Amateur philosophers, bar flies, and eulogists, among others, are known to wistfully observe that nothing dies so long as it is remembered and discussed. That’s a comforting sentiment when it comes to loved ones and legacies, but it can be mischievous and bothersome when applied to fallen case law. The long, drawn-out demise of Roberti v. Andy’s Termite & Pest Control. Inc., 113 Cal.App.4th 893 (2003) is a case in point, so to speak.
Pre-Roberti Expert Admissibility Standards – The Kelly/Frye Rule and a Suggestion of Daubert
Roberti is part of a much longer story about California’s journey to adoption of Daubert-style reliability gatekeeping for the testimony of expert witnesses.
You can find the first two parts of this story here and here.
In 2013, spurred by the decisions in Marsh and Hood, the Florida Legislature amended F.S. 90.702 to mirror Federal Rule of Evidence 702. In a preamble to the final bill, the Legislature expressed its intent to (1) adopt the standards set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Daubert trilogy and (2) prohibit “pure opinion testimony as provided in Marsh…”
The Plaintiff’s Bar Parries
Ordinarily, this definitive a legislative adoption of Daubert and rejection of Frye and pure opinion would be the end of the story. But Florida plaintiffs’ lawyers immediately mounted a challenge to the amendment based on the separation of powers provisions of the Florida Constitution, and they had a liberal and receptive Supreme Court.
You can find the first part of this story here.
The Aftermath of Marsh
When the Marsh case was decided in 2007 its broad interpretation of the “pure opinion exception” and narrow vision of the role of Frye took Florida expert evidence admissibility law well out of the mainstream. Florida law was starkly at odds with the reliability concerns addressed by Daubert and its progeny and counterparts.
The steady but sometimes slow adoption by the states of the Daubert standard for expert admissibility, and the accompanying recession of the Frye standard, is something of a coming of age for the national jurisprudence. Frye has become outmoded and anachronistic in an era of dizzying technological and scientific advancement ─ and riddled with exceptions. Daubert’s focus on reliability and fit incorporates the necessary flexibility, rigor, and judicial engagement to warily allow the expert wheat while turning away the chaff. The transition has played a pivotal role in fine-tuning the tort system in search of well-founded fact-finding and more rational adjudications.
Much has been said about the eye-popping verdict and the post-trial rulings in the Roundup case tried in San Francisco earlier this year. Johnson v. Monsanto Co., 2018 WL 5246323 (S.F. Super. Ct. Oct. 22, 2018). The court sustained the jury’s award of ~$39 million in compensatory damages, including $37 million in non-economic damages, and its finding that Monsanto was liable for punitive damages. The court reduced the punitive award on due process grounds to a one-to-one ratio, slashing it from $250 million to approximately $39 million. Monsanto recently filed its notice of appeal, and as we await the briefing and argument, a few issues and takeaways merit further discussion, particularly several disturbing issues surrounding the award of punitive damages. We will save for another day (or post) other significant liability and damages issues.