To get bad science out of the courtroom, judges need to know how to recognize it. Civil lawsuits often require complex scientific data to assess the validity of plaintiff claims, yet existing rules require judges to play “amateur scientist” to decide what evidence to admit into their courtrooms.
Without the proper context and knowledge to guide these judicial decisions, unreliable scientific studies have influenced millions of civil liability claims across the United States. This is especially true for multi-district litigation (MDL), where several cases are consolidated and sent to one court to resolve pretrial issues.
These are some of the most important findings in a new policy study, “Alarm Bells for MDLS: How Bad Science Gets Through the Courtroom Door” by Anthony Marcum, a fellow for the R Street Institute’s governance program. Often referred to as mass torts, MDLs are increasingly used and represent the majority of cases in federal court.
These consolidated lawsuits pressure defendants to reach a settlement in exchange for the dismissal of these cases, which might otherwise face rulings in multiple districts. This prolonged action can result in massive legal expenses and potential reputational damage, forcing many companies to settle despite the science. We explored this phenomenon in our own report, “Science vs. Settle: A Johnson & Johnson Case Study.”
Fortunately, there are potential solutions that can enhance the quality of scientific evidence admitted in the courtroom. The most significant of these proposals is for judges to rely on independent experts to determine what scientific evidence should be admitted or excluded.
The Center explored the concept of independent panels in our first public opinion research project. We found that two-thirds of Americans believe judges and jury members are not qualified to determine the validity of complex scientific evidence and expert testimony. Seventy-nine percent believe independent scientists would be the most qualified to determine the legitimacy of scientific claims in mass tort cases.
Independent expert panels are not a cure-all for bad science sneaking through the courtroom door. They can be expensive, and panelists may bring their own biases to the table. But for MDLs with complex and conflicting scientific evidence, these panels could be one way to restore some balance to admissibility of evidence decisions.
We hope this new study will spark lively debate and discussion on this topic with all those interested in improving the justice system. To further the conversation, the R Street Institute and the Center will host a roundtable event this year featuring a panel of legal and scientific experts who will propose ways to fix the flaws in our current system. When it comes to facts in the courtroom, judges shouldn’t have to settle.