TORTINI

For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

Gastwirth on the Wells Case

December 27th, 2013

One of the high points of 2013 for me was the Practicing Law Institute seminar on expert witness gatekeeping.  I am indebted to my co-chair David Cohen, and the talented participants, Dr. David Garabrant, Joe Cecil, Mary Wells, and Mike Williams.  I learned a great deal from all of them, even when we disagreed.

At the seminar, which addressed the slippage in the federal judiciary’s fidelity to Rule 702 text and principles, Joe Cecil kindly reminded me of Professor Gastwirth’s contribution on the Wells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 615 F. Supp. 262, 298 (N.D. Ga. 1985), aff’d and rev’d in part on other grounds, 788 F.2d 741 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S.950 (1986).  Joseph L. Gastwirth, “The need for careful evaluation of epidemiological evidence in product liablility cases: a reexamination of Wells v. Ortho and Key Pharmaceuticals,” 2 Law, Probability and Risk 151 (2003).

The Supreme Court recently reinvigorated the Wells case, and like Frankenstein’s monster, it walks again.  Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 131 S. Ct. 1309 (2011).  See alsoMatrixx Unloaded.”  As a result of the Matrixx decision, I revisited the untoward Wells decision several times this year. SeeWells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. Reconsidered – Part 1”; and here, here, here, here, and here.  Joe’s reminder, however, provoked me to look one more time at Wells, through the lens of Gastwirth’s review.

Gastwirth is a well-known statistician, not a lawyer.  His article undertakes some interesting sensitivity analyses of the potential role of one known confounder in the epidemiologic studies of spermicides and birth defects, cited by witnesses in Wells. Not surprisingly, Gastwirth confuses important legal concepts, when he contends that science and law have different goals because science has the luxury of waiting for additional studies to resolve indeterminate datasets.  Gastwirth at 154. Gastwirth suggests that in law, causality determinations turn on fairness, but in science, they turn on the truth.  Gastwirth offers no support for his assertion, and there is much law to the contrary.  Federal Rule of Evidence 102, for instance, explains the “Purpose” of the Federal Rules and how they should be construed:

“These rules should be construed so as to administer every proceeding fairly, eliminate unjustifiable expense and delay, and promote the development of evidence law, to the end of ascertaining the truth and securing a just determination.”

Truth does count, at least in some courts, and it is hard to imagine a case in which the goals of truth and justice are bifurcated. Gastwirth sees law courts as unable to avoid judgment when the evidentiary display is weakly developed or not replicated, but he is wrong.  Courts can, do, and should avoid permitting judgments based upon indeterminate datasets.

Gastwirth also contends that the duty to warn in tort is based upon a possibility of causation, and he opines that this is perfectly satisfactory.  Gastwirth at 155.  Gastwirth cites the Restatement (Third) a/Torts for his view, but the Restatement does not couch the duty to warn as predicated upon merely possible risk:

“A defendant will not be liable under an implied warranty of merchantability for failure to warn about risks that were not reasonably foreseeable at the time of sale or could not have been discovered by way of reasonable testing prior to marketing the product. A manufacturer will be held to the standard of knowledge of an expert in the appropriate field, and will remain subject to a continuing duty to warn of risks discovered following the sale of the product at issue.”

Id. (emphasis added).  Gastwirth fails to explain why the epistemic standard of the Restatement should be diluted to include merely possible risks; nor does he explain why the law should impose a duty because a minority of so-called experts claim knowledge of the existence of a risk, whether potential or known.

Risks are based upon known causal relationships, viewed ex ante rather than post hoc.  Gastwirth attempts to defend the Wells decision on the basis that the trial judge, Judge Shoob, could have correctly found a possible risk, but this was not then or now the standard for imposing a duty to warn.  Even if possibilities were the basis for a duty to warn, the courts in Wells had to find sufficient evidence of cause in fact between the spermicidal jelly and the birth defect present in the infant plaintiff.  No merely possible risk could have satisfied this burden, and Gastwirth avoids this important issue in his review.  Ultimately, Gastwirth fails to come to grips with how the Wells courts artificially distinguished two causation standards – warning-harm and product-harm.  Gastwirth at 184.

