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Expert witness bill passes House, heads towards Nixon veto

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The House narrowly passed legislation Thursday afternoon that would match Missouri’s expert witness standard to that of the federal government in the face of heavy opposition from the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys (MATA).

SB 591 passed the House 85-68 with many Republicans voting against the bill. It will head to the governor’s desk, where Gov. Jay Nixon is expected to veto the legislation.

The bill would move Missouri’s standard for expert witnesses to the federal Daubert Standard, which requires that an expert witness’s testimony be in line with current scientific evidence while Missouri’s current standard looks only at the qualifications of an expert witness.

“Missouri’s law right now is great because it says we look at the qualifications of the individual, and if it says they are qualified to speak on that subject, they can testify as to whatever they want within that subject matter,” said Sharon Jones, deputy director of MATA, on the April 28 #moleg podcast. “Federal law does the opposite and says it doesn’t matter what your qualifications are if what you are saying is part of the scientific evidence, we will let you say it.”

She argued that legislation would ultimately benefit well-funded parties in court cases.

“Expert witness is basically a way for a very well funded defendant to keep new but quality science out of the courtroom,” she said. “We’ve seen it throughout the years that an industry can fund research and build a body of scientific evidence. And then if an independent person comes in and has contradictory scientific evidence, they aren’t really part of the general body of scientific so they aren’t considered and expert on the federal level.”

Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, who handled the legislation in the House, said it would help decrease the costs of trials and bring efficiency to the courtroom.

“We’ve had about 20 plus years to look at this in other states and studies have been done and actually showed that this standard will have the tendency decrease costs and shorten litigation,” he said. “The reason for that is if the judge looks at the so called experts and determines that there’s no way they should have been testifying, the parties are going to have a clearer picture of the case. Judges would have cases disposed of earlier in the process and not have to go through a whole trial. Or the parties could come to a better settlement because they have a better idea of which case is stronger.”

Rep. Kevin Corlew
Rep. Kevin Corlew

He said the new standard would make cases more fair, because attorneys have been able to use the current system to get experts to say what they want them to say. He also noted that while the new standard would require that experts testify from a base of generally accepted testimony, they would also have to have the qualifications and experience to be an expert.

He also pointed out that since the federal government moved to this standard in 1993, two-thirds of the states have also adopted the standard.

Corlew acknowledged that Nixon was likely to veto the bill and made the case that the governor should not exercise that ability.

“This is a fair policy that doesn’t benefit one side or the other in a case, whether you are a plaintiff or a defendant, or whether you are an alleged offender or a prosecutor,” he said. “It’s fair across the board and it’s an opportunity for us to make sure that we have the best evidence available in court. And it’s a way to improve our state courts.”