New Jersey Supreme Court Sets Higher Standards For Expert Opinions

On August 1, 2018 in an important decision on the scope of expert opinions, the New Jersey Supreme Court excluded plaintiff’s expert testimony in a mass tort case alleging that the pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche’s anti-acne drug Accutane led to development of Crohn’s disease. The case is entitled: In Re: Accutane Litigation.

The unanimous ruling reinstated the decision on admissibility originally issued by the trial court in Atlantic county, which rejected the testimony of the plaintiffs’ experts.

However; the decision is a broader victory for business groups and others that have repeatedly asked trial courts to limit the admissibility of expert evidence in litigation.  The court emphasized the gatekeeping function of the trial court in preventing jurors from considering “unsound” opinions from experts. The trial court had found the expert’s opinions utilized contrived reasoning which was not supported by the scientific community and that the opinions were conclusion-driven, rather than methodology-based.

“Our analysis of the record lead to a clear result: The trial court properly excluded plaintiffs’ expert testimony,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the court.

For the first time in New Jersey, the court adopted the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1993 decision, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, which sets a high standard for the use of experts in products liability cases—more stringent than New Jersey’s Rule of Evidence 702.

“We now reconcile our standard … with the federal Daubert standard to incorporate its factors for civil cases,” LaVecchia said.

In implementing the Daubert standard going forward, “we expect the trial court to assess both the methodology used by the expert to arrive at an opinion and the underlying data used in the formation of the opinion,” the court said.

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James (“Jay”) McGovern is a partner and commercial trial and transactional lawyer in the firm's Business Law and Litigation Department.