When courts are required to work with an epistemic standard for evaluating opinions about causal claims, they will often confront sincere beliefs supported by “putative” justifications, but which turn out to be untrue.  The obvious implication is that the causal opinions were not “true” when offered, and the asserted, putative justification was no justification at all.  Twenty years post-Daubert should have made our courts more sensitive to the pathology of claiming, or pathoepistemology, as I call it.

Although Gastwirth is intent to show that the district and circuit court decisions in Wells were reasonable given the record evidence at the time of their decisions, Gastwirth’s defense is tepid at best. Gastwirth concedes that the plaintiffs’ evidence in the Wells case was not very convincing, and he is quick to point out that he does not conclude that spermicides cause limb reduction defects (although he does believe that the data were sufficient for his idiosyncratic diluted duty-to-warn legal standard:

 “The epidemiological evidence in the Wells case surely was not very convincing and it is understandable that scientists and legal scholars might desire stronger scientific evidence before holding a defendant liable. What seems unfortunate is the lack of discussion of the part of the record most supportive of the legal decisions from the published criticisms.201 While it is reasonable to ask how much evidence should be required before a warning is required, is it fair to rely on studies that were published after the time of exposure to assess the producer’s duty at the time?”

Gastwirth at 184-85.  The equivocation in this passage between assessing causation for a duty to warn and for product harm is typical of Gastwirth’s confusion throughout this article.  As noted, Gastwirth appears to believe it is sufficient to show the plausibility of the causal relationship such that the trial court’s findings of a duty to warn, and a breach of that duty, were reasonably supported:

“It should be stressed that our examination of the studies does not conclude that exposure to spermicides causes limb reduction defects. 202 Indeed, the studies published in the 1980s are sensitive to the potential effect of unmeasured known potential risk factors that were not controlled for in the analysis. Many studies observed that it is difficult to rule out small but meaningful risks given their sample size or that more studies including potential confounding variables be carried out before a scientific conclusion can be reached.203

Gastwirth at 185 & n.202.  So small increased risks were difficult to rule in or rule out, but then how can a judgment for plaintiffs be sustained unless, as I have shown elsewhere, Judge Shoob improperly placed the burden of proof upon the defendant?  The studies published in the 1980s may have been sensitive to the potential effect of unmeasured and uncontrolled known potential risks, but Judge Shoob clearly was not sensitive to the problem at all.

Other problems abound. The studies involved in the Wells case not only failed to account for the few known confounders at the time, but they could not and did not sort out the residual confounding.  Gastwirth concedes the point in a footnote, in which he cites a paper by Professor Gary Shaw on the role of multivitamin use in preventing birth defects. See Gastwirth at 185 & n. 202 (citing Shaw et al., “Maternal Periconceptional Use of Multivitamins and Reduced Risk for Conotruncal Heart Defects and Limb Deficiencies Among Offspring,” 59 Am. J. Med. Genetics 536 (1995) (showing that children of mothers who had taken vitamins and folic acid had a 30-35% lower risk of limb defects).  Gastwirth sees the discovery of causes not previously controlled for in the spermicide/birth defect studies of the 1980s as example of the differences between scientific and legal judgments.  Another way to look at such discoveries is to impose some standard of intellectual modesty upon courts in basing their findings upon speculative causal claims.

Gastwirth’s casual dismissiveness of the need for replication in a legal standard of causation is difficult to square with his acknowledgment that early studies often prove misleading about the existence of a true risk.  Gastwirth, for instance, acknowledges that later publications quite commonly do not support initial hypotheses.  Gastwirth at 179, 184 (citing Michael B. Bracken, “Spermicidal Contraceptives and Poor Reproductive Outcomes: The Epidemiologic Evidence Against an Association,” 151 Am. J. Obstet. & Gyncecol. 552, 555 (1985)).  Gastwirth channels the anti-manufacturer Zeitgeist for his claim that “firms” may not report studies that show risk, but he ignores the pervasive, prevalent practice of academic and advocacy scientists’ not publishing negative studies in the first place, and even later in the natural history of scientific controversies.

