July 15, 2020 Top Story

Expert Testimony Rule Strictly Enforced for Bench Trial

No relaxed admission standards when court acting as fact finder

By Stephen Carr

District courts must apply the Federal Rules of Evidence as strictly in bench trials as in jury trials, according to a recent appellate decision. Reversing a trial judge’s admission of “anecdotal experience” to prove property value during a bench trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit cast serious doubt on the “relaxed” standard for admission of expert testimony that many courts have adopted when acting as fact finder. The court held that trial courts must continue to act as “gatekeeper” even during bench trials in order to uphold the reliable, objective methodology required by Federal Rule of Evidence 702.

The expert testified to the devaluing of land property with the construction of oil pipelines

The expert testified to the devaluing of land property with the construction of oil pipelines

Credit: ssuaphoto | iStockphoto by Getty Images

Expert’s “Damaged Goods” Theory Questioned

The plaintiff in UGI Sunbury LLC v. Permanent Easement obtained easements to build and maintain a 34-mile pipeline over two defendants’ property. To prove the amount of compensation they were owed in return, the landowners offered testimony from an expert who testifies frequently in land-value disputes but whose methodology has been widely criticized. The expert based his opinions on a “damaged goods theory,” which he developed “drawing on his experience working in his grandfather’s appliance shop.” The expert concluded that the easement would reduce values of the two properties at issue by 40 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

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