City of Pomona v. SQM

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Evidence
  • Date Filed: 05-02-2014
  • Case #: 12-55147; 12-55193
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: District Judge Simon for the Court; Circuit Judges Pregerson and Tallman
  • Full Text Opinion

Facts that cast doubt as to the credibility of an expert witness and contested facts as to the strength of a scientific method are questions reserved for the fact finder.

Excessive levels of perchlorate were found in the city of Pomona’s water system. An investigation discovered that the likely dominant source of the chemical was sodium nitrate, used as fertilizer. Sodium nitrate was imported in large quantities from Chile decades earlier and was used as fertilizer over a substantial time frame. Upon this discovery, the city sued SQM as the importer of the sodium nitrate alleging that it was the primary source of the perchlorate contamination. A hearing under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., was held before trial, and excluded the city’s expert witness, Dr. Sturchio. The Ninth Circuit reviewed the district’s court’s ruling to keep out Dr. Sturchio’s expert testimony under the framework of Federal Rule of Evidence 702. The panel noted that the test is not the correctness of the expert’s conclusions but the soundness of his methodology. This determination is to be made by the fact finder. The district court concluded that Dr. Sturchio’s procedures are not reliable because they are not generally accepted in the scientific community. The panel responded that these reasons are insufficient to exclude Dr. Sturchio’s testimony noting that a “disagreement over, not an absence of, controlling standards” is not a basis to exclude expert testimony. The panel determined that the record showed that Dr. Sturchio’s methodology and report were based on the scientific method, practiced by recognized scientists in the field and have the basis in the knowledge and experience of the relevant discipline, therefore rendering his testimony reliable. The panel states that, “a factual dispute is best settled by a battle of the experts before the fact finder, not by judicial fiat.” Expert testimony may be excluded under Rule 702 when it is either irrelevant or unreliable. AFFIRMED in part, REVERSED in part and REMANDED for trial.

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