Ultimately, however, Gastwirth’s own judgment is a self-fulfilling prophecy of how the law and science should part company over false-positive assertions of causality.  Fortunately, the law has evolved in a different direction, towards convergence of scientific and legal modes of assessing causal claims.  Now judges must evolve as well.

How Law Professors Think — About Expert Evidence

December 19th, 2013

In a recent law review article, two University of Virginia law professors question whether expert evidence should be subject to its own exclusionary rules.  Frederick Schauer and Barbara A. Spellman, “Is Expert Evidence Really Different?” 89 Notre Dame L. Rev. 1 (2013)[Schauer & Spellman]. Professors Schauer and Spellman argue that expert evidence is not really different from other kinds of evidence, and they suggest that the exclusionary procedures introduced by Daubert and its progeny are ill conceived.

Gedankenexperiment

In order to understand the exact nature of the harms of “junk science,” the authors conduct an interesting Gedanken experiment:

“Suppose ten witnesses testify that they had never been sick a day in their lives, that they then moved in middle age to a community in close proximity to a defendant’s chemical plant, and that they were all diagnosed with the same form of cancer within a year. And suppose that this is the only evidence of causation.”

The authors conclude that this evidence is relevant under Federal Rule of Evidence 401, and sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact.  From their conclusion, the authors argue further all the dangers of mass tort causation evidence are independent of junk science because a jury would be free to reach a verdict for plaintiffs based upon pure sympathy, anti-corporate animus, white-hat bias, or Robin Hood motives.  The authors see, in their hypothetical, a jury reaching a judgment against the defendant

“regardless of any strong evidence of causation, and without any junk science whatsoever.”

Schauer and Spellman’s conclusions, however, are wrong.  Their hypothetical evidentiary display is not even minimally logically relevant.  They are correct that there is no strong evidence of causation, but whence comes the conclusion that no “junk science” would be involved in the jury’s determination?  That determination would not have even the second-hand support of an expert witness opinion, but it would be jury’s first-hand, jejune interpretation of a completely indeterminate fact pattern.

These authors, after all, do not specify what kind of cancer is involved. Virtually no cancer has an induction period of less than a year.  Their hypothetical does not specify what chemicals are “released,” in what route of exposure, in what level, and for what duration. Furthermore, the suggestion of logical relevance implies that the described occurrence is beyond what we would care to ascribe to chance alone, but we do not know the number of people involved, or the baseline risk of the cancer at issue.  One in a million happens eight times a day, in New York City. Flipping a coin ten times, and observing 6 heads and 4 tails, would not support an inference that the best evidence we have is that the coin will always favor heads to tails in a ratio of 1.5.

Schauer and Spellman might improve their hypothetical, but they are unlikely to free themselves of the need for expertise beyond the ken of a lay jury to evaluate the clinical, epidemiologic, scientific, and statistical issues raised by their supposed disease “outbreak.”  And although they have taken the expert witness as the usual purveyor of junk science out of the hypothetical by design, they have simply left the jury to draw a bogus inference.  The junk is still at work, only the jury is no longer a passive recipient of the inference; they are themselves the authors of the junk-science inference.

Schauer and Spellman’s Claim That Expert Evidence Is Not Really Different

The authors make the case that there are some instances in which expert witness opinion testimony is not so different from lay opinions about intoxication or speed of a car or eyewitness identification.  But Schauer and Spellman are wrong to allow themselves to be fooled about expert witness testimony in many complex mass tort cases.

Such cases commonly involve several scientific disciplines, such as toxicology, epidemiology, exposure assessment, neuropsychology, and others. The expert witness for each discipline might have a few dozen studies that are germane to the issues in the case, and each one of those studies might cite or rely upon several papers for their background, methods  and inferences.  Reference lists for each expert witness might run into the hundreds of articles, and in some cases, the experts might need to access underlying data and materials to understand fully the papers upon which they have relied.  A careful reading of each paper might require an hour or more for the expert to understand the claims and limitations of the study.  The expertise to understand the articles fully may have taken years or decades of education.

