In an unanimous opinion issued August 1, 2018 in In re Accutane Litigation, No. A-25-17, slip op. (N.J. Aug. 1, 2018), the New Jersey Supreme Court refined the standard employed by trial courts for admissibility of expert testimony with the incorporation of the factors set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), and further elucidated the gatekeeping role of trial courts in assessing the reliability of expert scientific testimony.
In re Accutane involved the consolidation of 2076 multicounty litigation products liability claims alleging that plaintiffs developed Crohn’s disease as a result of taking the prescription acne medication Accutane. Id. at *1. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to exclude plaintiffs’ proffered expert scientific testimony concerning causation, finding that the experts failed to employ reliable methodology in reaching their conclusions as to the causal relationship between taking Accutane and developing Crohn’s disease. On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision, stating that it “owed somewhat less deference to [the] trial court’s determination” to admit or exclude expert testimony. In re Accutane Litig., 451 N.J. Super. 153, 197 (App. Div. 2017). Defendant promptly requested certification from the New Jersey Supreme Court.
The case garnered significant attention from legal and medical organizations alike, culminating in the filing of several amicus curiaebriefs highlighting the unsettled issues for the high court to grapple with. Chief among them was clarification of a trial court’s role as “gatekeeper” when evaluating the standard for admissibility of expert testimony, and whether the less stringent review applied by the Appellate Division was in line with the state’s guiding precedent.
After taking up the case, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division and found that (1) the trial court properly excluded plaintiffs’ experts’ testimony; and (2) the appropriate standard for appellate review in this case was abuse of discretion. The Court further harmonized the standard for admissibility of expert testimony by instructing trial courts to incorporate the Daubert factors into the existing state standard for civil cases involving expert testimony.
Central to the high court’s opinion was its emphasis that a trial court’s “gatekeeping” role is a rigorous one, requiring it to “assess both the methodology used by the expert to arrive at an opinion and the underlying data used in the formation of the opinion. That will ensure that the expert is adhering to norms accepted by fellow members of the pertinent scientific community.” In re Accutane, at *98. The Court found ample evidence in the record to support the trial judge’s exclusion of plaintiffs’ experts’ testimony, which the trial judge determined was conclusion-driven in an “attempt to cherry-pick evidence supportive of their opinion, while dismissing other, better forms of evidence that did not support their opinion.” Id. at *5.
Moreover, in refining the standard for admissibility of expert testimony in a civil case, In re Accutane serves to clarify New Jersey’s gatekeeping rules which seek to disallow generally unreliable, unsound, and unaccepted expert testimony from reaching a jury. The result of In re Accutane provides much needed clarity in the realm of proffered expert testimony and offers more consistent guidelines for trial courts to follow in exercising their proper “gatekeeping” role.