Proposal would toughen standards for expert witnesses

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With business groups and doctors seeking to clamp down on lawsuits, a House panel Wednesday approved a proposal that would toughen standards for expert witnesses who provide crucial testimony in complicated cases.

The measure (PCB CJS 13-02) mirrors bills that passed the House in 2011 and 2012 but failed to get agreement in the Senate. It is part of a series of proposals that influential business and physician groups are expected to push during the upcoming legislative session to try to limit civil lawsuits.

“The real issue here is not legal,” David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, told the House Civil Justice Subcommittee in arguing for the bill. “It’s economic development and about our business climate.”

Subcommittee members voted 8-4 along party lines to approve the bill, which is sponsored by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha.

One of the dissenters, Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, questioned the need to change the state’s decades-old system of determining whether experts are allowed to testify. A House staff analysis said that current test involves whether the basic principles of evidence are “generally accepted within the scientific community.”

“What’s the problem that we’re trying to resolve?” Waldman asked.

Under the proposal, Florida would move to tougher standards that are like those used in federal courts. It would create a three-pronged test to determine whether expert testimony will be allowed, including whether the testimony is “based upon sufficient facts or data,” whether it is the “product of reliable principles and methods” and whether the witness has “applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.”

Supporters of such changes have long criticized what they describe as expert witnesses using “junk science” that can persuade juries. The bill likely would lead to hearings in which judges would determine whether experts meet the new standards, a role Metz described as a gatekeeper, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who voted against the measure, said he is concerned that the proposal would lead to “mini-trials” before judges, as they try to determine whether potentially important testimony should be allowed to go to juries.

“What troubles me is any time we’re taking something away from a jury,” Rodriguez said.

But attorney George Meros, who represented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at the meeting, said the measure would bolster scientific testimony in lawsuits.

“What this standard does is improve science in the courtroom on both sides,” Meros said.

Rich Newsome, an Orlando-area plaintiffs’ attorney who spoke on behalf of the Florida Justice Association, said the new standard — known in the legal world as the Daubert standard — would particularly affect cases such as those dealing with the pharmaceutical industry. He said the hearings before judges would require more time and drive up costs in cases that he described as often being a “war of attrition.”

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.