Juries do not have the time, the interest, the aptitude, the training, the experience, to read, understand, and synthesize the data and information in the studies themselves.  Our trials involving complex technical issues are much like Plato’s allegory of the cave; the jury never sees the actual evidence, only shadows cast by evidence they are usually not permitted to see, and don’t care to see when they have the chance. Juries decide technical issues based upon mostly the appearance of expertise, not upon evidence.

Some years ago, I tried an asbestos case against Charles “Joey” Grant, in front of Judge Armand Della Porter and a jury in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.  Joey represented a man who claimed that he had asbestosis from working at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. His chest X-ray interpretation was disputed, but he has small-airways obstruction, which his expert witness attributed to asbestosis.  The defense expert thought smoking was a much more likely cause of the obstruction, but the plaintiff had denied smoking in his deposition.  In order to test his assertion, the defense asked a private investigator to conduct surveillance of the plaintiff to determine whether or not he was a smoker.

The investigator, retired Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agent Frank Buenas, tailed the plaintiff and observed and photographed him smoking.  Plaintiff’s counsel, Joey Grant, seized on my not having provided Buenas an authenticated photograph of the plaintiff, and challenged the identification and every aspect of the surveillance.  The direct examination lasted no more than 25 minutes; the cross-examination lasted about four hours.

Joey was a very good trial lawyer.  He had just come out of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, after having successfully prosecuted Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo.  Joey was also a good looking African American man who played well to our all female, all African American jury.  The issues of the surveillance, and of whether or not he plaintiff was a smoker, were understandable and accessible to the jurors, who were riveted by Joey’s cross-examination. Ultimately, the issues were resolved for the jury in a dramatic fashion.  The plaintiff, who continued to work at the Navy Yard, returned to court at the end of his shift, towards the end of the day in court.  Over objection, I called him back to the stand. He had not heard the investigator’s testimony, but when I showed him Buenas’ photographs, he exclaimed “that’s my bald head!”  The jurors practically lunged out of their seats when I published the photographs to the jury over Joey’s objection.

The point of the war story is to recount how the jury followed a protracted examination, and ignored their bias in favor of Joey, and their prejudice against me, the white guy representing the “asbestos companies” in this reverse-bifurcated trial.  The testimony involved a predicate issue whether Buenas had followed and photographed the right man in the act of smoking.  Would a jury, any jury, follow the testimony of a scientist who was being challenged on methodological details of a single study, for four hours?  Would any jury remain attentive and engaged in the testimony of expert witnesses who testified on direct and cross-examination in similar detail about hundreds of studies?

Having tried cases that involve both the simple, straightforward issue such as Buenas’ investigation and surveillance, and also complex scientific issues, I believe the answer is obvious.  None of the studies cited by Schauer and Spellman address the issue of complexity and how it is represented in the courtroom. 

Most judges, when acting as the trier of fact, lack the interest, time, training, and competence to try complex cases. Consider the trial judge who conducted bench trial of a claim of autoimmune disease caused by silicone.  The trial judge was completely unable to assess the complex immunological, toxicological, and epidemiologic evidence in the case.  See Barrow v. Bristol Myers Squibb Co., No. 96 689 CIV ORL 19B, 1998 WL 812318 (M.D. Fla. Oct. 29, 1998).  In another courtroom, not far away, Judge Sam Pointer had appointed four distinguished expert witnesses under Rule 706. In re Silicone Gel Breast Implant Prods. Liab. Litig. (MDL 926), 793 F. Supp. 1098 (J.P.M.L. 1992) (No. CV92-P-10000-S), Order No. 31, 31B, 31E.  In November 1998, a month after the Middle District of Florida trial court decided the Barrow case, the four court-appointed expert witnesses filed their joint and individual reports that concluded that silicone in breast implants “do[es] not alter incidence or severity of autoimmune disease” and that women who have had such implants  “do[] not display a silicone-induced systemic abnormality in the . . . cells of the immune system.” National Science Panel, Silicone Breast Implants in Relation to Connective Tissue Diseases and Immunologic Dysfunction, Executive Summary at 5-6  (Nov. 17, 1998).  The Panel also found that “[n]o association was evident between breast implants and any of the . . . connective tissue diseases . . . or the other autoimmune/rheumatic conditions” claimed by the thousands of women who had filed lawsuits. Id. at 6-7. 

