The Lawletter Vol 36 No 11
What is the potential liability of a testing laboratory that incorrectly analyzes a DNA sample? This was the issue before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in Berman v. Laboratory Corp. of America, 2011 OK 106, 268 P.3d 68. In the Berman case, the plaintiff sought assistance from the Department of Human Services ("DHS") to determine the paternity of her child and to collect child support. The agency arranged for the defendant laboratory (LabCorp) to conduct a DNA test. LabCorp tested the sample twice and both times incorrectly reported that a particular individual, Herbert White Jr., was not the child's father.
However, after a different laboratory performed a DNA test and found that White was in fact the father, the plaintiff sued LabCorp for having negligently tested the DNA sample. She sought damages for the loss of past and future child support payments that White would have been required to pay if the paternity test results had been correctly reported. After the court disposed of an immunity defense, it addressed an issue of first impression in Oklahoma: "[D]oes LabCorp owe Berman, as the parent seeking to prove the paternity of her child, a duty of care to conduct accurate DNA testing which was ordered by DHS for child support purposes?" Id. ¶ 16.
The court noted that DNA or genetic test results have become an important part of evidence law in Oklahoma. Such test results have been admitted in cases involving heirship of a decedent's estate; proving paternity to prevent an adoption from moving forward without notice to the natural father; criminal proceedings to revoke a suspended sentence; and exonerating wrongfully convicted criminal defendants. Holding that LabCorp had a duty to perform accurate testing, the court reversed a grant of summary judgment for LabCorp and stated:
The importance of reliable and accurate DNA test results cannot be overstated. This type of forensic evidence is becoming part of our jurisprudence, and this trend is not likely to end. Much stands in the balance of the lives of those relying on such test results to protect their legal rights in a court of law. Inaccurate results could deal a devastating blow to those who otherwise have no ability to prove their cases on their own. Without recourse against a negligent defendant, a plaintiff has no remedy. Berman stands in that position in her relationship with LabCorp. Inaccurate results proved fatal to her case in her DHS proceeding. She was forced to pursue further legal action at her own expense. Her risk was foreseeable, and LabCorp owed her a duty to prevent that risk of harm.
Id. ¶ 18.
Given the importance of DNA testing in a variety of contexts and the potential consequences of reporting incorrect results, the Berman case represents an important precedent in the field of negligence law.