearing scientific evidence the courts deem unreliable.  As a Miami insurance law firm, we stay up-to-date on legal developments that impact our practice.  Expert witnesses are the lynch pin of a product liability case, so the Court’s decision clarifying the standard for admissibility of expert testimony will have a huge impact on product liability litigation in the state. 

In re Accutane Litigation Decision 

The plaintiffs alleged a causal condition between the acne medicine Accutane and Crohn’s Disease, a gastrointestinal illness, despite the fact that all of the epidemiological studies concluded that there is no causal relationship.  At trial, plaintiffs intended to call experts to dispute the conclusions of the studies and to assert the contrary view, “relying on other facts and forms of data.”  Defendants challenged the methodology as unreliable and sought the exclusion of the expert’s testimony.  The trial court agreed, but the Appellate Division reversed the decision, concluding that the experts employed a “sound methodology” and simply interpreted the data differently than defendants’ experts.       

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s exclusion of plaintiffs’ expert testimony and clarified its standard for assessing the reliability of expert witnesses.  The Court expects trial courts “to assess both the methodology used by the expert to arrive at an opinion and the underlying data used in the formation of the opinion.”   The following factors, articulated in Daubert, may be considered:

  • Whether the scientific theory at issue can be, or at any time has been, tested;
  • Whether the scientific theory has been subjected to peer review and publication; and
  • Whether there is any known or potential rate of error and whether there exist any standards for maintaining or controlling the technique’s operation; and
  • Whether there does exist a general acceptance in the scientific community about the scientific theory.

Impact of the Decision on Product Liability Litigation in New Jersey

The Court’s decision in the Accutane cases makes clear that although New Jersey courts will adopt use of the Daubert factors, New Jersey is not a “Daubert jurisdiction.” This is because the Court is hesitant to “embrace” the full body of Daubert case law as “there is no monolithic body of case law uniformly or even consistently applying Daubert.”  

In any event, going forward, a party offering expert testimony on a scientific theory must be prepared to “demonstrate that the expert applies his or her scientifically recognized methodology in the way that others in the field practice the methodology” and to address the Daubert factors set forth above.  Bottom line, when faced with a novel theory of causation, particularly one that flies in the fact of consistent findings of no causal association as determined by higher levels of scientific proof, the trial court must engage in “rigorous gatekeeping.” 

How We Can Help

If you have questions concerning this decision, or need assistance with the defense of a product liability matter, we welcome you to contact the Miami insurance law firm of Ver Ploeg & Marino at (305) 577-3996. 

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