Florida’s Expert Witness Crucible

Few people know that Florida passed a new law about expert witnesses a few years ago, which impacts divorce law. The Florida Supreme Court decided not to adopt the rule in its rule making process, waiting for a case in controversy instead. The case has arrived.

Florida’s Expert Witness Controversy

The Florida rule for expert witnesses was amended in 2013. There were some interesting things about the 2013 rule.

  1. The amendment was made by the Florida Legislature, not the Florida Supreme Court. That’s unusual because rule making authority is the court’s job.
  2. The way the Rule came into being by the Legislature created a constitutional challenge to the rule down the road.
  3. The new rule forced Florida courts to abandon the 70-year old Frye test for admitting expert testimony.
  4. The new rule required Florida courts to apply the Daubert standard, which is the standard applied in federal courts, the U.S. Supreme Court, and a majority of states.
  5. The Florida Supreme Court has said it doesn’t favor the new rule.

I have written extensively about Florida’s problem with expert witnesses before, including the constitutional issues. The constitutional problems dealt with the way the law was passed.

Generally, legislation which encroaches on the Supreme Court’s power to regulate courtroom practice and procedure is unconstitutional, but the Legislature can enact substantive law.

When one branch of government encroaches on another branch, Florida traditionally applies a “strict separation of powers doctrine.”

Given that the Evidence Code contains both substantive and procedural provisions, there was an open question whether the Legislature violated the separation of powers doctrine.

The Florida Supreme Court Case

As the Florida Bar News reports, when the Florida Supreme Court declined to adopt the legislative change to the expert witness rule, the panel said they wanted to address the issue in a case in conflict.

The court now has that case.

The Delisle case is a mesothelioma case in which the plaintiff argued he contracted the disease from smoking Kent cigarettes when they used asbestos in the filters, and from handling gaskets that contained asbestos when he worked at a paper mill.

The trial judge and the Fourth District Court of Appeal held – even though the Supreme Court had not passed on the Legislature’s amendment of the evidence code – the legislature’s expert witness rule must be presumed valid, meaning the Daubert standard should be used for expert witnesses.

The appellate court decided that under Daubert, the two experts should not have testified. The appellate opinion overturned the jury verdict and award Delisle had won in the trial court.

The Florida Supreme Court has not set a date for oral arguments.

The Florida Bar News article is here.