Plaintiff’s attempt to preclude testimony of expert witness in asbestos related products liability litigation meets impasse—court refuses to circumscribe competent experts to narrowly defined fields or specific licensure.

On Friday, June 9, 2017, Presiding Justice Alice Gibney of the Rhode Island Superior Court, Providence County, issued a decision denying a plaintiff’s motion to preclude the expert testimony of Dr. Michael Graham, proffered by the Defendant Crane Co., in an asbestos-related products liability action.

Plaintiff argued that Dr. Graham was not qualified to provide expert testimony regarding causation of asbestos-related diseases and sought to preclude his testimony, pursuant to Rhode Island Rule of Evidence 702, which provides that:

If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine ac fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of fact or opinion.

Defendant objected and maintained that the Court should allow Dr. Graham’s testimony as he was an experienced and qualified pathologist.  In the alternative, Defendant requested that any ruling on Plaintiff’s Motion be reserved until Dr. Graham had the opportunity to present his qualifications to the Court.

Plaintiff argued that Dr. Graham’s background as an expert pathologist, expert medical examiner, and expert at determining cause of death did not render him an expert in causation in connection with asbestos-related diseases.  Plaintiff noted that Dr. Graham’s professional publications were almost completely devoid of reference to asbestos and discussion of mesothelioma.  As a result of this alleged deficiency, Plaintiff contended that the testimony was not relevant and that it would be of no assistance to a jury.  Plaintiff urged the Court to circumscribe that limits of permissible expert testimony in a manner analogous to medical malpractice litigation—narrowing competent experts to those with specialized qualifications in narrowly defined fields.

Defendant countered by asserting that Dr. Graham was a board certified pathologist, had studied asbestos-related diseases for over thirty years and had the opportunity to review over 1000 case of asbestos-related diseases throughout his career.  Defendant also emphasized that Dr. Graham testified in more than 750 cases within the United States and specifically reviewed the Plaintiff’s pathology in forming his opinions in the case.

In reaching its decision, the Superior Court reaffirmed that “before admitting expert testimony, the trial justice must evaluate whether the testimony that a party seeks to present to the jury is relevant, within the witnesses’ expertise, and based on an adequate factual foundation.”  (Internal citation and quotation omitted).   The Court explained that it would evaluate the expert’s qualifications by reviewing his education, training, employment and experiences.  Thereafter, the Court would endeavor to determine whether the expert would present scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge that would assist the trier of fact.

Justice Gibney quoted to the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s Opinion in Raimbeault v. Takeuchi Mfg. U.S., Ltd., 772 A.2d 1056, 1061 (R.I. 2001) with approval for the proposition that an expert witness “need not have a license in a narrow specialty, nor hold a particular title, as long as his or her knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education can deliver a helpful opinion of the fact-finder.” (Internal quotation omitted).

The Court also distinguished Soares v. Vestal, the case relied upon to bolster her argument that expert testimony should be confined to the expert’s field of expertise as required in medical malpractice cases.  632 A.2d 647, 647-48 (R.I. 1993).  In particular, the Court found that Soares was limited to the facts of that particular case and did not broadly pronounce that experts need be certified in a specific area in order to testify in medical malpractices.  Instead, the Court opined that the gravamen of the analysis is whether the opinion will aid the fact-finder and that decision rests soundly within the discretion of the trial justice.

Finally, the Court delineated Dr. Graham’s credentials as a board certified anatomic and clinical pathologist and serving Chief Medical Examiner, as well as his educational background, research, publications and experience.  Based on those qualifications, the Court found that Dr. Graham was qualified to testify to causation regarding asbestos-related diseases under Rule 702, that the testimony was relevant, and that an adequate factual foundation for the formation of his opinions flowed from his review of the Decedent’s medical records.