The Daubert Case

Daubert v. Merrell-Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. ([92-102], 509 U.S. 579 [1993]) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that involved a morning sickness pill and that ultimately led to standards for admitting expert testimony in federal courts. The drug was produced by Merrell-Dow Pharmaceuticals, Kansas City, Missouri, and was alleged to cause birth defects. The plaintiffs in Daubert were the parents of children born with the birth defects; the women took the drug Bendectin, while they were pregnant to reduce morning sickness. Merrell-Dow contended that Bendectin did not cause birth defects and presented an expert in birth defect epidemiology for the defense. The expert claimed that he had reviewed all of the relevant literature and found no evidence to prove that Bendectin caused birth defects. The plaintiffs offered eight different experts to conclude that Bendectin did cause birth defects, based on animal cell studies, live animal studies, and chemical structure analysis. The District Court agreed with Merrell-Dow Pharmaceuticals and concluded that the plaintiff’s opposing expert opinions were not admissible because the methodology was not sufficiently established to have general acceptance in the field. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling because the plaintiff’s evidence was generated only to use in court rather than being based on peer-reviewed and published scientific knowledge (Daubert v. Merrell-Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 951 F. 2d 1128 [9th Cir. 1991]).

The Daubert standard deals with the admissibility of expert witness testimony during legal proceedings. The testimony of the expert must be both relevant and reliable. Within Daubert, relevancy means that the expert’s theory or opinion has to fit the facts of the case. Even if the expert’s theory is completely scientific, it has no relevance if the theory deals with a matter that was not an issue in the case. Reliability is deemed when the expert derives his or her conclusions by a scientific method. In 1993, the Supreme Court issued its first ruling on the admissibility of scientific evidence. Daubert v. Merrell- Dow Pharmaceuticals provided five factors that should be considered by the trial judges when determining whether expert opinion testimony is scientifically valid and reliable:

  • 1. The theory or technique must be falsifiable, refutable, and testable.
  • 2. The theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication.
  • 3. Known or potential error rates of the theory or technique should be considered.
  • 4. The existence and maintenance of standards and controls for the theory or technique.
  • 5. Whether the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community and has a bearing on the inquiry. This factor uses the initial criteria set forth by the Frye case while expanding on it.

The Supreme Court emphasized that these factors do not constitute a checklist and that the inquiry must remain flexible. The Daubert case has allowed the trial judges to act as gatekeepers. The judges are able to decide whether to permit experts to present expert evidence to a jury. This issue poses difficulties for scientists because when judges have the gatekeeper role, differing results between courtrooms may occur. What one courtroom may deem admissible, another may reject. Despite potential issues, this case changed the rules of the standards of evidence admissibility. The Daubert case has also recently caused many forensic science disciplines to reevaluate the amount of demonstrated scientific research on topics. Among those disciplines are latent fingerprint, questioned documents, and hair examination. Today, Daubert is the leading U.S. Supreme Court case regarding the admissibility of expert witness opinion as evidence in the federal courts (Daubert v. Merrell-Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509, U.S. 579, 1993).

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