Snizavich v. Rohm & Haas Co.: Defining Admissibility Standards for Expert Testimony In Pennsylvania

1/9/2014
By Erica A. Lombardo. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that the Plaintiff’s expert testimony was inadmissible as it failed to meet minimum admissibility requirements, because the expert was relying only on his own personal beliefs. The Superior Court sets forth the minimum standards for the admissibility of expert testimony, which includes the expert pointing to, relying upon, or citing scientific authority. The issue presented to the Superior Court in this case was whether there is a minimal threshold that expert testimony must surpass to demonstrate that the proffered testimony is an actual expert opinion and not “a lay opinion offered by an expert.” Snizavich v. Rohm & Haas Co., 2013 PA Super 315, 2013 Pa. Super. LEXIS 3192, 2013 WL 6383086 (Pa. Super. 2013). The Superior Court held that in this Wrongful Death action, the trial court properly precluded the Plaintiff’s expert report, because it failed to meet the basic admissibility requirements set forth in Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 702. Joseph Snizavich (Decedent) worked as a pipefitter for the Welsch Company. For the 13 years he was employed by the company and worked as a contractor predominately at the Rohm and Hass’ Spring House Facility (Spring House). In 2005, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and died on September 19, 2008. The following year, his wife brought a cause of action under the Wrongful Death and Survival Acts – alleging Decedent’s brain cancer was caused by chemical exposure at Spring House and therefore Rohm and Haas was liable. Rohm and Haas filed a motion for summary judgment (MSJ) and argued that the Decedent’s wife failed to provide expert testimony on the issue of causation. She then submitted the report of Dr. Thomas H. Milby, M.D., which relied upon a report from the University of Minnesota (Minnesota Report) that concerned workers at Spring House. The Minnesota Report found that there was a statistically higher occurrence of brain cancer among individuals who worked at Spring House due to the thousands of chemicals used. However, the university’s report was inconclusive as to the cause of brain cancer found in those workers and the relationship between the increased incidence of brain cancer and the chemicals. Rohm and Haas subsequently filed a Frye motion in which they sought preclusion of Dr. Milby’s report, because it did not comply with the requirements for the admission of expert testimony. The trial court heard argument on the Frye motion and in response granted both Rohm and Haas’ Frye motion and MSJ. The trial court issued an opinion stating that “it was not necessary to conduct a full Frye analysis on the report issued by Milby, as it failed both of the basic requirements of showing a coherent scientific or technical methodology to which any type of analysis could be applied…” Id. at 3. Decedent’s wife appealed. In reviewing this case, the Superior Court looked to two cases in particular. First, it discussed Checchio v. Frankford Hospital-Torresdale Div., 717 A.2d 1058 (Pa. Super. 1998). In that case, two expert’s testimonies were precluded for the Plaintiff and MSJ was awarded for the Defense. Each expert formed their opinions without referring to any outside sources; they relied solely on their own observations and experience in the field. The Court found the proposed expert testimony to be “inherently unreliable” as both experts failed to use any medical literature in opining as to the cause of the Plaintiff’s current disorders. Checchio, at 1061. The second case the Superior Court discussed was Harris v. NGK N. Am., Inc., 2011 PA Super 66, 19 A.3d 1053 (Pa. Super. 2011). Unlike the Checchio court, this one determined the proffered expert testimony met the minimum requirements as the doctor reviewed medical records, discharge summaries, and test results of the Plaintiff. He also articulated that his opinion was based upon those materials and his knowledge of the disease due to his medical training and medical literature he read. The Court acknowledge that unlike in Checchio where the experts failed to demonstrate that their opinions were based on facts, testimony, or empirical data, the Harris expert’s opinion was admissible because it referenced outside data supporting the causal relationship. The Snizavich court held that the minimal threshold expert testimony must meet is that “it must point to, rely on or cite some scientific authority – whether facts, empirical studies, or the expert’s own research.” Snizavich, at 13. If an expert’s opinion does not include such authority, then the trial court must conclude that the opinion is just personal belief. “Thus, expert testimony as to a causal relationship may be admissible, even if based solely on the expert’s review of medical records and his experience and expertise in the applicable medical field when the expert can point to some scientific authority that supports the causal connection.” Id. Furthermore, the Court articulated that like the experts in Checchio, Dr. Milby was relying solely on his own personal beliefs in forming his expert testimony. He relied upon nine documents, including Decedent’s medical history, work history, and the inconclusive Minnesota Report. However, he failed to include any scientific authority to support his conclusion of brain cancer arising from the Decedent’s work at the Spring House. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision in this matter.
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