Dr. Michael Graham is well known in the realm of asbestos litigation. He is widely recognized as an expert pathologist, an expert medical examiner and an expert at determining causes of death.  He is also frequently retained to opine on the causes of asbestos-related diseases.  However, in a recent Rhode Island Superior Court case, his disclosure as a causation expert was challenged.

In Sweredoski v. Alfa Laval, et al., C.A. No. PC-2011-1544, Judge Alice Gibney presided over a motion in limine to preclude the testimony of defense expert, Dr. Graham.  In its motion, the plaintiff anticipated that Dr. Graham would be called to testify that Mr. Sweredoski’s exposure to products manufactured and/or supplied by the defendant did not contribute to the cause of his mesothelioma. The plaintiff challenged Dr. Graham’s suitability as a causation expert by pointing out that, of all Dr. Graham’s publications, only one references asbestos or mesothelioma. Thus, the plaintiff argued to the Court that an expert should be limited to fields in which he is specifically qualified, (i.e.; pathology, in this instance), and that Dr. Graham was not qualified to render opinions as to causation.  Lastly, the plaintiff cited to Soares v. Vestal to argue that expert testimony in the asbestos context should be confined to the expert’s field of expertise, as required in the medical malpractice context under Rhode Island law.  See 632 A.2d 647, 647-48 (R.I. 1993).

The defendant contended that Dr. Graham’s work and experience as a pathologist made him qualified to provide expert testimony regarding the causation of Mr. Sweredoski’s mesothelioma. The defense pointed out that Dr. Graham has been studying asbestos-related diseases for over 30 years, which includes the review of over 1,000 cases of asbestos-related disease in the legal context.

Judge Gibney agreed with the defense citing to the Rhode Island Supreme Court which has made clear that an expert witness "need not have a license in a narrow specialty, nor hold a particular title, as long as his or her ‘knowledge, skill, experience, training or education’ can deliver a helpful opinion to the fact-finder.” See Raimbeault v. Takeuchi Mfg. (U.S.), Ltd., 772 A.2d 1056, 1061 (R.I. 2001).  Judge Gibney declined to be swayed by the Soares decision which did not hold, broadly, that experts are required to be certified in a specific field in order to testify in medical malpractice cases; rather the Court affirmed the trial court’s opinion to preclude testimony, in that particular case, after the trial court found the witness was not sufficiently qualified to deliver an opinion helpful to the fact-finder. In Sweredoski, Judge Gibney found that Dr. Graham was "sufficiently qualified through his knowledge, skill, experience and training as a pathologist, in order to aid the fact-finder via his testimony.”  Hence, the plaintiff’s motion in limine was denied.

This decision rejects the need for narrow specialization to qualify as an expert on a given topic.  It is a small but notable victory for the defense bar in Rhode Island which relies upon pathologists, such as Dr. Graham to render opinions as to causation with regularity.