The Qualifications Test

Courts have always required experts to be 'qualified' in order to testify (see, e.g. Poust v. Hunleigh Healthcare (1998)). The more controversial issue is whether qualifications are not only a necessary, but also a sufficient condition for expert testimony. Although no modern court has held that qualifications alone suffice, many commentators suspect that, in practice, some courts adhere to this view. In addition, this seemingly straightforward criterion turns out to contain considerable ambiguity. In particular, two issues arise. The first concerns what sorts of qualifications are necessary; for instance, must the expert have an advanced degree? The second concerns whether the expert's credentials must be in the specialty area in which the expert is to testify.

Rule 702 defines expertise broadly. Not just PhDs and MDs are contemplated by the Rule, but a wide assortment of specialists, ranging from nuclear physicists to real estate agents. Because the range is wide, so are the standards for qualifications. Rule 702 requires only that the expert be qualified 'by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education'. By necessity, therefore, courts approach the issue of what background qualifications are necessary in a flexible manner.

In general, courts interpret the main qualifications requirement in relation to the expert's claimed expertise and the demands of the testimony (see, e.g. Seatrax v. Sonbeck Int'l, Inc. (2000)). Hence, experts on medical matters are expected to have medical degrees, appropriate certifications, and experience, but auto mechanics might only need years of experience and demonstrable skills. In many contexts, experience alone will be sufficient to qualify a witness, while in others, the lack of experience will disqualify an expert. As a practical matter, this means courts consult the experts' respective fields for guidance regarding what constitutes a 'qualified' expert. Not all fields, however, have well-articulated standards and many subjects of interest to the law are studied by fields with widely varying professional requirements. In psychology, for instance, a proffered expert might have one or more of a variety of degrees, ranging from a BA to a PhD.

The hallmark of late twentieth-century science (and all expertise) is specialization. This trend leaves courts somewhat uncertain as to whether generalists should be permitted to testify about matters that are highly specialized. Once again, courts approach this matter flexibly. Some courts require experts to have demonstrated expertise in the specific areas and topics on which they are to testify (see, e.g. Gates v. The City of Memphis (2000)). Other courts provide that generalists may testify on specialty areas and that their lack of expertise in those areas is a matter of weight for the trier of fact (see, e.g. TUF Racing Products, Inc. v. American Suzuki Motor Corp. (2000)). Too often, however, expedience leads courts to allow experts to venture into areas outside of their true expertise.

The evaluation of qualifications is a fact-based preliminary inquiry that will be overturned on appeal only for an abuse of discretion. There seems to be a small trend toward greater scrutiny of expert credentials and qualifications in post-Daubert admissibility hearings. A number of recent cases have rejected expert testimony on the basis of a lack of qualifications. Representative of these is Mancuso v. Consolidated Edison Co. of New York (1997). There, the court concluded that an internist did not have the requisite qualifications to testify that the plaintiff's ailments were caused by exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). The internist lacked formal training and credentials in PCB toxicology or in environmental or occupational medicine. The internist was unable to answer basic questions about PCB toxicology and relied upon the plaintiffs' attorney to provide him with the scientific literature with which he formed his opinion.

It is worth noting that the issue of qualifications is intrinsically bound to the Court's holding in Kumho Tire that Daubert's gatekeeping requirement extends to non-scientific expert testimony. Of course, if an asserted expertise cannot be shown to be sound, then even the most eminent (most highly qualified) practitioner of that asserted expertise still would not be permitted to testify as an expert. In fact, courts are likely to find that the issues of qualifications, reliability and fit are inextricably entwined and, in practice, cannot easily be disentangled. Qualifications are relative, being more or less useful depending on the expert's familiarity with the subject that fits, or is relevant to, the matter to be decided by the trier of fact. Qualifications, therefore, cannot be evaluated in the abstract. At some point, certainly, the question of qualifications becomes a matter of weight rather than admissibility. But just as with validity assessments, the judge's gatekeeping obligation should extend not merely to qualifications in the abstract, but qualifications to testify about the subject that is relevant to the issues in controversy.

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