Court Extends Guidelines in Product-Liability Suits

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court gave American businesses more ammunition to fend off product-liability lawsuits Tuesday by extending the reach of guidelines that let trial judges exclude "junk science" as evidence.

Those guidelines, fashioned in a key 1993 decision, also apply to the planned testimony of all expert witnesses, the court said in a decision insurers predicted could play a huge role in anticipated lawsuits over Year 2000 computer woes.

"We conclude that (the 1993 ruling's) general holding... applies not only to testimony based on `scientific' knowledge, but also to testimony based on `technical' and `other specialized' knowledge," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for a unanimous court. The decision ended a family's lawsuit against a tire manufacturer over a 1993 Alabama traffic accident that killed one person and injured seven others. The justices voted 8-1 in ruling that a federal trial judge correctly barred an engineer from testifying that he believed a defect had caused a tire blowout and the accident. Breyer said the trial judge, acting in his role as gatekeeper, rightly doubted whether the engineer's methodology could reliably determine the cause of the tire's failure. "It's a really bad day for consumers," said Gerson Smoger, a Dallas attorney with Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. "It enhances judicial power at the expense of letting juries assess the credibility of evidence." But Craig Berrington, general counsel of the American Insurance Association, called the decision "a sweeping victory for honest trials and honest decisions." He said the ruling could reduce the number of anticipated lawsuits over Year 2000 computer problems. "In the vast majority of these disputes, the expert testimony of software engineers or computer science experts will be essential" to claims of alleged design defects, Berrington said. The nation's highest court in 1993 told judges deciding on the admissibility of expert evidence to consider whether the theory or technique had been tested, whether it was reviewed by other experts, its possible rate of error and whether it was generally accepted by the scientific community. …