by C. Rob Wilson, Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo, LLP
a. The Old Standard - Howerton v. Arai Helmet
Until recently, North Carolina Rule of Evidence 702 stated that “[w]hen "scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion." In the 2004 case Howerton v. Arai Helmet, the Supreme Court of North Carolina established a three step test to determine the admissibility of expert testimony: (1) whether the expert's proffered method of proof sufficiently is reliable, (2) whether the witness presenting evidence is qualified as an expert, and (3) whether the expert evidence is relevant. N.C.440, 597 S.E.2d 674 (2004). The Howerton court clarified that North Carolina did not adhere to the federal Daubert standard and that North Carolina followed a liberal approach which was "decidedly less mechanistic and rigorous than the ‘exacting standards of reliability’ demanded by the federal approach."
b. Rule 702(a) Amendment
Rule 702(a) was amended, effective October 1, 2011 and applicable to causes of action arising on or after October 1, 2011. The amended Rule 702 (a) added language stating that a qualified witness may only testify as an expert if all of the following apply: (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case. This language brought North Carolina's rule in line with Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence.
c. State v. McGrady
It did not take long for North Carolina's appellate courts to take up the issue of whether the 2011 amendment to Rule 702 effectively adopted the federal standard set forth in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579, 597, 113 S.Ct. 2786, 2798-99, 125 L.Ed. 469, 485 (1993). The first case to bring this issue in front of the North Carolina courts was State v. McGrady, which arose from defendant McGrady's first-degree murder conviction for the shooting death of his cousin. The central issue at Mr. McGrady's trial was whether he shot his cousin in defense of himself and his son. McGrady attempted to introduce expert testimony on this issue through a "use of force" expert, but the trial court excluded this expert testimony pursuant to the amended Rule 702 and the standard set forth in Daubert. Specifically, the court decided to exclude the expert's testimony regarding reaction times insofar as it did not satisfy the Rule 702 reliability test because the expert could not provide error rates for the reaction time studies on which he relied and because he did not consider certain variables, such as McGrady's physical disability, in reaching his conclusions. The trial resulted in a unanimous jury verdict finding McGrady guilty of first-degree murder and a life sentence.
McGrady appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, arguing that Rule 702 should still be applied as a liberal standard even in light of the 2011 amendment. State v. McGrady, 232 N.C. App. 95, 753 S.E.2d 361 (2014). The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the 2011 amendment effectively adopted the standard set forth in Daubert, meaning the trial court did not abuse its discretion in applying the Daubert standard to the use of force expert.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina then allowed McGrady's petition for discretionary review and heard the appeal on March 17, 2015. The Supreme Court issued its opinion on June 10, 2016, affirming the Court of Appeals and holding that the 2011 amendment to Rule 702 did adopt the federal standard for admission of expert witness testimony articulated in Daubert, largely because the General Assembly amended North Carolina's rule in 2011 in virtually the same way that the corresponding federal rule was amended in 2000. -- N.C.--, 787 S.E.2d 1 (2016). In the words of the N.C. Supreme Court, "the General Assembly has made it clear that North Carolina is now a Daubert state." However, the 2011 amendment to Rule 702 did not abrogate all North Carolina precedents interpreting that rule, so long as those precedents do not conflict with the Daubert standard. To that end, interpretation of Rule 702 remains a state law issue and any future federal court decisions will not dictate the meaning of North Carolina's Rule 702.
d. Where do we go from here?
In McGrady, the N.C. Supreme Court underwent an extensive analysis of how the as-amended Rule 702 should be applied. As a baseline, the McGrady court recognized that Daubert interpreted Rule 702 as requiring the trial court to serve a "gatekeeping role," ensuring that expert testimony is reliable before it is admitted by conducting "a preliminary assessment of whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid and of whether that reasoning or methodology properly can be applied to the facts in issue." The McGrady court then considered the three separate requirements of the amended Rule 702(a):
1. The area of proposed testimony must be based on “scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge” that “will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue." To “assist the trier of fact,” expert testimony must provide insight beyond the conclusions that jurors can readily draw from their ordinary experience.
2. The witness must be “qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education." The expert witness must be competent in his purported field, although that competence can come from practical experience as much as from academic training, as long as the expert has enough expertise to be in a better position than the trier of fact on the subject.
3. The testimony must meet the three-pronged reliability test set forth in Rule 702(a): (1) The testimony must be based upon sufficient facts or data. (2) The testimony must be the product of reliable principles and methods. (3) The witness must have applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case. The primary focus of the inquiry is on the reliability of the witness's principles and methodology, not on the conclusions that they generate. In the context of scientific testimony, Daubert articulated five factors from a non-exhaustive list that can have a bearing on reliability: (1) “whether a theory or technique ... can be (and has been) tested”; (2) “whether the theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication”; (3) the theory or technique's “known or potential rate of error”; (4) “the existence and maintenance of standards controlling the technique's operation”; and (5) whether the theory or technique has achieved “general acceptance” in its field. The trial court is free to consider other factors, and the federal courts have articulated additional reliability factors which may be helpful in certain cases, including (1) whether experts are proposing to testify about matters growing naturally and directly out of research they have conducted independent of the litigation, or whether they have developed their opinions expressly for purposes of testifying, (2) whether the expert has unjustifiably extrapolated from an accepted premise to an unfounded conclusion, (3) whether the expert has adequately accounted for obvious alternative explanations, (4) whether the expert is being as careful as he would be in his regular professional work outside his paid litigation consulting, and (5) whether the field of expertise claimed by the expert is known to reach reliable results for the type of opinion the expert would give. The factors articulated in Howerton may also still be relevant: use of established techniques, expert's professional background in the field, use of visual aids to help the jury evaluate the expert's opinions, and independent research conducted by the expert).
The McGrady court recognized that a similar three-step inquiry was already recognized via Howerton. Although the 2011 amendment to Rule 702 did not change the structure of this inquiry, it did change the level of rigor that North Carolina's courts must use to scrutinize expert testimony before admitting it.