Threshold for Admissibility of Expert Opinion Affirmed by Pennsylvania Appellate Court

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Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court recently affirmed an order granting summary judgment for Rohm and Haas (R&H) in a chemical exposure wrongful death action, finding the plaintiff’s expert’s opinion regarding causation to be inadmissible.  Importantly, the appellate court’s decision in Snizavich v. Rohm and Haas Company (2013 PA Superior Court, No. 1283 EDA 2012) explicitly establishes the minimum threshold for the admissibility of an expert’s testimony on the causal relationship between exposure and the claimed injury, and requires some scientific authority to be submitted in support of that opinion.

 

The action was brought by the widow of a pipefitter who worked extensively at R&H’s Spring House facility (Spring House) and died from brain cancer in 2008.  The plaintiff alleged that her husband’s exposure to various chemicals at Spring House, including tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, caused his brain cancer and death.  R&H moved for summary judgment on the grounds that the plaintiff could not establish a causal link between her husband’s work at Spring House and his brain cancer.  The plaintiff’s opposition relied solely upon the report of her medical expert, Thomas Milby, M.D., an occupational health specialist, who opined that the husband’s exposure to unknown chemicals at Spring House was the cause of his illness and death.  R&H brought a Frye motion challenging the admissibility of Dr. Milby’s report.  The trial court granted R&H’s Frye motion and summary judgment motion, finding that Dr. Milby’s opinion was inadmissible.  The appellate court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ruling Dr. Milby’s report inadmissible and granting summary judgment.

 

The critical piece of evidence for both the trial and appellate court on the admissibility of Dr. Milby’s report and opinion was his reliance on a report issued by the University of Minnesota.  This report was the only specific independent authority referenced by Dr. Milby in his report or his supporting affidavit.  The report found that there was a statistically higher occurrence of brain cancer among Spring House workers, but the cause of this increase was inconclusive.  In contrast, Dr. Milby opined that the cause of the increase was due to exposure to unknown chemicals at Spring House, but he offered no explanation for how he arrived at this conclusion other than his own experience and training.  The trial court found that the University of Minnesota report specifically disclaimed the conclusion drawn by Dr. Milby, and that Dr. Milby did not submit any other scientific authority – defined as facts, testimony or empirical data – in support of his ultimate conclusion.

 

Thus, his conclusion merely expressed his own personal belief, amounted to nothing more than a lay opinion that would not assist the fact finder in reaching a conclusion, and was inadmissible.  Conversely, the appellate court’s decision also stated that expert testimony as to a causal relationship may meet the threshold standard for admissibility, “even if solely based 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.”  Thus, the key question when considering challenging the admissibility of an expert’s opinion is whether independent scientific authority is identified in support of that conclusion.  If none is provided, then it should be challenged and found inadmissible.