Expert witness bill could be in jeopardy

in Uncategorized by

Dealing a blow to business groups, a Senate committee Monday revamped a controversial bill that would place more restrictions on expert witnesses in lawsuits, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The Senate Rules Committee voted 8-7 to approve an amendment that threatens to scuttle the bill (SB 1412), which groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce have made a priority. A similar scenario played out last year, when a Senate amendment effectively killed the bill.

“Yogi Berra — déjà vu all over again,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Garrett Richter.

Richter’s proposal, which the House has already backed, would lead to courts using a more-stringent standard when deciding whether expert testimony should be admitted in cases.

But Sen. David Simmons, a Maitland Republican who offered the amendment, said the Richter proposal would lead to delays and extra expenses in lawsuits and be used as a “tactical maneuver” by defendants to wear down their opponents. He was backed by the state’s prosecuting attorneys and the Florida Justice Association, which includes civil plaintiffs’ attorneys.

While somewhat arcane, the expert-witness issue has become a battleground in recent years as business groups seek changes in the legal system to help shield companies from costly litigation. Expert testimony can be critical in complex civil and criminal cases.

Business groups want to ditch a standard that Florida courts have used for decades — known in the legal world as the “Frye” standard — and move to tougher requirements that are used in the federal courts. Those requirements are known as the “Daubert” standard.

Critics of the Frye standard say it allows “junk science” to be admitted into cases. But opponents of moving to the Daubert standard say it would lead to road blocks to legitimate testimony going before juries.

The current standard, at least in part, requires judges to determine whether an expert’s testimony is based on scientific principle or discovery that has gained “general acceptance” in the particular scientific field. But the Daubert standard would require judges to look at whether testimony is “based upon sufficient facts or data;” whether it is the “product of reliable principles and methods;” and whether a witness has “applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.” 

Simmons, who is an attorney, described his amendment as a “hybrid.” While it mirrored parts of Richter’s bill, Simmons said it would allow expert testimony that is generally accepted in the scientific community so that parties wouldn’t have to go back and “re-prove or reinvent the wheel.”

Four Republicans joined four Democrats in voting for the amendment, while six Republicans and one Democrat voted against it. The committee then voted 13-2 to approve the amended bill, a move that Richter supported because he said he wanted to keep it alive for the Senate floor.

The House last week approved its version of the Richter proposal (HB 7015). Last year, the House also passed such a bill but refused to go along with a Senate amendment.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.