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Senate votes to tighten evidence standard

State court judges would have a tighter screen to use when deciding expert testimony that juries hear in civil cases under a bill approved 20-8 by the Arizona Senate, sending the measure to the House.

The measure is backed by hospital companies, medical groups, health insurance companies, several major manufacturers and state and local chambers of commerce.

The change would overrule a decade-old state Supreme Court decision and put Arizona’s legal doctrine in line with the standard used by federal courts and most other states.

Supporters said the change to a standard based on a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision would weed out frivolous lawsuits by giving judges a strong gatekeeper role by considering more aspects of testimony from potential expert witnesses.

That would result in early resolution of cases and save on litigation expenses, an Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry representative told a Senate committee hearing.

On the other side, a group representing lawsuit plaintiffs’ attorneys said the change from a standard based on a 1923 federal court ruling would undermine the right to a jury trial by having judges take on a fact-finding role now performed by jurors.

A sharply divided Arizona Supreme Court in 2000 ruled on the evidence issue in a case involving testimony about a lawsuit plaintiff’s claim of repressed memory about alleged sexual abuse during her childhood.

In that case, the majority voiced confidence that jurors would be able to adequately sift through reliability of testimony by expert witnesses “as least as right as the trial judge.”

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