In 2010, Hansen Construction was sued for construction defects and was defended by three separate insurance carriers pursuant to various primary CGL insurance policies.[i] One of Hansen’s primary carriers, Maxum Indemnity Company, issued two primary policies, one from 2006-2007 and one from 2007-2008. Everest National Insurance Company issued a single excess liability policy for the 2007-2008 policy year, and which was to drop down and provide additional coverage should the 2007-2008 Maxum policy become exhausted. In November 2010, Maxum denied coverage under its 2007-2008 primarily policy but agreed to defend under the 2006-2007 primarily policy. When Maxum denied coverage under its 2007-2008 primary policy, Everest National Insurance denied under its excess liability policy.
In 2016, pursuant to a settlement agreement between Hansen Construction and Maxum, Maxum retroactively reallocated funds it owed to Hansen Construction from the 2006-2007 Maxum primary policy to the 2007-2008 Maxum primary policy, which became exhausted by the payment. Thereafter, Hansen Construction demanded coverage from Everest National, which continued to deny the claim. Hansen Construction then sued Everest National for, among other things, bad faith breach of contract.
In the bad faith action, both parties retained experts to testify at trial regarding insurance industry standards of care and whether Everest National’s conduct in handling Hansen Construction’s claim was reasonable. Both parties sought to strike the other’s expert testimony as improper and inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702.
In striking both sides’ expert opinions, the U.S. District Court Judge Christine Arguello set forth the standards for the admissibility of expert opinions in Federal Court:
Under Daubert, the trial court acts as a “gatekeeper” by reviewing a proffered expert opinion for relevance pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 401, and reliability pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702.[ii] The proponent of the expert must demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the expert’s testimony and opinion are admissible.[iii] This Court has discretion to evaluate whether an expert is helpful, qualified, and reliable under Rule 702.[iv]
Federal Rule of Evidence 702 governs the admissibility of expert testimony. Rule 702 provides that a witness who is qualified as an expert by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” may testify if:
(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
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.
In deciding whether expert testimony is admissible, the Court must make multiple determinations. First, it must first determine whether the expert is qualified “by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education” to render an opinion.[v] Second, if the expert is sufficiently qualified, the Court must determine whether the proposed testimony is sufficiently “relevant to the task at hand,” such that it “logically advances a material aspect of the case.”[vi] “Doubts about whether an expert’s testimony will be useful should generally be resolved in favor of admissibility unless there are strong factors such as time or surprise favoring exclusions.”[vii]
Third, the Court examines whether the expert’s opinion “has ‘a reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of his [or her] discipline.’”[viii] In determining reliability, a district court must decide “whether the reasoning or methodology underlying the testimony is scientifically valid.”[ix] In making this determination, a court may consider: “(1) whether a theory has been or can be tested or falsified, (2) whether the theory or technique has been subject to peer review and publication, (3) whether there are known or potential rates of error with regard to specific techniques, and (4) whether the theory or approach has general acceptance.”[x]
The Supreme Court has made clear that this list is neither definitive nor exhaustive.[xi] In short, “[p]roposed testimony must be supported by appropriate validation—i.e., ‘good grounds,’ based on what is known.”[xii]
The requirement that testimony must be reliable does not mean that the party offering such testimony must prove “that the expert is indisputably correct.”[xiii] Rather, the party need only prove that “the method employed by the expert in reaching the conclusion is scientifically sound and that the opinion is based on facts which sufficiently satisfy Rule 702’s reliability requirements.”[xiv] Guided by these principles, this Court has “broad discretion” to evaluate whether an expert is helpful, qualified, and reliable under the “flexible” standard of Fed. R. Evid. 702.[xv]
With respect to helpfulness of expert opinions, Judge Arguello explained:
Federal Rule of Evidence 704 allows an expert witness to testify about an ultimate question of fact.[xvi] To be admissible, however, an expert’s testimony must be helpful to the trier of fact.[xvii] To ensure testimony is helpful, “[a]n expert may not state legal conclusions drawn by applying the law to the facts, but an expert may refer to the law in expressing his or her opinion.”[xviii]
“The line between a permissible opinion on an ultimate issue and an impermissible legal conclusion is not always easy to discern.”[xix] Permissible testimony provides the jury with the “tools to evaluate an expert’s ultimate conclusion and focuses on questions of fact that are amenable to the scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the expert’s field.”[xx]
However, “an expert may not simply tell the jury what result it should reach….”[xxi] Further, “expert testimony is not admissible to inform the trier of fact as to the law that it will be instructed to apply to the facts in deciding the case.”[xxii] Similarly, contract interpretation is not a proper subject for expert testimony.[xxiii]
Finding that all three of the experts intended to offer opinions that were objectionable on the basis of helpfulness, Judge Arguello granted both parties’ motions to exclude the expert testimony of the opposing experts.
For additional information about the Hansen Construction v. Everest National Insurance Company matter, or construction litigation in Colorado, you can reach Dave McLain at (303) 987-9813 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Hansen Construction, Inc. v. Everest National Insurance Company, 2019 WL 2602510 (D. Colo. June 25, 2019).
[xvi] United States v. Richter, 796 F.3d 1173, 1195 (10th Cir. 2015).
[xviii] Richter, 796 F.3d at 1195 (quoting United States v. Bedford, 536 F.3d 1148, 1158 (10th Cir. 2008)); see, e.g., Killion v. KeHE Distribs., LLC, 761 F.3d 574, 592 (6th Cir. 2014) (report by proffered “liability expert,” which read “as a legal brief” exceeded scope of an expert’s permission to “opine on and embrace factual issues, not legal ones.”).
[xix] Richter, 796 F.3d at 1195 (quoting United States v. McIver, 470 F.3d 550, 562 (4th Cir. 2006)).
[xx] Id. (citing United States v. Dazey, 403 F.3d 1147, 1171–72 (10th Cir. 2005) (“Even if [an expert’s] testimony arguably embraced the ultimate issue, such testimony is permissible as long as the expert’s testimony assists, rather than supplants, the jury’s judgment.”)).
[xxi] Id. at 1195–96 (quoting Dazey, 403 F.3d at 1171).
[xxii] 4 Jack B. Weinstein et al., Weinstein’s Federal Evidence § 702.03 (supp. 2019) (citing, e.g., Hygh v. Jacobs, 961 F.2d 359, 361–62 (2d Cir. 1992) (expert witnesses may not compete with the court in instructing the jury)).
[xxiii] Id. (citing, e.g., Breezy Point Coop. v. Cigna Prop. & Cas. Co., 868 F. Supp. 33, 35–36 (E.D.N.Y. 1994) (expert witness’s proposed testimony that failure to give timely notice of loss violated terms of insurance policy was inadmissible because it would improperly interpret terms of a contract)).