Supreme Court rules expert testimony was wrongly excluded - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Supreme Court rules expert testimony was wrongly excluded

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The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has ruled a circuit judge erred when he excluded expert witness testimony in the case of a CSX employee who'd argued he contracted a cancer after years of smelling diesel exhaust fumes.

Ronald K. Harris had filed suit in Marshall County Circuit Court but died while it was still pending. His widow, Deborah Harris, stepped in as plaintiff and amended the complaint to allege exposure to the fumes had killed her husband, building her case around the testimony of three experts in the field.

CSX, however, challenged the methodology that Deborah Harris's three expert witnesses used, and after a two-day evidentiary hearing the trial judge decided to exclude their testimony. With their testimony disallowed, her attorney joined CSX in asking the court for summary judgment in order to appeal.

Writing for the majority, Justice Robin Davis said the trial judge usurped the jury's role when he ruled the expert testimony unreliable.

"... the trial court erred by holding a mini-trial to set out and resolve issues that were purely matters for jury consideration," Davis wrote. 

"The three orders excluding petitioner's three experts set out and resolved an array of disputed factual matters that were exclusively grist for the jury and which had no relevancy to the limited role the trial court had under the facts of the case."

Davis said it wasn't the trial court's job to decide the veracity of the testimony, pointing out that deciding "... whether Petitioner's experts were correct in reaching the conclusion they reached...is a matter for jury determination."

But Justice Allen H. Loughry II dissented, arguing the majority "unequivocally overstepped its authority in reversing a decision wholly subject to the trial court's discretion." 

"When the trial court properly performs its role, an appellate court should respect the decision reached, barring a clear abuse of its discretion," he wrote.

"... What the Petitioner seeks to prove through her experts is that exposure to diesel exhaust fumes causes a specific type of cancer — multiple myeloma. And yet, not one of the three experts Ms. Harris selected proffered any valid scientific evidence that diesel exhaust exposure causes multiple myeloma. This failure to make the necessary causal connection between diesel fume exposure and multiple myeloma, as the trial court correctly reasoned, is critical."

Both the exclusion of the expert witness testimony and the lower court's order granting summary judgment for CSX were reversed, and the case was remanded to Marshall County Circuit Court.