Another case, in the causal chain that produced the Daubert decision, might also have cautioned Professors Schauer and Spellman against oversimplifying the distinctions between expert and other evidence.  Wells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 615 F. Supp. 262 (N.D. Ga. 1985), aff’d and rev’d in part on other grounds, 788 F.2d 741 (11th Cir.), cert. denied, 479 U.S.950 (1986).  The Wells case was a bench trial, in which the trial judge honestly professed not to have understood the epidemiologic evidence, and to have decided the case on his assessment of expert witness demeanor and atmospherics.  And like the Barrow case, the Wells case was clearly wrongly decided. SeeWells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. Reconsidered – Part 1” (Nov. 12th, 2012) (footnote 1 collects a sample of citations criticizing Judge Shoob’s failure to engage with the scientific evidence).

Jury determinations, unlike the clearly erroneous determinations in Barrow and Wells, are “black boxes.”  The public and the scientific community cannot really criticize jury decisions because the jury does not explain their inferences from evidence .  The lack of explanation, however, does not save them from engaging in junk science.  Outside the Gedanken experiment above, jurors can blame expert witnesses for their errors.  In the experiment’s hypothetical, junk science is still taking place.

The Discomfort With Daubert

The authors recount many of the charges against and criticisms of the Daubert decision.  Schauer & Spellman at 2. They note that some commentators assert that the Justices in Daubert embraced a “clumsy philosophy of science.” But at least Justice Blackmun engaged with the philosophy of science, and the epistemic requirements of Rule 702, and made some attempt to reconcile the truth-finding process in court with what happens in science.  The attempted reconciliation was long overdue.

The authors also point out that some commentators have expressed concern that Daubert burdens mass tort and employment discriminations who “non-traditional experts and expertise.” Id. To paraphrase Tim Minchin, there is non-traditional opinion known not to be true, and non-traditional opinion not known to be true, but if non-traditional opinion is known to be true, then we call it … knowledge.  Perhaps Schauer and Spellman think that our courts should be more open and inclusive, warmer and fuzzier, for clinical ecologists, naturopaths, aromatherapists, homeopaths, and other epistemiopaths.  My sense is that these non-traditional experts should be relegated to live in their own world of magical thinking.

The authors give voice to “the broad worry that law should not outsource its own irreducibly legal determinations to science and scientists with different goals and consequently different standards.” But science and the law are both engaged in truth determinations.  Maybe the law should worry more about having jurors and judges making their determinations with different goals and standards.  Maybe the law should be more concerned with truth and scientific accuracy, and should not outsource its “irreducibly fact determinations” to the epistemiopaths.

Expert witness testimony is clearly different in many important respects from lay witness testimony and other evidence.  The expert witness testimony is largely opinion.  It relies upon many layers of hearsay, with many of the layers not subject to ready scrutiny and testing for veracity in a courtroom.  Many layers of the “onion” represent evidence that would not be admissible under any likely evidentiary scenario in a courtroom.

And jurors are reduced to using proxies for assessing the truth of claims and defenses.  Decisions in a courtroom are often made based upon witness demeanor, style, presentation, qualifications, and appearance of confidence and expertise. The authors lament the lack of empirical support for the last point, but this misses the larger point that the issue is not primarily an empirical one, and the point is not limited to jury competence.  Hon. Jed S. Rakoff, “Lecture: Are federal judges competent? Dilettantes in an age of economic expertise,” 17 Fordham J. Corp. & Fin. L. 4 (2012).

The Monte Hall Problem and Cognitive Biases

The “Monty Hall problem” was originally framed by statistician Steve Selvin in publications in the American Statistician in 1975 (Selvin 1975a), (Selvin 1975b).  The problem was then popularized by an exposition in Parade magazine in 1990, by Marilyn vos Savant.  The problem, based upon Monty Hall’s television game show Let’s Make a Deal, and Monty’s practice of asking contestants whether they wanted to switch.  A full description of the problem can be found elsewhere.

