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Rochkind v. Stevenson

Court of Appeals of Maryland

July 11, 2017

STANLEY ROCHKIND
v.
STARLENA STEVENSON

          Argued: April 3, 2017

         Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No.: 24-C-11-008722

          Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

          OPINION

          Adkins, J.

          We have often said that when it comes to expert testimony, trial court judges protect juries from "junk science" and other unsupported scientific conclusions. But in the complex field of behavioral disorders, the task of determining whether causation testimony rests on sound science is fraught with potential pitfalls. This case presents the question of whether studies concluding that lead exposure causes various attention problems constitute a sufficient factual basis for an expert's testimony that lead caused the plaintiff's Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD").

         FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

         Respondent Starlena Stevenson was born on December 22, 1990. For the first ten months of her life, Stevenson lived at 2110 Clifton Avenue in Baltimore City with her mother, Charlena Montgomery, and maternal grandmother, Lorena Cooks. In the fall of 1991, Stevenson and Montgomery moved to 3823 Fairview Avenue ("Fairview"), where they lived for 15 months. At the time, Fairview was owned in part by Petitioner Stanley Rochkind. According to Montgomery, Fairview contained chipping and flaking paint on the windowsills, floors, and front porch. Montgomery witnessed Stevenson mouthing the windows at Fairview. In early 1993, Stevenson and her mother moved to an apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue ("Pennsylvania").

         In 1992 and 1993, Stevenson's blood lead level was tested three times. The results were as follows:

Date

Age

Blood Lead Level[1]

Residence

October 29, 1992

1 year, 10 months

14 µg/dL

Fairview

January 8, 1993

2 years

13 µg/dL

Fairview

March 17, 1993

2 years, 3 months

11 µg/dL

Pennsylvania

         When Stevenson was five years old, she was evaluated by Thomas Ley, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Kennedy Krieger Institute, because she was struggling to pay attention in school. Dr. Ley found that Stevenson's cognitive functioning was within the "low average to borderline range." He diagnosed Stevenson with ADHD and recommended that she begin taking medication to treat it. Over the next few years, Stevenson was prescribed Dexedrine, Ritalin, and Adderall to treat her ADHD. In 2004, when she was thirteen years old, Stevenson attempted suicide by cutting her wrists and overdosing on prescription medication. The following year, Stevenson complained of auditory hallucinations and depression. She was evaluated by a psychologist at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital ("MWPH") who diagnosed her with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

         Since graduating from high school in 2008, Stevenson has been sporadically employed. She has worked as a patient transporter for the University of Maryland Medical System ("UMMS"), a cashier for Royal Farms, and a babysitter. Stevenson was fired from her job at UMMS, and she testified that she quit her job at Royal Farms because she was bored. As of October 2014, Stevenson was unemployed.

          In December 2011, Stevenson filed suit against Rochkind in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City for negligence and violations of the Maryland Consumer Protection Act.[2]In July 2012, Arc Environmental, Inc. conducted lead testing at Fairview. The testing detected lead-based paint on 22 interior surfaces and nine exterior surfaces. In February 2013, Cecilia Hall-Carrington, M.D., a pediatrician, filed a report concluding to "a reasonable degree of medical probability" that Stevenson was poisoned by lead at Fairview, and that "her lead poisoning is a significant contributing factor" to her neuropsychological problems, including her ADHD.

         Before trial, Rochkind filed four motions in limine seeking to exclude Dr. Hall-Carrington's testimony. He argued that she should not be permitted to testify that Fairview was a source of Stevenson's lead exposure or that such exposure caused Stevenson's "cognitive deficits, " including, specifically, ADHD. Rochkind requested a Frye-Reed hearing on each motion. The court denied his request. After hearing arguments on the motions in limine, the court denied them as well. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Stevenson, awarding her $829, 000 in economic damages and $534, 000 in noneconomic damages. Rochkind filed a motion for a new trial, or, in the alternative, a remittitur. The court granted his motion in part and ordered a new trial on the issue of damages alone.

         The partial new trial began in October 2014. Before trial, Rochkind renewed his motions in limine to exclude Dr. Hall-Carrington's ADHD testimony, which were again denied. The court declined to hold a Frye-Reed hearing, explaining that Dr. Hall-Carrington's opinions are "not new science" or "new conclusions." It admitted her testimony under Maryland Rule 5-702 because it found that she drew from "reliable sources."

         During trial, Dr. Hall-Carrington testified as to both general and specific ADHD causation. She explained that studies show that lead exposure can cause "attention problems[ ] or ADHD" generally. She also opined "within a reasonable degree of medical probability" that lead exposure caused Stevenson's ADHD specifically. To support her testimony, Dr. Hall-Carrington relied on a publication from the Environmental Protection Agency reviewing the most recent studies on the effects of lead exposure in children, titled "Integrated Science Assessment for Lead" ("the EPA-ISA"). She testified that the EPA-ISA concluded that there is a causal relationship between lead exposure and the symptoms of ADHD, such as attention decrements, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Dr. Hall-Carrington also testified that "some years ago there was a concern with suicide in kids [taking] Adderall." In closing argument, Stevenson's counsel implied that Stevenson's depression and hallucinations were side effects of her ADHD medications, including Adderall.

         The jury awarded Stevenson $753, 000 in economic damages and $700, 000 in noneconomic damages. Due to the statutory cap on noneconomic damages, the court reduced the total judgment to $1, 103, 000. See Md. Code (1986, 2013 Repl. Vol.), § 11-108 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article. Rochkind filed a motion for a new trial, which the court denied. He filed a timely appeal.

          The Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court did not err in failing to hold a Frye-Reed hearing on Dr. Hall-Carrington's general causation testimony because the studies she relied upon did not reach novel conclusions and "used methodologies that are generally accepted" in the scientific community. Rochkind v. Stevenson, 229 Md.App. 422, 464 (2016). The intermediate appellate court also held that the trial court properly admitted Dr. Hall-Carrington's specific causation testimony under Rule 5-702 because her opinion "was supported by an adequate factual basis and was sufficient to allow the jury to decide the causal connection, if any, between lead exposure and [ ] Stevenson's ADHD." Id. at 465. Rochkind appealed.

         We granted certiorari to answer the following questions:[3]

1. Did the trial court err in admitting Dr. Hall-Carrington's general and specific ADHD causation testimony under Maryland Rule 5-702?
2. Did the trial court err in failing to hold a Frye-Reed hearing on Dr. Hall-Carrington's general ADHD causation testimony?

         Because we answer the first question in the affirmative, we reverse the decision of the Court of Special Appeals and remand for a new trial on the issue of ...


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