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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: May 2016

2 - Legal Background



The law, a quite complex institution, must be understood in order to identify the science-law issues, to see why they are so critical to the functioning of the legal system, and to appreciate why mistaken decisions about the admission of expert testimony can be of wider social concern. Moreover, for both historical and ongoing disputes, it is important to understand why some of the legal changes have occurred.

One should also understand some of the institutional background of the tort law, including some specific steps in civil procedure, in order to identify the stage at which courts consider the admissibility of evidence. This reveals why admissibility decisions during court proceedings can be so crucial to the litigants (mainly the plaintiffs), to the law, and to society more generally. A sketch of the context in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided to take the legal admissibility of scientific evidence provides important background to this litigation. Finally, the chapter concludes with three recent U.S. Supreme Court cases and how these have modified the admissibility of expert testimony and its scientific basis.


The legal actions that are of concern arise in the tort or personal injury law. This is that

Body of law which is directed toward the compensation of individuals, rather than the public, for losses which they have suffered within the scope of their legally recognized interests generally, rather than one interest only [such as contracts], where the law considers that compensation is required.

The tort law is often contrasted with criminal law, which is typically “concerned with the protection of interests common to the public at large, as they are represented by the entity which we call the state; often it accomplishes its ends by exacting a penalty from the wrongdoer.” It is also differs from contract law, which imposes liability “for the protection of a single, limited interest, that of having the promises of others performed,” and with quasi-contractual liability that has been “created for the prevention of unjust enrichment of one person at the expense of another, and the restitution of benefits which in good conscience belong to the plaintiff.” The tort law is generically concerned with redressing injuries a person has suffered that were intentionally or negligently inflicted by others, or inflicted “without fault” for which a person can recover under strict liability laws, depending upon the area of torts.