For our purposes here, the interesting point is that the correct answer was not intuitively obvious.  After vos Savant published the answer, many readers wrote indignant letters, claiming she was wrong.  Some of these letters were written by college and university professors of mathematics.  Vos Savant’s popularization of Selvin’s puzzle illustrates that there are cognitive biases, flaws in reasoning, and paradoxes, the avoidance of which requires some measure of intelligence and specialty training in probability and statistics.  See also Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” 185 Science 1124 (1974).

Our system of justice suffers enough from the current regime of trial by sound-bite.  It should not be further undermined by the abandonment of judicial gatekeeping and judicial review of the quality and quantity of scientific evidence in our civil and criminal trials. Opponents of gatekeeping imply that the Federal Rules of Evidence should be “liberally” construed, by which they usually mean, construed consistent to their biases and prejudices.  The adjective “liberal,” both traditionally and today, however, connotes enlightened, free from superstition, bias, prejudice, and promoting accuracy in judgments that are important to institutional respect and prestige.  Let’s hope that 2014 is a better year for science in the courtroom.

Supreme Court Denies Certiorari in Harkonen v. United States

December 16th, 2013

The Supreme Court took up Dr. Harkonen’s petition for certiorari on Friday, December 13, 2013.  The SCOTUS Blog made the petition its “Petition of the Day.”

Unfortunately, the blog’s attention did not carry over to the Court’s conference. The Court release its orders this morning, which included a denial of certiorari in Harkonen v. United States.

Although there was a good deal of noise about Dr. Harkonen’s intent, that issue is uniquely case specific.  The real issue going forward would seem to be the reach of the government’s position, and now the Ninth Circuit’s position, that failure to disclose multiple testing or deviation from a protocol is demonstrably false or misleading.  In Dr. Harkonen’s case, the causal inference was reasonably supported despite the non-protocol analysis.  The use of the verb “demonstrate,” however, is often used carelessly, and the Harkonen decision may well breathe life into Rule 702 gatekeeping.

 

Pennsylvania Superior Court Takes The Bite Out of Fixodent Claims

December 12th, 2013

In the spring of 2012, Judge Sandra Mazer Moss granted summary judgment to Proctor & Gamble, after excluding, on Frye grounds, plaintiff’s expert witnesses who opined that plaintiff suffered zinc neurotoxicity from his use of FixodentJacoby v. Rite Aid Corp., 2012 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 208 (2012).  SeePhiladelphia Plaintiff’s Claims Against Fixodent Prove Toothless” (May 2, 2012).  Judge Moss’s exclusion of plaintiff’s expert witnesses involved a careful analysis of the evasive, hand-waving tactics of the witnesses.  Among the plaintiff’s team of expert witnesses was Dr. Martyn Smith, the chief hand waver and obscurantist in Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., 664 F.Supp. 2d 137 (D. Mass. 2009), rev’d, 639 F.3d 11 (1st Cir. 2011), cert. denied, U.S. Steel Corp. v. Milward, ___ U.S. ___, 2012 WL 33303 (2012).

On Monday, December 9, 2013, after a careful review, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed summary judgment for Proctor & Gamble in the Jacoby case. Jacoby v. Rite Aid Corp., Pa. Super. Ct. No. 1508 EDA 2012 (Dec. 9, 2013) [Slip op.]  The Superior Court panel, consisting of Judges Stevens, Lazarus, and Colville, largely adopted Judge Moss’s analysis and affirmed in a signed, but unpublished, opinion by Judge Lazarus. 

Like Judge Moss before them, the Panel saw through the attempt to pass off “Weight of the Evidence” (WOE) and “Totality of the Evidence” (TOE) as scientific methodologies.  The witnesses, Martyn Smith and others, failed to specify what evidence they weighed, how they weighed the evidence, and what the weights supposedly were.  Another expert witness vaguely pointed to the “Naranjo scale” in support of interpreting case reports to show causal association, but this scale was similarly incompetent other than as a crude “plausibility” scale for assessing case reports.

