In an unpublished decision authored by Judge Kevin Arthur, the Maryland Appellate Court ruled that the Baltimore City Circuit Court acted within its authority when it accepted an expert’s testimony regarding medical causation in a lead paint case. Furthermore, the court found that the evidence presented was adequate to justify a judgment exceeding $2 million in damages for injuries connected to lead exposure.
All of the new Daubert decisions are of interest to Maryland trial lawyers, even unreported cases. So let’s break down the case.
Lead Paint Lawsuit
Fisher brought a lead paint lawsuit against the owners and operators of his childhood rental property. Fisher alleged he suffered brain damage and other neurocognitive impairments due to lead-based paint exposure at the property.
New Daubert Standard
In Maryland, the admissibility of expert testimony underwent a significant change with the transition from the Frye-Reed standard to the Daubert standard. Initially, expert testimony was admitted based on general acceptance within the expert’s scientific field. However, in 2020, Maryland adopted the Daubert standard in another lead paint case. This standard focuses more on the reliability of the methodology used to reach a conclusion.
So in Dackman v. Fisher, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City applied the Daubert standard to assess the admissibility of expert testimony from Dr. Aaron L. Zuckerberg in a lead poisoning case. Fisher, the plaintiff, sued the property owners where he resided as an infant, claiming brain damage and other impairments due to lead exposure. The defendants challenged the admissibility of Dr. Zuckerberg’s testimony, arguing that his failure to consider ADHD or bipolar disorder as alternative causes made his testimony unreliable.
The court, however, found Dr. Zuckerberg’s testimony admissible under the Daubert standard. It acknowledged that ADHD and bipolar disorder were part of the spectrum of injury that included symptoms caused by lead exposure. The court determined that Dr. Zuckerberg had sufficiently accounted for alternative explanations for Fisher’s injuries and concluded that his lead exposure was a substantial contributing factor to his cognitive disabilities.
The jury awarded Fisher over $2 million in damages, and the circuit court’s ruling was appealed. The focus was on whether there was a factual basis for Dr. Zuckerberg’s opinion, considering alternative explanations for Fisher’s injuries under the Daubert-Rochkind standard. The court ruled in favor of Fisher, stating that Dr. Zuckerberg had transparently considered other influences and factors, and it was up to the fact finder to determine the extent of lead causation in Fisher’s injury.
The defendants appealed.
Appellate Court’s Decision
The case in question focused on whether the trial court abused its discretion by admitting Dr. Zuckerberg’s expert testimony on medical causation in a lead poisoning case. The trial court admitted the testimony under Maryland Rule 5-702 and Daubert-Rochkind, which assess the reliability of an expert’s methodology over its general acceptance. The defendant, Dackman, argued that the testimony was unreliable because Dr. Zuckerberg did not adequately consider ADHD or bipolar disorder as alternative causes for the plaintiff’s symptoms.
The court, however, found Dr. Zuckerberg’s methodology, which involved a differential diagnosis, to be reliable. It concluded that the diagnosis of ADHD or bipolar disorder merely describes some of the plaintiff’s symptoms, not causes them. Therefore, these diagnoses were not necessary factors to be ruled out in the expert’s differential diagnosis.
The court also clarified that under Maryland law, in lead paint litigation, the plaintiff needs to show that lead exposure was a substantial factor in causing harm, not necessarily the more likely cause over other potential factors. The court concluded that Dr. Zuckerberg’s testimony sufficiently established that lead exposure was a substantial contributing factor in the plaintiff’s injuries.
In summary, the appellate court affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, finding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert testimony and that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury verdict. This case does not appear to be a close call (which may be why it is unreported).
Takeaways from Dackman v. Fisher
Key lessons from the case include:
- Transition to Daubert Standard: Maryland courts have transitioned from the Frye-Reed standard, which relied on general acceptance within an expert’s scientific field, to the Daubert standard, emphasizing the reliability of the methodology used by the expert. This is obvious but it is the law of our land now and we have to deal with it.
- Case Background: Fisher filed a lawsuit against the owners and operators of his childhood rental property, claiming that he suffered brain damage and neurocognitive impairments due to exposure to lead-based paint at the property.
- Expert Testimony Under Scrutiny: The admissibility of Dr. Aaron L. Zuckerberg’s expert testimony was challenged by the defendants, who argued that his failure to consider ADHD or bipolar disorder as alternative causes for Fisher’s symptoms rendered his testimony unreliable.
- Court’s Rationale: The Baltimore City Circuit Court found Dr. Zuckerberg’s testimony admissible under the Daubert standard. The court acknowledged that ADHD and bipolar disorder symptoms were part of the spectrum of injury that included symptoms caused by lead exposure – and they certainly are – and determined that lead exposure was a substantial contributing factor to Fisher’s cognitive disabilities.
- Substantial Factor Causation: Under Maryland law, in lead paint litigation, it is sufficient to show that lead exposure was a substantial factor in causing harm, rather than proving it as the more likely cause over other potential factors.
- Appellate Court Affirmation: The appellate court affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision, agreeing that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the expert testimony. The evidence was deemed sufficient to support the jury verdict, which awarded Fisher over $2 million in damages.
Lessons from Dackman v. Fisher
The transition from the Frye-Reed standard to the Daubert standard in Maryland represents a shift towards a more rigorous evaluation of expert testimony, mainly due to the different focal points of each standard. Defendants will try to exploit the differences to attack our experts at ever turn.
Under the Frye-Reed standard, the primary criterion for the admissibility of expert testimony was its general acceptance within the relevant scientific community. This standard was relatively straightforward and somewhat narrow in scope. If the methodology or principle had gained widespread acceptance among experts in the field, it was typically deemed admissible. This approach placed a strong emphasis on the consensus within the expert community, but it didn’t deeply scrutinize the underlying methodology or reasoning process of the expert’s conclusions.
In contrast, the Daubert standard, derived from the U.S. Supreme Court case Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, takes a more comprehensive and detailed approach. Instead of merely assessing whether an expert’s methodology is generally accepted, the Daubert standard requires the court to conduct a thorough evaluation of the reliability and relevance of the expert’s methodology. This involves considering several factors, including the potential rate of error, whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication, the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique’s operation, and the method’s acceptance in the scientific community.
So the Daubert standard is considered tougher because it demands a more in-depth and critical analysis of the expert’s methodology, not just its acceptance in the scientific community. It requires judges to actively engage in assessing the scientific validity and reliability of the evidence presented, ensuring that the expert testimony is not only accepted in the field but also methodologically sound and directly applicable to the facts of the case. But in medical malpractice and other personal injury lawsuits, the changes appear as though it will largely be practically a distinction without difference and this case is another example of this.