Notable Law Court Cases in 2019

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Challenges to the Admissibility of an Expert Opinion in Novel or Rare Areas of Science 

The Law Court’s decision in State v. Burbank illustrates the challenges faced when attorneys designate an expert to give an opinion in a novel area of science.  Although a criminal case, Burbank’s application of Maine Rule of Evidence 702 applies equally to civil cases and offers several important pointers.

Defendant Burbank was charged with operating under the influence.  To rebut that charge, he designated a toxicologist as an expert witness to testify that his blood alcohol level when arrested was due to alcohol produced in his gut by sugar and bacteria, rather than consumption of alcohol.  This condition, known as ‘auto-brewery syndrome’, is relatively rare and little studied.

The Law Court upheld exclusion of the expert’s testimony due to lack of qualifications. Despite her Ph.D. qualifications in the field of toxicology generally, she had no “hands-on” experience with auto-brewery syndrome in individuals and relied on “thin” research consisting of a few individual case studies.  The Court stressed the need for expert qualifications specific to the topic of the opinion, for instance through personal experience or based on knowledge drawn from multiple research studies involving large numbers of people.  Under Burbank, stellar qualifications in the expert’s general field are not enough.

As an alternative basis to exclude the expert’s opinion, the Law Court cited Evidence Rule 702’s requirement that the opinion be adequately tied to the facts of the case.  The expert’s opinion was speculative and unreliable, according to the Law Court, because she hypothesized that an antibiotic the defendant had recently taken “might have” killed normal bacterial gut flora, resulting in elevated fungal yeasts, which “could have” combined with excess sugars to form alcohol.  Although the expert referenced data from the defendant’s medical history, her opinion was not adequately supported by specific facts because she did not point to lab tests showing the defendant’s blood sugars close to the time of his arrest, or the actual levels of yeast or fungi in his system around that time.

Overall, State v. Burbank illustrates the care that must be taken in developing and designating an expert opinion, particularly in a novel or rare area of science.

The Maine Health Security Act Does Not Apply to a Premises Liability Case

Salerno v. Spectrum Medical Group, P.A., limits the reach of the Maine Health Security Act when a plaintiff brings a premises liability suit against a health care provider.  In Salerno, the plaintiff fell in the locker room of a facility owned and run by Spectrum Medical Group. The plaintiff was using the room to change clothes after water therapy, and allegedly fell because Spectrum allowed a rubber mat to be left in the wrong location.     The Law Court focused on the specific act of negligence and the circumstances of the plaintiff’s fall, noting they were unrelated to her water therapy.  Thus, the Maine Health Security Act did not apply.

Salerno’s holding provides a limiting principle to the general rule that the MHSA applies broadly to claims against health care providers.  Providers do not enjoy blanket protections under the Act, and may be sued directly in court for negligence unrelated to the provision of health care services.