When An Expert Deviates

Here is a little inside baseball for a Monday afternoon. No, not this kind of inside baseball – this kind. Its not really an ERISA story, at least not in any direct sense, but it is important to ERISA litigation nonetheless, for reasons I will get to in a moment. What I am referring to is this decision out of the First Circuit on the use of experts in a case that one of my colleagues, Robert La Hait, won the other day. Although it involves a dispute over an accidental death and dismemberment policy, a coverage some people obtain through their employers, the decision isn’t about ERISA rights or remedies, but rather about the extent to which an expert can testify at trial under the federal rules in a manner that deviates from the expert’s written report. Now, you have to remember that the rules themselves seem to suggest that, if something isn’t in an expert’s report, it can’t be said at trial, and there are certainly some district court judges who make clear that, at least in general principle, that is how they see it (I am not going to name names to protect the innocent, namely me). But the First Circuit ruling holds that there is some room for an expert to deviate from the written report disclosed to the other side, within reason and subject to the limits laid out in the decision. Its certainly worth a read, under any circumstance, for anyone who litigates expert intensive cases in the federal courts.

Beyond that, though, there is one specific hook in this case, that links it right back to ERISA litigation. Many areas of ERISA litigation raise significant issues that have to be addressed through expert testimony, including, for instance, financial expertise in breach of fiduciary duty cases involving investment selections, fees, and the like. The scope, accuracy and admissibility of expert testimony can become key, even outcome determinative at times, in ERISA cases, particularly breach of fiduciary duty cases. Several years ago, for instance, I was representing a third-party administrator charged by a plan sponsor with poor performance, and the case didn’t turn my client’s way until the eve of trial, when the court began seriously entertaining our challenges to the admissibility of the expert testimony proffered by the plan sponsor; it was the undercutting of that testimony that effectively ended the case. I tell this story for a reason, which is this: while the legal arguments about fiduciary standards and the like are important, it is equally important to pay attention in an ERISA case to the mechanical, nuts and bolts details of litigation (such as the admissibility of expert testimony) that lies at the heart of all federal court litigation. You can win or lose an ERISA case by falling down on either one of those points. This First Circuit ruling is a good example of one of the litigation details that cannot be missed while arguing over the complicated legal issues inherent in an ERISA case.