Judges get more power to bar expert testimony; Supreme Court adds 'junk engineering' to U.S. case controls; Legal affairs


WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court broadly expanded yesterday the power of federal judges to bar technical experts from spinning out unusual and controversial theories from the witness stand in defective product and accident cases.

In a ruling echoing restrictions the court imposed six years ago on testimony based on what critics call "junk science," the court has taken the same approach against "junk engineering."

Federal judges, the court said in a case widely watched by business interests, have the primary role as "gatekeepers" to control the admission or exclusion of testimony by any kind of expert -- whether their special field is science, engineering, or another technical area.

For example, in yesterday's decision, the court -- in a separate 8-1 vote -- upheld a federal judge's decision to exclude an expert in tire failure from an auto accident case in Alabama.

The justices, after their review of the trial record, found that the expert planned to put forth an unusual theory to explain how he could tell that damage to a tire was the result of a defect in its design or manufacture.

Although the ruling applies technically only to cases in federal court, because it involves federal evidence rules, many states are understood to be following the same approach under their state rules of evidence.

While judges sometimes use their discretion to allow expert testimony that could help bring about damage verdicts for the individuals or groups who sue, it is widely assumed that this flexibility leads more often to the exclusion of evidence favorable to plaintiffs.

With lawyers for business and industry and advocates of "tort reform" energetically challenging expert witnesses whose views do not have a wide following, federal judges have frequently refused to admit those views at trial.

The new decision traces back to the 1993 ruling by the court in what is called the "Daubert" decision. While that ruling set up federal judges as powerful gatekeepers of scientific testimony, the court said yesterday that it had not intended to limit the decision to experts in science.

Experts can qualify in an array of fields, and judges should use the same discretion on testimony for all of them, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the court.

In a separate unanimous ruling, the court struck down an Alabama state tax that treats Alabama-based firms more favorably than those from other states doing business in that state.

Alabama firms pay a franchise tax based on the par value of their stock, which they can reduce, thus lowering their tax, while out-of-state firms must pay the tax based on the value of the capital they use within the state.

That discriminates against interstate commerce, the court ruled in an opinion written by Breyer.

Pub Date: 3/24/99

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