April Fool – Zambelli-Weiner Must Disclose

Back in the summer of 2019, Judge Saylor, the MDL judge presiding over the Zofran birth defect cases, ordered epidemiologist, Dr. Zambelli-Weiner to produce documents relating to an epidemiologic study of Zofran,[1] as well as her claimed confidential consulting relationship with plaintiffs’ counsel.[2]

This previous round of motion practice and discovery established that Zambelli-Weiner was a paid consultant in advance of litigation, that her Zofran study was funded by plaintiffs’ counsel, and that she presented at a Las Vegas conference, for plaintiffs’ counsel only, on [sic] how to make mass torts perfect. Furthermore, she had made false statements to the court about her activities.[3]

Zambelli-Weiner ultimately responded to the discovery requests but she and plaintiffs’ counsel withheld several documents as confidential, pursuant to the MDL’s procedure for protective orders. Yesterday, April 1, 2020, Judge Saylor entered granted GlaxoSmithKline’s motion to de-designate four documents that plaintiffs claimed to be confidential.[4]

Zambelli-Weiner sought to resist GSK’s motion to compel disclosure of the documents on a claim that GSK was seeking the documents to advance its own litigation strategy. Judge Saylor acknowledged that Zambelli-Weiner’s psycho-analysis might be correct, but that GSK’s motive was not the critical issue. According to Judge Saylor, the proper inquiry was whether the claim of confidentiality was proper in the first place, and whether removing the cloak of secrecy was appropriate under the facts and circumstances of the case. Indeed, the court found “persuasive public-interest reasons” to support disclosure, including providing the FDA and the EMA a complete, unvarnished view of Zambelli-Weiner’s research.[5] Of course, the plaintiffs’ counsel, in close concert with Zambelli-Weiner, had created GSK’s need for the documents.

This discovery battle has no doubt been fought because plaintiffs and their testifying expert witnesses rely heavily upon the Zambelli-Weiner study to support their claim that Zofran causes birth defects. The present issue is whether four of the documents produced by Dr. Zambelli-Weiner pursuant to subpoena should continue to enjoy confidential status under the court’s protective order. GSK argued that the documents were never properly designated as confidential, and alternatively, the court should de-designate the documents because, among other things, the documents would disclose information important to medical researchers and regulators.

Judge Saylor’s Order considered GSK’s objections to plaintiffs’ and Zambelli-Weiner’s withholding four documents:

(1) Zambelli-Weiner’s Zofran study protocol;

(2) Undisclosed, hidden analyses that compared birth defects rates for children born to mothers who used Zofran with the rates seen with the use of other anti-emetic medications;

(3) An earlier draft Zambelli-Weiner’s Zofran study, which she had prepared to submit to the New England Journal of Medicine; and

(4) Zambelli-Weiner’s advocacy document, a “Causation Briefing Document,” which she prepared for plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Judge Saylor noted that none of the withheld documents would typically be viewed as confidential. None contained “sensitive personal, financial, or medical information.”[6]  The court dismissed Zambelli-Weiner’s contention that the documents all contained “business and proprietary information,” as conclusory and meritless. Neither she nor plaintiffs’ counsel explained how the requested documents implicated proprietary information when Zambelli-Weiner’s only business at issue is to assist in making lawsuits. The court observed that she is not “engaged in the business of conducting research to develop a pharmaceutical drug or other proprietary medical product or device,” and is related solely to her paid consultancy to plaintiffs’ lawyers. Neither she nor the plaintiffs’ lawyers showed how public disclosure would hurt her proprietary or business interests. Of course, if Zambelli-Weiner had been dishonest in carrying out the Zofran study, as reflected in study deviations from its protocol, her professional credibility and her business of conducting such studies might well suffer. Zambelli-Weiner, however, was not prepared to affirm the antecedent of that hypothetical. In any event, the court found that whatever right Zambelli-Weiner might have enjoyed to avoid discovery evaporated with her previous dishonest representations to the MDL court.[7]

