Legal News and Appellate Tips

Each week, TVA appellate attorney Tim Kowal reviews several recent decisions out of the appellate courts in California, and elsewhere, and reports about the ones that might help you get an edge in your cases and appeals.

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Tag: Expert Opinions

Medical expert’s opinion based on process of elimination was improperly excluded from trial, appellate court holds

Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint what actually caused a harm, like a medical injury. But we can use the process of elimination. An opthalmologist expert offered an opinion based on the process of elimination—differential etiology, in medical jargon. But the trial court excluded it, and then granted the defendant hospital’s motion for nonsuit.

That was an abuse of discretion, held the appellate court in Siemon v. Regents of the University of California (D1d1 Oct. 19, 2022 no. A160654) 2022 WL 12083207 (nonpub. opn.). Differential etiology—i.e., process of elimination—is a valid method of establishing proximate causation, so long as the jury finds it credible.

These close legal calls on expert evidence are often made during the trial, and the parties have to go through trial, judgment, postjugment motions, and appeals before knowing whether the key evidence in the case stays in or comes out.

Here, the trial court made the call before trial began, and the Court of Appeal weighed in on the call after a nonsuit. When the parties start trial again, the plaintiff will be armed with the Court of Appeal’s observation that the plaintiff’s evidence “would be sufficient to support a judgment in [her] favor.” That counts for something.

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Ruling Excluding Expert Testimony on MSJ Reversed on Appeal

There are two noteworthy things about the published opinion in Strobel v. Johnson & Johnson (D1d4 Sept. 21, 2021) 2021 WL 4272711 no. A159609. First, it suggests how litigants might have avoided the dreaded Sanchez rule that prevents experts from offering "case-specific hearsay" in their opinions. Second, it suggests some evidentiary rulings may be reviewed under the appellant-friendly de novo standard of review, rather than the deferential abuse of discretion standard.

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Exclusion of Expert Data Affirmed on Appeal; But Exlusion of Expert Opinion Based on That Data Reversed

When it comes to expert evidence, the trial court may properly exclude evidence that was not actually prepared by the expert. The normal rules of evidence authentication still apply, even where experts are concerned. But when an expert wants to offer opinions based on the same unauthenticated and unadmitted evidence, excluding that opinion may be an abuse of discretion.

That is the holding of the published opinion in Zuniga v. Alexandria Care Center, LLC (D2d7 Aug. 13, 2021) 2021 WL 3579021 no. B297023. In an employee's PAGA claim, the employee-plaintiff retained two experts. One expert was retained to convert the employer's time records into an Excel spreadsheet. The second expert was retained to opine on the spreadsheet. It was an abuse of discretion to exclude the second expert's opinion merely because it was based on the first expert's excluded report.

And trial counsel may have acted shrewdly in resting her case after the devastating ruling without offering other evidence, as it made it very easy to establish the ruling prejudiced her case.

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In Summary Judgment Appeal, Split Decision on Unruled-Upon Objections, Conclusory Expert Opinions, and Design-Immunity Defense

Expert declarations opposing summary judgment ordinarily do not need an extensive analysis, and evidentiary objections ordinarily must be ruled upon or else deemed denied. But in a 2-1 decision out […]

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