Stanley Sugarman, et al. v. Chauncey Liles, Jr., July 31, 2018 (Court of Appeals of Maryland)
Last summer, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Rochkind v. Stevenson, 454 Md. 277, 164 A.3d 254 (2017), holding that the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted expert testimony linking a plaintiff’s ADHD diagnosis with lead poisoning when the expert relied on studies that did not adequately demonstrate a causal link between lead exposure and a general and specific ADHD diagnosis. Judge Adkins wrote for the Rochkind Court, concluding that the expert’s testimony suffered an “analytical gap” between the data relied upon by the expert and expert’s proffered testimony, and, therefore, should not have been admitted. The Maryland Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in Stanley Sugarman v. Chauncey Liles, Jr. in which the Court reexamined its analysis in Rochkind.
The underlying facts and procedure in Rochkind and Sugarman are strikingly similar. Both were lead-paint tort suits filed by minors alleging that lead exposure caused cognitive defects in the form of attention decrements. In both trials, the respective plaintiffs introduced expert testimony from pediatricians who reviewed, relied upon, and based their respective opinions on findings contained in the Environmental Protection Agency’s publication entitled “Integrated Science Assessment for Lead” (“EPA-ISA”), which, on appeal, was the subject of intense scrutiny.
The EPA-ISA is an integrated science assessment that collected, reviewed, synthesized, and broadly evaluated high quality epidemiological studies and their various health outcomes. The EPA-ISA analysis reveals a causal relationship between lead exposure and attention decrements, impulsivity, and hyperactivity in children. The EPA-ISA does not specifically identify types of attention decrements found, nor does it specifically discuss processing speed or auditory encoding. The EPA-ISA also does not make a general or specific causal connection between lead exposure and certain neuropsychological disorders such as ADHD.
Following verdicts in favor of the plaintiffs in the Rochkind and Sugarman trials, the respective defendants appealed. On appeal, the Rochkind and Sugarman defendants argued that the trial court erred in admitting the plaintiffs’ respective pediatric experts’ causation opinions for lack of an adequate factual basis pursuant to Maryland Rule 5-702. Unlike the outcome in Rochkind, however, the Sugarman opinion affirmed the trial court’s decision to permit the causation testimony of the plaintiff’s pediatric expert. This decision hinged on critical distinctions in the analyses and opinions offered by the experts in each case.
In Rochkind, the plaintiff’s pediatric expert testified that that the plaintiff’s lead poisoning was a significant contributing factor to all of the plaintiff’s neuropsychological problems, including the plaintiff’s ADHD diagnosis. The Maryland Court of Appeals noted that the studies in the EPA-ISA do not go so far as to state that lead exposure causes ADHD. The Court further noted that the EPA-ISA recognized that an ADHD diagnosis is also attributable to factors such as socioeconomic status and parenting. Without any other scientific evidence or epidemiological studies to support the opinions that lead exposure causes ADHD in general, the Rochkind Court held that the plaintiff’s pediatric expert’s testimony was not based an adequate supply of data as required by Maryland Rule 5-702.
In the Sugarman trial, the plaintiff introduced the findings of a neuropsychological examination showing the plaintiff exhibited deficits in auditory encoding of information and information processing speed. The plaintiff’s pediatric and neuropsychological experts testified that these deficits are factors of attention, within the realm of general attention deficits, and the literature states that general attention deficits can result from lead exposure. The plaintiff’s pediatric expert further opined that the cognitive deficits identified by the neuropsychological exam were caused by the plaintiff’s early lead exposure and are permanent. In contrast with Rochkind, the Sugarman plaintiff offered no expert testimony on whether lead exposure caused or contributed to any specific learning disability or behavioral disorder.
The Maryland Court of Appeals held that the Sugarman plaintiff’s pediatric expert’s opinions were supported by the findings in the EPA-ISA, and were based on an adequate factual basis comporting with Maryland Rule 5-702. The Court explained that the Sugarman pediatric expert was permitted to reasonably extrapolate from existing data in support of the expert’s opinions, which is, in fact, what the Sugarman pediatric expert did when analyzing the results of the plaintiff’s neuropsychological examination results in concert with the review of the EPA-ISA. The Court distinguished Sugarman from Rochkind noting that the Sugarman plaintiff’s experts testified to generalized attention deficits that the EPA-ISA identified as being caused by lead exposure, rather than offering opinions that the lead exposure caused or contributed to specific diagnoses or disorders. Accordingly, the Court found that the pediatric expert’s opinions in Sugarman did not suffer the same “analytical gap” as the opinions of the pediatric expert in Rochkind.
A review of Rochkind and Sugarman serves as an important reminder for practitioners when vetting experts to thoroughly examine the literature upon which experts base their opinions to ensure there are no perceived “analytical gaps” that threaten to invalidate the admissibility of the experts' critical opinions.
- -Benjamin A. Beasley, Associate Attorney