The Zofran Study Protocol

GSK sought production of the Zofran study protocol, which in theory contained the research plan for the Zofran study and the analyses the researchers intended to conduct. Zambelli-Weiner attempted to resist production on the specious theory that she had not published the protocol, but the court found this “non-publication” irrelevant to the claim of confidentiality. Most professional organizations, such as the International Society of Pharmacoepidemiology (“ISPE”), which ultimately published Zambelli-Weiner’s study, encourage the publication and sharing of study protocols.[8] Disclosure of protocols helps ensure the integrity of studies by allowing readers to assess whether the researchers have adhered to their study plan, or have engaged in ad hoc data dredging in search for a desired result.[9]

The Secret, Undisclosed Analyses

Perhaps even more egregious than withholding the study protocol was the refusal to disclose unpublished analyses comparing the rate of birth defects among children born to mothers who used Zofran with the birth defect rates of children with in utero exposure to other anti-emetic medications.  In ruling that Zambelli-Weiner must produce the unpublished analyses, the court expressed its skepticism over whether these analyses could ever have been confidential. Under ISPE guidelines, researchers must report findings that significantly affect public health, and the relative safety of Zofran is essential to its evaluation by regulators and prescribing physicians.

Not only was Zambelli-Weiner’s failure to include these analyses in her published article ethically problematic, but she apparently hid these analyses from the Pharmacovigilance Risk Assessment Committee (PRAC) of the European Medicines Agency, which specifically inquired of Zambelli-Weiner whether she had performed such analyses. As a result, the PRAC recommended a label change based upon Zambelli-Weiner’s failure to disclosure material information. Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ counsel represented they intended to oppose GSK’s citizen petition to the FDA, based upon the Zambelli-Weiner study. The apparently fraudulent non-disclosure of relevant analyses could not have been more fraught for public health significance. The MDL court found that the public health need trumped any (doubtful) claim to confidentiality.[10] Against the obvious public interest, Zambelli-Weiner offered no “compelling countervailing interest” in keeping her secret analyses confidential.

There were other aspects to the data-dredging rationale not discussed in the court’s order. Without seeing the secret analyses of other anti-emetics, readers were deprive of an important opportunity to assess actual and potential confounding in her study. Perhaps even more important, the statistical tools that Zambelli-Weiner used, including any measurements of p-values and confidence intervals, and any declarations of “statistical significance,” were rendered meaningless by her secret, undisclosed, multiple testing. As noted by the American Statistical Association (ASA) in its 2016 position statement, “4. Proper inference requires full reporting and transparency.”

The ASA explains that the proper inference from a p-value can be completely undermined by “multiple analyses” of study data, with selective reporting of sample statistics that have attractively low p-values, or cherry picking of suggestive study findings. The ASA points out that common practices of selective reporting compromises valid interpretation. Hence the correlative recommendation:

“Researchers should disclose the number of hypotheses explored during the study, all data collection decisions, all statistical analyses conducted and all p-values computed. Valid scientific conclusions based on p-values and related statistics cannot be drawn without at least knowing how many and which analyses were conducted, and how those analyses (including p-values) were selected for reporting.”[11]

The Draft Manuscript for the New England Journal of Medicine

The MDL court wasted little time and ink in dispatching Zambelli-Weiner’s claim of confidentiality for her draft New England Journal of Medicine manuscript. The court found that she failed to explain how any differences in content between this manuscript and the published version constituted “proprietary business information,” or how disclosure would cause her any actual prejudice.

Zambelli-Weiner’s Litigation Road Map

In a world where social justice warriors complain about organizations such as Exponent, for its litigation support of defense efforts, the revelation that Zambelli-Weiner was helping to quarterback the plaintiffs’ offense deserves greater recognition. Zambelli-Weiner’s litigation road map was clearly created to help Grant & Eisenhofer, P.A., the plaintiffs’ lawyers,, create a causation strategy (to which she would add her Zofran study). Such a document from a consulting expert witness is typically the sort of document that enjoys confidentiality and protection from litigation discovery. The MDL court, however, looked beyond Zambelli-Weiner’s role as a “consulting witness” to her involvement in designing and conducting research. The broader extent of her involvement in producing studies and communicating with regulators made her litigation “strategery” “almost certainly relevant to scientists and regulatory authorities” charged with evaluating her study.”[12]

Despite Zambelli-Weiner’s protestations that she had made a disclosure of conflict of interest, the MDL court found her disclosure anemic and the public interest in knowing the full extent of her involvement in advising plaintiffs’ counsel, long before the study was conducted, great.[13]

The legal media has been uncommonly quiet about the rulings on April Zambelli-Weiner, in the Zofran litigation. From the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other industry scolds such as David Egilman, David Michaels, and Carl Cranor – crickets. Meanwhile, while the appeal over the admissibility of her testimony is pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,[14] Zambelli-Weiner continues to create an unenviable record in Zofran, Accutane,[15] Mirena,[16] and other litigations.


