Daubert v. Merrell Dow

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509 U.S. 579 (1993), argued 30 Mar. 1993, decided 28 June 1993 by vote of 9 to o; Blackmun for the Court, Rehnquist and Stevens concurring and dissenting in part.

The advance of science raised troubling new questions for courts about the admissibility of testimony by expert witnesses in complex cases involving environmental and medical liability. In this case, Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals had manufactured and distributed the drug Bendectin to help pregnant women deal with morning sickness. Doctors had prescribed the drug to more than 30 million women between 1956 and 1983, when the company voluntarily withdrew it from the market. The drug was widely viewed as being the cause of deformities in newly born children, and hundreds of lawsuits had been filed against Merrell Dow. Jason Daubert and Eric Schuller were born with badly deformed limbs, and their parents sued the drug company, claiming that Bendectin was the cause.

All of the parents faced a significant hurdle in bringing their cases against Merrell Dow. The Court in Frye v. United States (1923) had held that in order for scientific testimony to be admissible as evidence it had to be generally accepted by scientists. This rule, which meant that most scientific testimony had to be based on data published in journals and subjected to peer review, was designed to protect jurors from so-called junk science that could mislead them. The same rule, however, meant that cutting-edge scientific advances were often barred from the courtroom. Moreover, both state and federal judges found themselves increasingly pressed to weigh the credibility of expert witnesses in the mushrooming areas of consumer liability and environmental hazards. A federal trial court had invoked the Frye rule in refusing to admit scientific testimony on behalf of the boys’ families that purported to link Bendectin with the children's deformities. The district court ruled for Merrell Dow and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that decision.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed the court of appeals and ordered the case back to trial. Justice Harry Blackmun, writing for the Court, revised the rule in Frye and held that pertinent evidence based on scientifically valid principles could be used as long as it was relevant and reliable. Blackmun also found, with Justices Rehnquist and Stevens dissenting in part, that the adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence in 1975 had effectively usurped the Frye precedent when it broadened the basis for admitting scientific, technical, and specialized knowledge into a trial. Blackmun said that while publication and peer review may help a judge determine the relevance of expert testimony, it should not be a prerequisite for admission. Blackmun did recognize that by abandoning the Frye precedent the Court was potentially creating a free-for-all of expert witnesses that might confuse both jurors and judges, but he also insisted that vigorous cross-examination, the common sense of jurors, and careful jury instructions would solve these problems.

Daubert opened the courtroom door to more and different kinds of expert scientific testimony. It meant that federal judges had greater discretion over what testimony they would allow at trial, and it encouraged lawyers to bring to the courts new kinds of techniques, such as DNA fingerprinting.


Subjects: Law.

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