Massachusetts Federal District Court Applies Kumho Tire to Exlude Plaintiffs' Expert Testimony on "Hedonic" Damages

In a recent decision illustrating the rigorous application of the Daubert analysis to social science evidence, a United States District Court magistrate judge applied the Supreme Court's teachings in the recent Kumho Tire Co,. Ltd. v. Carmichael decision (reported in the April 1999 Product Liability Update) to exclude, on a pre-trial motion, testimony from plaintiffs' expert witness on "hedonic" (loss of enjoyment of life) damages.

Plaintiffs in Saia v. Sears Roebuck and Co., Inc., et al., No. 98-30034-KPN (D. Mass. April 27, 1999), a husband and wife brought a product liability action alleging that the upper joint of the husband's right index finger was amputated by an exposed nip point while he was erecting a ping-pong table manufactured and sold by the defendants. Plaintiffs sought to introduce expert testimony on hedonic damages from an economist who based his calculations on the "willingness-to-pay" model. Under this model, the "value" of an average human life can be determined based upon the amount of money that society is willing to pay to protect life, calculated from data regarding purchases of safety devices, wage risk premiums and regulatory cost-benefit analyses.

The court, applying what is termed a "Daubert/Kumho" analysis, concluded that the evidence offered by plaintiffs' expert was neither reliable nor relevant. The court critiqued the the reliability of the expert's method at length, focusing on two of the four factors enumerated in Daubert: testability and general acceptance. The court found that the model was based on assumptions that could not be verified and led to conclusions that could not be tested, and concluded that "there is no basic agreement among economists as to what elements ought to go into the life valuation." Notably, the court so found despite 'many favorable articles' and testimony from the proposed expert that 25% of his profession used the proposed method of analysis. The court also found that the evidence was not relevant because the 'anonymous' human life value arrived at by the expert's analysis had "no bearing whatsoever on the enjoyment of life lost by the victim." [Foley, Hoag & Eliot LLP, July 1999:3]