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Tort Reform Revisited: Georgia Supreme Court (Finally) Adopts Daubert Standard

Posted on: September 1st, 2010

By Ted Freeman and Michelle Youngblood Terry

In the five years since the enactment of Georgia’s Tort Reform Act, challenges, primarily by plaintiffs, to various provisions of the statute have slowly made their way through the appellate process.  While some key challenges still remain, the Georgia Supreme Court recently adopted the federal Daubert standard for admissibility of expert testimony.  In doing so, the Court finally provides trial judges with sorely needed guidance on their “gatekeeping” function of preventing jury decisions based on “junk” science or other unreliable expert opinions.  This is good news for all defendants.

Prior to the enactment of tort reform, most state court judges probably never heard ofDaubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), especially given the widely accepted view that most “experts” were allowed to testify in state court.  In an effort to limit the admissibility of unreliable expert testimony, the Tort Reform Act adopted the federal standard.  Perhaps recognizing the entrenched views of many judges, the Georgia General Assembly explicitly stated that “the courts of this state may draw from the opinions of the United States Supreme Court” in Daubert and its progeny.

Nevertheless, trial courts have struggled in applying these new requirements, and particularly with how strictly to adhere to the Daubert factors in evaluating the reliability of the proffered expert testimony to determine whether it should be admissible.  In a June 28, 2010 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court answered that question:  follow Daubert.  HNTB Georgia, Inc. v. Hamilton-King, 2010 WL 2553205 (Ga.).

In HNTB Georgia, the underlying case centered on the allegedly deficient design of a bridge-widening project.  The plaintiffs proffered the expert testimony of a licensed engineer.  The defendants moved to exclude his testimony on the grounds that the witness lacked the education and experience to qualify as an expert in construction design standards and that his testimony failed to meet the reliability requirements of Daubert.  The trial court determined that the witness was qualified to testify as an engineering expert, but found that the proffered testimony failed to meet the reliability requirements and excluded the testimony.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the statutory language was merely permissive and that the trial court erroneously had interpreted it to mean that an expert’s testimony is not admissible unless it satisfies the factors for reliability articulated in Daubert.  In reversing, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeals’ interpretation that strict analysis under the Daubert standard is not required by tort reform.  In addition to providing no wiggle room for any judge that continues to view that application of Daubert as permissive, the Court emphasized “the importance of the trial court’s gatekeeper role” under tort reform.

Therefore, given the clear pronouncement of the Georgia Supreme Court, there is now no room for doubt that Daubert governs the admissibility of expert testimony in Georgia state courts.

For more information regarding this article, please contact Ted Freeman at 770.818.1401 or by email at [email protected] or Michelle Youngblood Terry at 404.335.7146 or by email at [email protected].

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