Psychological Autopsy Method Fails To Meet Daubert Reliability Requirements, According to New Mexico District Court


Psychiatry Expert

Court: United States District Court for the District of New Mexico
Jurisdiction: Federal
Ruling: Daubert
Case Name: Bevan v. Valencia
Citation: 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108196

In this wrongful death lawsuit, which arose from an overdose, the court determined that the testimony of a psychiatry expert must help the trier of fact to make sense of a fact in issue or understand the evidence of the particular case at hand.

Facts

Desiree Gonzales was admitted to St. Vincent Hospital after suffering a heroin overdose. She was given medical clearance for incarceration, discharged from the hospital, and taken by the police to the Santa Fe Youth Development Program (YDP). At that time, no nurse was present at YDP. After several hours at the YDP, Gonzales stopped breathing. The non-medical staff took her back to the hospital where she later died. It was determined that the cause of death was the toxic effect of heroin.

The plaintiff was a personal representative of the estate of Desiree Gonzales. Apart from the motion of negligence and claim for punitive damages, the plaintiff sought to exclude the testimony of the defense’s forensic adolescent psychiatry expert witness.

The Expert Report

The psychiatric expert’s report was based on Gonzales’ psychological and medical records, her rehabilitation records, her school records, court-related records, state agency records, and expert reports. The report also contained a detailed case summary of the plaintiff’s developmental history, her family issues, her criminal conduct, and her substance uses and abuses.

The expert stated that her opinions were “based on training, experience, and knowledge generally accepted in the medical community.”  She further stated that her opinions were “based on data ascertained in a line of inquiry referred to as a psychological autopsy”. She mentioned in her report that if Gonzales had lived, she would have had a poor prognosis.

The expert mentioned in her report that Gonzales was tortured and traumatized by her mother, abused and neglected, and that her biological father had profited from Gonzales’ death by keeping 37% of the funds raised for her funeral and a youth organization for himself.

The plaintiff sought to exclude the forensic adolescent psyciatrist as an expert witness for two reasons:

  1. Neither the expert’s testimony nor her report met the Fed. R. Evid. 702 Daubert standard, as they were not based on reliable principles and methods.
  2. Neither the expert’s testimony nor her report met the standards under Fed. R. Evid. 403 because they were more unfairly prejudicial than probative.

Psychological Autopsy: A Word Of Warning To Psychiatry Experts

The court found that although the expert was a qualified forensic adolescent psychiatrist, she failed to explain in her report the methodology she used or how her expertise as a forensic adolescent psychiatrist made her opinions reliable. Later the explanations given in her Substitute Affidavit failed because that affidavit was actually an untimely expert report. Furthermore, the Substitute Affidavit described a methodology known as “psychological autopsy”, which did not apply to the facts in this case.

Psychological autopsy, a method accepted in the fields of psychiatry and suicidology, is the ‘most scientifically rigorous’ means to determine factors which contributed to a person’s completed suicide. The court, therefore, came to the conclusion that Wills’ testimony and report failed to meet the reliability requirement under Rule 702 and Daubert, as this case involved an overdose, not a suicide.

As per Rule 403, a court can exclude the evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice. The court determined that although Rule 403 was an extraordinary remedy and a limiting jury instruction could be given, Wills’ testimony — to the extent it was probative — was unfairly prejudicial. Her testimony about Gonzales’ very troubled upbringing, could have easily influenced the jury to make a decision based on passion or emotion. The court concluded that Wills’ testimony and the report should be excluded under Rule 403 as being more unfairly prejudicial than probative.

The motion to exclude was granted.

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