U.S. Court of Appeals Reverses on Admissibility of Expert Testimony in Benzene Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago reversed a district court decision granting summary judgment where the court found that the expert testimony for the plaintiff was unreliable. Donald Schultz was a painter for American Motors Corp. from 1981 until 1989. Benzene was a substance in the paint that was used.Mr. Schultz died in 2006 from an acute myeloid leukemia (AML) related to benzene exposure. 

The wife of Mr. Schultz, Joann, filed a lawsuit against Akzo Nobel Paints (formerly known as the Glidden Co.), asserting that the benzene in the paint caused Mr. Schultz’s AML and subsequently his death.

Akzo moved for summary judgment using the expert testimony of its expert toxicologist, David Pyatt. Pyatt’s opinion was that the benzene exposure did not cause Mr. Schultz’s AML because only workers exposed to more than 40 parts per million (ppm) years of benzene developed AML.

Mr. Schultz’s attorneys countered by providing expert testimony from an industrial hygienist, who found that the Monte Carlo Analysis, a risk assessment model, was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Applying that model to Mr. Schultz, it was found that he was exposed to 24 ppm. In addition, the  family of Mr. Schultz supplied the expert testimony of a Dr. Gore, an oncologist from Johns Hopkins University, who was of the opinion that benzene is a known cause of AML and was a substantial factor leading to Mr. Schultz’s AML and his death.

The district court found that Dr. Gore’s testimony was not reliable and granted Azko’s motion for summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed, focusing on the conclusions and not the scientific reliability of the experts’ methodology.

In the majority opinion, Justice Diane Wood discussed the function of the Daubert case in reference to Federal Rules of Evidence, Rule 702 regarding expert testimony.  The test used by courts with the use of Rule 702 is to act as a gatekeeper to test whether an expert’s opinion is reliable. The court in Daubert explained the factors to be considered. 

In this case, the court found that the gatekeeper role is filled by “focusing on the principles and methodology, not on the conclusions they generate.”  Daubert, 509 U.S. 593-94.

Here, the appellate court justices agreed that it was not the trial judge’s role to decide whether the expert’s opinions were accurate and correct. That would be up to the finder of fact. The trial court is limited in determining whether expert testimony is pertinent to an issue in the case and whether the methodology underlying that testimony is sound. Smith v. Ford Motor Co., 215 Fed.3rd 713, 719 (7th Cir. 2000). 

In conclusion, the court found that Rule 702 was not founded on the requirement that a trial judge decide between which expert testimony was better, but only to test whether or not the expert testimony was properly admissible under Rule 702. The holding was that Dr. Gore’s testimony was properly admissible and reversed the district court’s summary judgment order. The case was returned to the trial court for further disposition.

Schultz v. Akzo Nobel Paints, LLC, 722 F.3d 426 (7th Cir. 2013). 

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling worker injuries, pharmaceutical defect cases, chemical injury cases and construction accidents for individuals and families who have been harmed, inured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Rosemont, Richton Park, Morton Grove, Melrose Park, Highland park, Highwood, River Forest, Bensenville, Chicago (Belmont Harbor) Chicago (Chinatown), Aurora, St. Charles and Chicago Ridge, Ill.

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