Summary of Daubert v. Merrell Dow
Citation: 509 U.S. 579 (1993)
Relevant Facts: The Dauberts, parents and their minor children, brought suit alleging that the Defendant Merrell Dow, a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, was responsible for birth defects following ingestion of their product Bendectin. The Dauberts offered testimony from several scientific experts attempting to demonstrate causation based on animal studies, chemical analysis, and unpublished epidemiological human studies. Defendant Merrell Dow responded with inapposite testimony from their own expert witnesses, citing the complete lack of peer-reviewed publications demonstrating a link between Bendectin. The case came to the Supreme Court on petition from the Dauberts following summary judgment for the Defendants in the trial court.
Issue: Whether the “general acceptance" test for admissibility of scientific evidence controlled the admission of expert testimony following adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence. What is the appropriate federal standard for admission of expert, scientific evidence?
Holding: No, the “general acceptance" standard was superseded by the adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Trial Judges, applying Rule 702, shall determine reliability and relevance of proffered expert testimony, with the announced standard eliminating previous bars to admission and relying instead on additional testimony and cross-examination to question the veracity of scientific conclusions.
Reasoning: Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority, argued that adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence occupied the field of federal evidentiary law, thus superseded all common-law standards including the long standing “general acceptance" test for admission of expert or scientific testimony. Common law precepts, while useful in interpreting the Rules, no longer control. Justice Blackmun, citing the general evidentiary standards applicable to all relevant evidence, explained that the Rules served to enlarge the sphere of available evidence. Furthermore, Rule 702 (at issue here) made no mention of general acceptance nor contained any attempt in incorporate that well-known requirement. The Court went on to discuss a variety of factors that should influence judges in ruling on admissibility, including testing of the proffered theory, peer-review, error rate, and general acceptance. None of these factors, or others, was to be dispositive of the inquiry, and judges should both on the remaining Rules of Evidence and the general admonition to admit all relevant testimony (Scientific validity having a direct bearing on relevance of any testimony.)
Finally, the Court addressed the concerns of both parties in urging adoption of their standard for admissibility. To the Respondents, the Court was unconvinced that Rule 702 would allow a “free-for- all" in which pseudo-scientific theories were offered alongside actual expert testimony. To the Petitioners, the Court was similarly unconcerned that trial judges would enforce a rigid orthodoxy of general acceptance; rather, the Court urged judges to fulfill their gate-keeper role in evaluating the underlying validity of scientific methodology that formed the basis for any expert testimony. The Court also suggested that competing, contradictory testimony (so long as it satisfied the announced evidentiary standard) would allow judges and juries access to greater amounts of relevant information on which to base their decisions.
Dissent: Justice Rehnquist, joined by Justice Stevens, also wrote an opinion. He joined the Court in holding the Federal Rules of Evidence superseded common law evidentiary standards. However, he argued it was unnecessary and unwise to then proceed to advise judges on how best to construe the Rules of Evidence, preferring to leave such helpful hints for actual cases as they arose.
Conclusion: Scientific evidence does not have to meet the standard of “general acceptance" under the Federal Rules of Evidence, which occupy the field of federal evidentiary law. Judges serve as gatekeepers, not merely determining which evidence is relevant, but conducting a review of the underlying validity of expert testimony in determining admissibility.