[1]  April Zambelli‐Weiner, Christina Via, Matt Yuen, Daniel Weiner, and Russell S. Kirby, “First Trimester Pregnancy Exposure to Ondansetron and Risk of Structural Birth Defects,” 83 Reproductive Toxicology 14 (2019).

[2]  See In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Prod. Liab. Litig., 392 F. Supp. 3d 179, 182-84 (D. Mass. 2019) (MDL 2657) [cited as In re Zofran].

[3]  “Litigation Science – In re Zambelli-Weiner” (April 8, 2019); “Mass Torts Made Less Bad – The Zambelli-Weiner Affair in the Zofran MDL” (July 30, 2019). See also Nate Raymond, “GSK accuses Zofran plaintiffs’ law firms of funding academic study,” Reuters (Mar. 5, 2019).

[4]  In re Zofran Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1:15-md-2657-FDS, Order on Defendant’s Motion to De-Designate Certain Documents as Confidential Under the Protective Order (D.Mass. Apr. 1, 2020) [Order].

[5]  Order at n.3

[6]  Order at 3.

[7]  See In re Zofran, 392 F. Supp. 3d at 186.

[8]  Order at 4. See also Xavier Kurz, Susana Perez-Gutthann, the ENCePP Steering Group, “Strengthening standards, transparency, and collaboration to support medicine evaluation: Ten years of the European Network of Centres for Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacovigilance (ENCePP),” 27 Pharmacoepidemiology & Drug Safety 245 (2018).

[9]  Order at note 2 (citing Charles J. Walsh & Marc S. Klein, “From Dog Food to Prescription Drug Advertising: Litigating False Scientific Establishment Claims Under the Lanham Act,” 22 Seton Hall L. Rev. 389, 431 (1992) (noting that adherence to study protocol “is essential to avoid ‘data dredging’—looking through results without a predetermined plan until one finds data to support a claim”).

[10]  Order at 5, citing Anderson v. Cryovac, Inc., 805 F.2d 1, 8 (1st Cir. 1986) (describing public-health concerns as “compelling justification” for requiring disclosing of confidential information).

[11]  Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “The ASA’s Statement on p-Values: Context, Process, and Purpose,” 70 The American Statistician 129 (2016)

See alsoThe American Statistical Association’s Statement on and of Significance” (March 17, 2016).“Courts Can and Must Acknowledge Multiple Comparisons in Statistical Analyses (Oct. 14, 2014).

[12]  Order at 6.

[13]  Cf. Elizabeth J. Cabraser, Fabrice Vincent & Alexandra Foote, “Ethics and Admissibility: Failure to Disclose Conflicts of Interest in and/or Funding of Scientific Studies and/or Data May Warrant Evidentiary Exclusions,” Mealey’s Emerging Drugs Reporter (Dec. 2002) (arguing that failure to disclose conflicts of interest and study funding should result in evidentiary exclusions).

[14]  Walsh v. BASF Corp., GD #10-018588 (Oct. 5, 2016, Pa. Ct. C.P. Allegheny Cty., Pa.) (finding that Zambelli-Weiner’s and Nachman Brautbar’s opinions that pesticides generally cause acute myelogenous leukemia, that even the smallest exposure to benzene increases the risk of leukemia offended generally accepted scientific methodology), rev’d, 2018 Pa. Super. 174, 191 A.3d 838, 842-43 (Pa. Super. 2018), appeal granted, 203 A.3d 976 (Pa. 2019).

[15]  In re Accutane Litig., No. A-4952-16T1, (Jan. 17, 2020 N.J. App. Div.) (affirming exclusion of Zambelli-Weiner as an expert witness).

[16]  In re Mirena IUD Prods. Liab. Litig., 169 F. Supp. 3d 396 (S.D.N.Y. 2016) (excluding Zambelli-Weiner in part).

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