EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Monday, April 7, 2014

Anybody Want a Peanut: Peanut Butter Salmonella Trial Raises Questions Regarding Admissibility of ADHD Testimony

Federal Rule of Evidence 702 states that

A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:  

(a) the expert’s scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;  

(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;  

(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and  

(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

Do you remember the salmonella outbreak in 2008-2009 that was the result of tainted peanut butter and caused nine to die and 700 others to become ill? Well, a trial involving that outbreak is gearing up, and a question has arisen regarding the admissibility of expert testimony under Rule 702. But that expert testimony doesn't concern the actual outbreak itself; it relates to the alleged ADHD of one of the defendants.

The defendant in question is Stewart Parnell, a former executive of the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America, which was the source of the salmonella outbreak.

In February 2013, a federal grand jury charged Parnell and three others with a total of 76 federal felony counts. The indictment followed a four-year investigation into PCA’s peanut butter business after it was associated with a national Salmonella outbreak that sickened 700 and killed nine in late 2008 and early 2009. Conspiracy and fraud, along with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, top the charges in the criminal case that has also been officially designated as “complex.”

Parnell has given notice that he intends to call Dr. Joseph C. Conley, Jr. as an expert witness, who will claim that Parnell suffers from ADHD.

Austin argues that Conley meets a three-part test for expert witnesses established by the U.S. Supreme Court in that he is qualified, used a reliable methodology, and would provide testimony that would assist the trier of fact. Conley is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Commonwealth of Virginia who claims to have made 8-10,000 ADHD evaluations over the course of his career. Austin claims the government has not challenged his qualifications.

The defense also claims that Conley’s methodology enjoys wide use and acceptance. The expert from Johns Hopkins brought in by the government said that the tests Conley administered on Parnell “were pretty reasonable.”

K. Alan Dasher, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, counters that

that Conley’s methodology is not reliable and not based on sufficient facts, that his testimony won’t benefit the jury, and that its potential to provide useful information is substantially outweighed by its potential to confuse and mislead the jury.  Dasher claims Conley’s methodology is unreliable because he failed to interview enough people who knew Parnell or review his medical records before making the ADHD diagnosis. Since ADHD is a childhood condition that can extend into a person’s adult years, the government’s expert held that it was important to delve into one’s records as a youth to validate the diagnosis.  

“Adult recall of childhood symptoms tends to be unreliable, and it is beneficial to obtain ancillary information,” Dasher wrote. “Dr. Conley not only failed to obtain ancillary information, he failed to obtained any information as to this requirement. He obtained no childhood history at all from any source before making his diagnosis, not even from his own patient, which, according to Dr. Schretlen, is the minimum a clinician should do.”

It will be interesting to see how the court rules on this issue.



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