On September 25, 2017, the Court of Common Pleas of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia County precluded two of plaintiffs’ experts from testifying in the Brandt v. The Bon-Ton Stores, Inc., et al. asbestos-related talcum powder case, effectively ending the case. Both Sean Fitzgerald and Dr. Ronald Gordon were precluded from offering expert testimony regarding the asbestos content in the Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder at issue.
The Brandt case involved a plaintiff who claimed she developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos from using Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder. Defendants moved, in part, to challenge the opinions of plaintiffs’ experts regarding the asbestos content of Cashmere Bouquet on grounds the experts did not employ generally accepted methodologies to support their opinions. During the hearing on the defendants’ challenge, the plaintiffs’ experts both conceded the tests they conducted were insufficient to differentiate between asbestos fibers and cleavage fragments—particles that look similar to asbestos fibers. The plaintiffs argued their experts’ methodologies for testing the asbestos content in Cashmere Bouquet were fodder for cross examination, and the case should proceed to the jury.
After four days of testimony from the plaintiffs’ experts and the defendants’ expert, Dr. Matthew Sanchez, the court issued a nine-page memorandum opinion excluding Mr. Fitzgerald’s and Dr. Gordon’s opinions as unreliable, “inherently unscientific,” and not generally accepted pursuant to the Frye test, which Pennsylvania continues to follow. See Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013, 1014 (D.C. Cir. 1923). The court painstakingly detailed the experts’ methodologies for determining the alleged asbestos content in Cashmere Bouquet, and concluded that while some of the methodologies employed by Mr. Fitzgerald and Dr. Gordon were generally accepted in the scientific community, each expert modified, varied, or deviated from those generally accepted methodologies, making their opinions unreliable under Frye.
Pennsylvania is one of few states that still apply the Frye “general acceptance” test for determining whether an expert’s opinion is admissible. The overwhelming majority of states across the country follow the standard set forth in Daubert v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc. for evaluating admissibility of expert testimony. Under Daubert, an expert’s testimony must be both relevant and reliable; however, unlike the Frye standard, which uses general acceptance as its cornerstone, Daubert does not require or consider whether the methodologies employed by the expert are generally accepted among the scientific community.
It is difficult to predict whether the methodologies employed by the plaintiff’s experts in the Brandt case would have survived a Daubert challenge. Both experts conceded that had they followed generally accepted methodologies for testing asbestos in talcum powder, they likely would have been unable to identify asbestos in Cashmere Bouquet, and it is difficult to imagine a jurisdiction where such “inherently unscientific” testimony would be sufficient to submit to a jury. Nevertheless, jurisdictions following Daubert will not evaluate whether such testing methods are generally accepted in the scientific community. Therefore, it remains to be seen what impact the exclusion of Mr. Fitzgerald’s and Dr. Gordon’s expert opinions in the Brandt case will have generally on asbestos-related talcum powder litigation. Regardless, the ruling should be welcomed by defendants facing liability in this next wave of mass tort litigation.