TAMPA – Tampa attorney Dennis A. Lopez was appointed to the Florida Bar Code and Rules of Evidence Committee earlier this month. Lopez joins 44 other Florida attorneys serving on the committee, which plays an important role in determining the rules that govern the admission and consideration of evidence in Florida's courts.
A Tampa Bay native and founder of Dennis A. Lopez & Associates, Lopez's 35-plus year career as an attorney has been devoted to representing individuals in civil court cases, particularly those injured or killed as a result of defective products, negligence or wrongful conduct. Lopez is a member of both the New York and Florida Bar. He also has served as co-counsel in a variety of cases involving defective products and dangerous drugs in other states.
Lopez is looking forward to participating in his first committee meeting, he told the Florida Record. As he explained, the Florida Bar's Code and Rules of Evidence Committee differs from that of its other standing committees in that the state legislature, as opposed to the judiciary, establishes the law and rules that govern the submission of evidence in state courts.
The Florida Supreme Court has final say regarding Rules of Evidence in Florida civil courts. Code and Rules of Evidence Committee members review proposed and existing legislation to ensure that state practice conforms with statutory requirements and rules established by the state Supreme Court.
That includes determining what evidence is and is not admissible in state civil courts, an issue that Lopez believes merits review.
"As a trial attorney, I have a strong, vested interest in state law and the rules of evidence as practiced here in Florida," he told the Florida Record.
"My main goal [in serving on the committee] is to help assure that evidence, state statutes and provisions in the state legal code allow for fair, unbiased trials, that judges' hands are not tied and that they can serve as unbiased gatekeepers regarding the admission of evidence and of expert testimony in civil court."
Corporations and businesses are certainly interested in influencing the state's Rules of Evidence in a way that benefits them as they are commonly defendants in lawsuits brought by individuals and groups injured as a result of using defective or dangerous products, Lopez added.
For example, he pointed out that published articles have come out in support of rules of evidence that tend to restrict or disallow expert testimony in civil court cases.
"The burden of proof in any civil court case lies with the plaintiff, who must prove their case by the greater weight of the credible evidence," he said. "If plaintiffs can't use expert testimony to support their case, their ability to meet that burden could be lost. Civil trial defendants, in turn, are not required to put on a defense if they chose not to. They can cross-examine plaintiffs' witnesses, and if they believe warranted move for a directed verdict in their favor by asserting the plaintiffs have not met their burden of proof."
Established in a federal court opinion, the so-called Daubert Standard governing treatment of expert testimony has gained prominence in Florida in recent years at the expense of the traditional Frye Standard, which was established in state court. The Daubert Standard is more restrictive and makes it more difficult for both sides to make use of expert testimony in civil court cases, Lopez said.
"If expert testimony regarding technical or other professional knowledge will assist in understanding the evidence, a qualified expert can offer their expert opinions in court only if those opinions can be applied to evidence in the trial," Lopez said.
Based on these criteria, state court judges decide whether or not expert testimony is admissible. It's up to the jury to decide how much weight it carries, Lopez said.
"Lady Justice is blindfolded for a reason. I believe the growing influence of corporate interests and the business community on to the judiciary has come at the expense of individual citizens' rights, and that's not good from a societal perspective.
"The legislative and executive branches have always been subject to the influence of corporate interests, and that's to be expected. The only bastion left is the judicial branch, and our society suffers greatly if it is unduly influenced by legislation or court rules that originate in corporate boardrooms or lobbyists' offices. The judicial branch is effectively the only government check and balance on corporate interests left standing."