General Electric Company v. Joiner

PETITIONER: General Electric Company
RESPONDENT: Joiner
LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 96-188
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 522 US 136 (1997)
ARGUED: Oct 14, 1997
DECIDED: Dec 15, 1997

ADVOCATES:
Lawrence G. Wallace - for United States, as amicus curiae, supporting Petitioner
Michael H. Gottesman - on behalf of the Respondents
Steven R. Kuney - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1992, Robert Joiner, after being diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, sued General Electric Co. in Georgia state court, alleging that his disease was promoted by workplace exposure to chemical "PCBs" and their derivatives, including polychlorinated dibenzofurans (furans) and polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (dioxins). Ultimately, Joiner provided the District Court with expert witnesses' depositions that testified that PCBs, furans, and dioxins can promote cancer and that this was the likely cause of his cancer. The court granted GE summary judgment, reasoning that there was no genuine issue as to whether Joiner had been exposed to furans and dioxins and that his experts' testimony had failed to show that there was a link between exposure to PCBs and small-cell lung cancer. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that the District Court erred in excluding the testimony of Joiner's expert witnesses. The appellate court applied a stringent standard of review to reach its conclusion.

Question

Is the abuse of discretion standard the correct standard an appellate court should apply in reviewing a trial court's decision to admit or exclude expert testimony?

Media for General Electric Company v. Joiner

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 14, 1997 in General Electric Company v. Joiner

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in No. 96-188, the General Electric Company v. Robert K. Joiner.

Mr. Kuney.

Steven R. Kuney:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

This case arises out of a holding by the court of appeals that a particularly stringent standard of review, and not abuse of discretion or manifest error, should govern appellate review of district court decisions, excluding expert testimony under Rule 702 and this Court's Daubert opinion.

The factors that this Court has considered in its recent standard of review decisions all point to abuse of discretion as the appropriate standard here: the broad discretion given to trial courts under Federal Rules of Evidence 104(a) and 702, the consistent practice before the adoption of the Federal Rules of deferential appellate review of decisions admitting expert testimony, and the clear functional advantages of the trial courts in making these intensely fact-bound determinations.

Indeed, the conclusion that abuse of discretion is the appropriate standard for review of 702 decisions has been reached by no less than 10 courts of appeals.

Notwithstanding all these considerations, the court below embraced what it called particularly stringent review for decisions excluding, but not admitting, expert testimony, citing as authority its reading of this Court's Daubert opinion and the Third Circuit's opinion in Paoli, which had called for a, quote, hard look at exclusions of expert testimony that rejul... result in summary judgment.

In so doing, the court below articulated an expressly one-sided standard of review, whose precise scope and meaning are not clear and whose likely and perhaps intended effect seems to be to discourage the exercise of the discretion inherent in the gatekeeping function this Court outlined in Daubert.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Kuney, even if you're correct, that the abuse of discretion is the standard of review, the Respondents tell us that we still would have to affirm under an abuse of discretion standard, and it doesn't make any difference in this case.

Are you going to address that argument?

Steven R. Kuney:

Yes, Justice O'Connor, I will.

I think it makes a difference for a variety of reasons.

I think that part of Respondents' argument, as I understand it, is that the court was merely ruling on a matter of law, and never had occasion to apply its novel standard of review.

I think if one looks at the text of the opinion of the court below, particularly at 10a and 11a of the... of the appendix to our cert petition, and takes a look at the section that deals with the reliability of expert testimony, what one sees is the court really--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

10a and 11a----

Steven R. Kuney:

--Yes, of the--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--of the petition?

Steven R. Kuney:

--petition to the... the... the appendix to the cert petition.

That's where we attach the opinion of the court below.

Mmm-hmm.

Steven R. Kuney:

And the section really begins at the bottom of 10.

Mmm-hmm.

Steven R. Kuney:

What one sees in the court of appeals opinion is nothing that looks like abuse of discretion review.

Rather, the court simply proceeds on its own to undertake its analysis; indeed, to declare in the first paragraph that the methods and procedures used by these experts were in fact reliable.

The court then proceeds to basically disagree with what the district court had done with respect to animal studies and epidemiolog... epidemiological data, but never to declare or find that the court abused its discretion in making the decisions that it had made.

William H. Rehnquist:

When... when you say abuse of discretion, as opposed to perhaps de novo review, Mr. Kuney, I take it that means that a... a properly acting district court might have reached different... different conclusions on the same evidence, and both would be affirmed on appeal?

Steven R. Kuney:

Mr. chief Justice, I believe that could happen, although I don't believe that could have happened in this case.

I think, on the record here, there... there would have... there should have been only one possible ruling by the district court.

But, as a general matter, it is absolutely correct that abuse of discretion suggests a range of decisions that district courts could reach.

William H. Rehnquist:

And I suppose if you say it's de novo review on an evidentiary point, there would be a lot more reversals in courts of appeals, not just in any one kind of case, but across the board.