The Superior Court’s decision in Jacoby is noteworthy on several important issues. There was no material issue as to whether zinc at some dose and duration of exposure can cause neuropathies.  The Court saw, however, that the important issue was whether zinc in the form, dose, and duration ingested by plaintiff can cause the outcome he experienced, and whether his exposure to zinc in Fix-o-dent actually caused his alleged injury.  The Superior Court re-affirmed Pennsylvania’s case law that makes extrapolation from different doses, different durations, and different biological circumstances, a “novel” claim that is subject to the gatekeeping by the so-called Frye standard. Slip op. at 11.

The Superior Court’s opinion astutely observed that the issue was not whether WOE and TOE are accepted scientific methodologies, but whether expert witness Martyn Smith can “evade a reasoned Frye inquiry merely by making reference to accepted methods in the abstract.”  Id. at 12 (citing Betz, at 58).  When pressed, Martyn Smith’s invocation of WOE amounted to little more than a distortion and abridgment of the Bradford Hill factors.  The Superior Court recognized, however, that the Bradford Hill guidelines provide an evaluative process to consider whether an association, after first being shown to be clear cut and not attributable to chance, is causal or spurious.  Id. at 13.  As Bradford Hill postulated the question that arises before his famous nine factors come into the analysis:

“Disregarding then any such problem in semantics we have this situation. Our observations reveal an association between two variables, perfectly clear-cut and beyond what we would care to attribute to the play of chance. What aspects of that association should we especially consider before deciding that the most likely interpretation of it is causation?”

Austin Bradford Hill, “The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation?” 58 Proc. Royal Soc’y Med. 295, 295 (1965) (emphasis added).

In this case, Smith never got off the dime with his evasive tactics.  He did not identify a quantified association that could be assessed for the play of random variation, or bias and confounding.  Smith tried to suggest that a mere possibility of an association was sufficient to invoke the Bradford Hill guidelines, but the Superior Court rejected this attempt to invent a new-age scientific method. Slip op. at 13.

The Superior Court acknowledged that the scientific literature describes WOE as varying from nothing more than “seat-of-the-pants qualitative assessment” to “aggregating diverse modalities.”  Id. at 14.  In Smith’s hands, WOE was little more than a personal, subjective opinion, an ipse dixit dressed as a scientific opinion.  Smith never defined his WOE approach, and the other witnesses never defined their TOE approach.  The plaintiffs’ witnesses in Jacoby failed to offer an accepted methodology when they failed to identify the forms of evidence they considered, and how they went about weighing the evidence upon which they had relied.  Id. at 15.

In a brief discussion, the Panel also embraced another basic evidentiary principle to dismiss a common tactic in specious claiming. The plaintiffs’ challenged defendants’ pharmokinetic study and tried to suggest that their deconstruction counted as affirmative evidence to support their own theory of biological fate and distribution. Id. at 16.  The Superior Court saw through the ruse; the plaintiffs had not created affirmative evidence for their theory by arguing that the defendants’ study was flawed. 

The Superior Court squarely confronted the limitations and inadequacy of relying upon descriptive, anecdotal case reports. Case reports provide a narrative and temporal history of events with respect to exposure and outcome, but they cannot fully account for confounding by known and unknown factors.  Case reports represent post hoc assessments that were not planned, and therefore lack data that would permit distinguishing coincidence from causality.  Id. at 17 (citing Dr. Lorene Nelson’s report).  See In re Denture Cream Prods. Liab. Litig., 795 F. Supp. 2d 1345 (S.D. Fla.2011).

Proctor & Gamble had the good fortunate to have obtained a good ruling in the MDL litigation in the Southern District of Florida, which no doubt helped focus the gatekeeping process in Pennsylvania state court. Unfortunately, the Superior Court Panel chose not to publish its decision.  This decision is regrettable for its inconsistency with the transparency and due process expected of all courts.  See Erica Weisgerber, “Unpublished Opinions: A Convenient Means to an Unconstitutional End,” 97 Georgetown L.J. 621 (2009).