Expert witness standards bill advances

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Renewing a lobbying fight between business groups and trial lawyers, a House panel Wednesday approved a bill that would lead to tougher standards for expert witnesses in lawsuits, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The bill (HB 243) would replace a decades-old standard that judges use in determining whether to allow expert testimony. Supporters say the bill would make Florida’s standards similar to what are considered in federal courts and help prevent expert testimony that is sometimes described as “junk science.”

But critics say the proposed standards would lead to delays and increased costs in lawsuits, which could make it harder for injured people to pursue cases against big businesses. Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, argued the standards could force judges to be “pseudo-scientists.”

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 11-4 to approve the bill, and the Senate version (SB 378) is expected to be considered Thursday in the Judiciary Committee. The House approved a similar bill in 2011, but it died in the Senate.

Among the groups supporting the change are the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Medical Association.

Theodore Van Itallie, an attorney for Johnson & Johnson, told the subcommittee that the company deals with product-liability lawsuits about issues such as pharmaceuticals and medical devices. He said reliability of expert testimony is critical in such cases.

But Troy Rafferty, an attorney who represented the Florida Justice Association, said the change would create an “onslaught” of motions and hearings that could not be handled by the already-stretched state court system.

Florida has long used what is known as the “Frye” standard in determining whether certain types of expert testimony will be allowed. With that standard, courts look at whether the basic scientific principles and methodologies used by experts are generally accepted, according to House and Senate analyses.

The proposed bills would move to a three-prong test known as the “Daubert” standard. That test would look at whether testimony is based on “sufficient facts or data;” whether it is the “product of reliable principles and methods;” and whether the witness applies the principles and methods “reliably to the facts of the case.”

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.