House votes to change expert witness standard

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Targeting what some lawmakers described as “hired guns,” the Florida House on Friday approved a bill that would create tougher standards for expert-witness testimony in court cases.

The House’s 77-34 vote on HB 243 was a victory for business groups that have lobbied to place more restrictions on experts, whose testimony can be critical in civil and criminal cases that deal with complex scientific evidence.

Sponsor Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said the bill is not aimed at giving an advantage to businesses or any other parties in lawsuits. Supporters said they are trying to ensure that testimony is legitimate, with Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton, saying that some witnesses rely on theatrics in front of juries.

“I’ll choose science over theatrics,” said Gaetz, an attorney.

But opponents said the new standards would benefit deep-pocketed companies trying to fend off lawsuits filed by injured people. They said the standards would lead to costly and time-consuming hearings.

Also, they said the changes could drive up costs for prosecutors who might need expert testimony to get criminal convictions.

“This bill will create a drag on a court system already clogged and struggling under the strain of cases coming before it,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who also is an attorney.

The Senate version of the bill (SB 378) has been approved by one committee and is scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the Budget Committee.

For decades, Florida has 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 scientific principles and methodologies used by experts are generally accepted, according to legislative staff analyses.

The bill approved Friday would move to what is known as the “Daubert” standard, which is used in federal courts. 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.”

Lawmakers said the changes would lead to judges holding hearings to determine whether experts meet the standards before testimony could go before juries.

“This gives our judiciary much more guidance and greater standards to apply,” said Metz, an attorney.

But Rep. Marty Kiar, a Davie Democrat and attorney, said it would lead to a situations where a judge would become a “pseudo scientist.”

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.