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DC High Court Adopts Daubert Approach to Expert Testimony

In an immediate victory for mobile phone manufacturers and service providers, and with implications for any other case involving expert testimony in the District of Columbia, the District of Columbia’s highest court abandoned the nearly century-old Frye test for admitting expert testimony in favor of the Daubert approach as embodied in Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.  See Motorola, Inc. v. Murray, No. 14-CV-1350 (D.C. Oct. 20, 2016).  The decision to adopt the federal standard—following 39 states that have done so—came in an interlocutory appeal in litigation in which Plaintiffs allege long-term exposure to mobile phone radiation causes brain tumors.  The newly adopted standard likely means an uphill battle for Plaintiffs and their causation experts in this litigation. 

The litigation at issue involves 13 cases consolidated under the lead case, Murray v. Motorola, et al.,in which each Plaintiffhas a brain tumor, or represents the estate of someone who died with a brain tumor, allegedly caused by exposure to radiation emitted by mobile phones.  Defendants are various wireless trade associations, mobile phone manufacturers, and service providers.  Although no court in the country has found mobile phone use causes brain tumors, Plaintiffs offered testimony from experts in various fields to support the causal connection. 

Under Frye and Dyas, a 1977 District of Columbia decision interpreting Frye, “expert testimony is presumptively admissible if the subject is beyond the ken of an average layperson, the expert is qualified to offer an opinion on the subject, the expert uses a methodology that is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community to arrive at his opinion, and the probative value of the expert’s testimony is not substantially outweighed by the risk of undue prejudice.”  Once a methodology was deemed generally accepted, courts were more likely to admit future testimony based on that same methodology without necessarily looking at the way the expert applied it.  Rule 702 does not require general acceptance; rather an expert must apply reliable principles and methods to the facts of the case.  Each case requires a fresh look at the application of the methodology.  A novel methodology could be admissible under Rule 702 so long as the expert applies the methodology reliably.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg held a four-week evidentiary hearing on Defendants’ motions to exclude Plaintiffs’ general causation experts.  See Murray v. Motorola, Inc., 2001 CA 008479 B (D.C. Super. Aug. 8, 2014).  After applying each of the Frye/Dyas factors to the experts’ opinions, Judge Weisberg concluded “some, but not all, of Plaintiffs’ proffered expert testimony on general causation is admissible,” but observed “most, if not all, of Plaintiffs’ experts would probably be excluded under the [Rule 702] standard.”  Motorola, Inc., slip op. at 3.  The court then certified for interlocutory appeal “whether the District of Columbia should adopt Federal Rule of Evidence 702 (or a revised Frye standard) for the admissibility of expert evidence.”

On appeal, the D.C. Court of Appeals adopted the federal approach.  The Court concluded Rule 702’s focus on reliability is preferable to Frye’sgeneral acceptance standard.  The Court also considered but rejected a modified Frye approach, noting the advantages in interpretation and application that come with adopting a widely used rule.

In the context of the D.C. mobile phone litigation, the Court’s decision likely means some of Plaintiffs’ experts will be excluded at least in part, as Judge Weisberg forecast after Defendants raised questions about the reliability of the methodology and opinions of some Plaintiffs’ experts. The Court remanded the cases to D.C. Superior Court for further proceedings to implement the new evidentiary standard.  More broadly, having been issued by D.C.’s highest court sitting en banc, the decision is binding on all D.C. courts and represents a clean slate on the admissibility of expert testimony in cases still in pre-trial stages.

© 2020 Beveridge & Diamond PC National Law Review, Volume VI, Number 343


About this Author

Daniel M. Krainin Environmental Litigation Attorney Beveridge & Diamond New York, NY

Dan deploys more than two decades of environmental litigation experience to resolve clients’ legal and business challenges.

Primarily focused on environmental and toxic tort litigation, Dan helps clients successfully resolve groundwater contamination, hazardous waste site remediation, natural resource damages, permit defense and product-related matters. He enjoys using his skills as a litigator to help clients solve environmental problems.

Among his many wins, Dan successfully led a team that defeated an emergency challenge to a permit that Dan’s client needed to continue its...

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Graham C. Zorn Environmental, Toxic Tort, Products Liability Litigation Attorney Beveridge & Diamond Washington, DC

Graham Zorn focuses his practice on environmental, toxic tort, and products liability litigation.

His representative experience includes extensive work on a series of complex products liability and toxic tort cases related to alleged groundwater, and litigation over lead in drinking water. He has represented individual businesses, trade associations, and municipalities in litigation, as well as in compliance, enforcement, and counseling matters involving the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, CERCLA and other state and federal environmental statutes. He also counsels domestic and international clients on a variety of product compliance, market access, and enforcement matters. In particular, he is well versed in reporting requirements related to conflict mineral use in electronics, medical devices, and consumer products.

Graham obtained his law degree from Vermont Law School where he was a Head Notes Editor for the Vermont Law Review and a student clinician in the Environment and Natural Resources Law Clinic. During law school, he clerked at the Wisconsin Department of Justice in the Environmental Protection Unit where he assisted in defending state agencies in a citizen suit alleging Clean Air Act new source review violations.

Before law school, Graham worked on domestic social policy, with a focus on health care, and environment and energy policy for U.S. Senator Russ Feingold. He obtained his undergraduate degree from Carleton College with a major in Geology.