Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admissibility of expert evidence and testimony in criminal and civil trials, where experts are utilized to assist the jury in understanding scientific, technical, or otherwise specialized knowledge. Proposed amendments to Rule 702 aim to clarify the preponderance standard of admissibility of expert testimony, eliminate any ambiguity regarding the court’s role as the gatekeeper of the admissibility of expert testimony, and ensure that only testimony that meets the applicable reliability standards is presented to the jury.
The Once approved by the Judicial Conference, the United States Supreme Court, and Congress, the amendments will go into effect on December 1, 2023.
Proposed Amended Rule 702: Testimony by Expert Witnesses
A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if the proponent demonstrates to the court that it is more likely than not that:
(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
The expert must be qualified to testify based on their knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education. However, Rule 702 did not provide specific guidance on how the courts should evaluate the reliability, relevance, and subsequent admissibility of that evidence.Rule 702 was last amended in 2000 to affirm the court’s role as the gatekeeper of admissibility through Rule 702(b)–(d). While the intent of the amendment was to clarify that the court was responsible for determining the admissibility of expert testimony, in practice the rule continued to be applied inconsistently among the courts. Some criticized that the lack of uniformity led to the admission of unreliable or irrelevant expert testimony and inconsistent decisions among judges. Some judges undertook the admissibility analysis themselves, while others incorrectly passed the responsibility to the trier of fact.
The study found that district splits exist in every federal appellate circuit. This study examined all federal cases decided in 2020 that addressed the admissibility of expert testimony under Rule 702.
The advisory committee began researching and discussing the possibility of an amendment to Rule 702 in approximately 2017. Through their research, the committee found that while the preponderance of the evidence standard (Rule 104(a)) applies to almost all evidentiary determinations, a specification was necessary for Rule 702 due to the number of known cases where the courts have found expert testimony admissible when the proponent did not satisfy the requirements under Rule 702(b) and (d) by a preponderance of the evidence. The advisory committee concluded that highlighting the “more likely than not” standard for this rule would eliminate the heightened level of ambiguity surrounding this evidentiary rule. Originally, the proposed amendment language included the phrase “preponderance of the evidence,” but this was met with many objections during the public comment phase.
This belief, which was shared by numerous courts, was a misstatement of the intent of Rule 702, and created an inequality in the standard of evidence that was allowed to be considered by the jury. The varying application of admissibility and the role of gatekeeper from judge to judge enabled some expert witnesses to overstate their conclusions without meeting the necessary reliability standards, thus resulting in verdicts based on what would otherwise be considered inadmissible evidence in another federal courtroom.
The issue of forensic experts overstating their conclusions was the catalyst for the evaluation of Rule 702 by the advisory committee, which later led to the currently proposed amendments. The proposed amendment to Rule 702(d) allows the judge to analyze the conclusions made by an expert to determine if their final opinion comes from a reliable application of reliable methodology.
Proponents of the Rule 702 amendments argue that they will enhance the quality of expert testimony presented in court by emphasizing the importance of relevance, reliability, and methodology in expert testimony to ensure that expert conclusions are based on sound scientific or technical principles. Critics, which in large part have been the plaintiffs’ bar, argue that the proposed amendments may make it more difficult for litigants to present expert testimony, grant too much authority to the judge, and may result in increased litigation costs due to more frequent Daubert challenges and lengthy litigation.
The intent of the advisory committee’s amendments to Rule 702 is to create uniformity throughout the federal courts to ensure that cases in all regions are being assessed in the same way to eliminate the current level of unpredictability of admissible expert testimony. In practice, once adopted, the amendments to Rule 702 will likely lead to a higher admissibility standard and a more thorough judicial examination in courts where the judges were previously allowing the jury to determine the admissibility of expert testimony. These changes will affect all aspects of expert discovery, from the selection of expert witnesses through trial preparation and examination, as it will become increasingly important for experts to have a working knowledge of all case facts and the ability to effectively communicate their opinions to the court.