When medical device companies are faced with product liability lawsuits, often one of the most critical issues is whether the court will permit expert testimony on key issues, such as whether the device caused the alleged injury.  While the Daubert standard, which governs the admission of expert testimony in federal courts, has been adopted by many states, the Frye standard that preceded Daubert is still the applicable standard for expert testimony in a number of states, including Pennsylvania. (In a previous post, we wrote about Florida’s 2013 adoption of the Daubert standard in place of Frye.) The Frye standard focuses on whether the expert’s methodology is generally accepted by those in the relevant field.  A recent case raises the bar on when expert testimony will be admissible in Pennsylvania courts.

The standard for the admissibility of expert testimony in Pennsylvania is codified as Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 702, which states:  “A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training or education may testify in the form an opinion or otherwise if:  (a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge is beyond that possessed by the average layperson; (b) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue; and (c) the expert’s methodology is generally accepted in the relevant field.”  Last month, in Snizavich v. Rohm & Haas Co., 2013 PA Super 315 (Dec. 6, 2013), the Superior Court of Pennsylvania provided additional guidance as to what is necessary to meet this standard, holding that documented scientific authority supporting an expert’s opinion is a prerequisite for admissibility.

In Snizavich, the plaintiff sued Rohm & Haas for wrongful death, alleging that her husband developed brain cancer from chemicals he was exposed to while working at a Rohm & Haas facility.  Rohm & Haas sought to exclude the testimony of plaintiff’s proffered causation expert on the ground that it did not meet the Frye standard.  The trial court granted Rohm & Haas’s motion and subsequently summary judgment because, without her expert, plaintiff was unable to prove causation.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.  In doing so, the court explained:

[T]he minimal threshold that expert testimony must meet to qualify as an expert opinion rather than merely an opinion expressed by an expert, is this: the proffered expert testimony must point to, rely on or cite some scientific authority — whether facts, empirical studies, or the expert’s own research — that the expert has applied to the facts at hand and which supports the expert’s ultimate conclusion.  When an expert opinion fails to include such authority, the trial court has no choice but to conclude that the expert opinion reflects nothing more than mere personal belief. Thus, expert testimony as to a causal relationship may be admissible, even if based solely on the expert’s review of medical records and his experience and expertise in the applicable medical field, when the expert can point to some scientific authority that supports the causal connection.

The causation expert offered by the plaintiff failed to cite any scientific authority that supported his opinions.  While he did cite a report from the University of Minnesota finding a statistically higher occurrence of brain cancer amongst individuals who worked at the Rohm & Haas facility at issue, the court found that the university report did not support the expert’s opinions—but rather contradicted them—because it was inconclusive on the issue of causation.

Snizavich raises the bar for expert testimony in Pennsylvania.  Although the case itself was a toxic tort case involving chemical exposure, its ruling and its reasoning are equally applicable to medical device cases in Pennsylvania.  Under Snizavich, it will not be sufficient for an expert to offer unsupported opinions and bald assertions that his or her methods are generally accepted in the field.  He or she will have to point to specific scientific authority supporting his or her claim of a causal connection.  For medical device defendants litigating in Pennsylvania, Snizavich is a helpful development in the case law on experts.