As They WOE, So No Recovery Have the Reeps

Late last year, Justice York excluded Dr. Shira Kramer’s WOE-ful opinion that gasoline fumes from an alleged fuel-line leak caused Sean Reep to be born with cerebral palsy.  Reeps v. BMW of North America, LLC, 2012 NY Slip Op 33030(U), N.Y.S.Ct., Index No. 100725/08 (New York Cty. Dec. 21, 2012) (York, J.).  Kramer’s opinion was a parody of science, pieced together from case reports, animal studies, and epidemiologic studies that looked at exposures utterly unlike that of Mrs. Reep’s exposure.

Justice York saw through the charade.  The animal studies were largely exonerative. The case reports were of birth defects quite different from those sustained by Sean Reeps.  The epidemiologic studies were of different chemicals or chemicals at levels very different from those experienced by Mrs. Reeps. Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses ignored established principles of teratology in claiming late-term birth defects to have been causally related to early term exposures. Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses gave a convincing presentation of how not to do science, and why judicial gatekeeping is necessary.  SeeNew York Breathes Life into Frye Standard – Reeps v. BMW” (Mar. 5, 2013).

Justice York clearly articulated that the “plaintiff’s burden to prove the methodology applied to reach the conclusions will not be rejected by specialists in the field.”  Reeps, slip op. at 11.  The trial court recognized that under the New York state version of Frye, the court must determine whether plaintiffs’ expert witnesses are faithfully applying a methodology, such as the Bradford Hill criteria, or whether they are they are “pay[ing] lip service to them while pursuing a completely different enterprise.”  Id.  Justice York recognized that the court must examine a proffered opinion to determine whether it “properly relates existing data, studies or literature to the plaintiff’s situation, or whether, instead, it is connected to existing data only by the ipse dixit of the expert.” Id. (internal quotations omitted).

Plaintiffs were unhappy with Justice York’s decision, and their counsel moved for reconsideration, positing only 15 supposed errors or misunderstandings in the opinion. On May 10, the trial court denied the motion for reconsideration and further explicated the scientific deficiencies of plaintiffs’ witnesses’ opinions.

The trial court was unimpressed:

“In general, attorney for plaintiffs misrepresents the substance of this court’s Decision. The court did not prefer conclusions of defendants’ experts to that of plaintiffs – disagreement among experts is to be expected, since causation analysis involves professional judgment in interpreting data and literature. An expert opinion is precluded when it is reached in violation of generally accepted scientific principles. The court determined that Drs. Kramer and Frazier did not follow generally accepted scientific methodology.”

Reeps, 2013 NY Slip Op 31055(U) at 2 (Opinion on Motions to Reargue, to Renew, and for Oral Hearing) (May 10, 2013).

The court noted that the plaintiffs’ witnesses’ novel claim that low-level gasoline vapor inhalation causes birth defects, a claim that had escaped the attention of all other scientists and regulatory agencies, cried out for judicial intervention.  Id. at 3.

The court also rebuffed the claim that plaintiffs’ witnesses, Shira Kramer and Linda Frazier, had followed the Bradford Hill guidelines:

 “These guidelines are employed only after a study finds an association to determine whether that association reflects a true causal relationship.”

Id. at 5 (quoting Federal Judicial Center, National Research Council, Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence at 598-599 (3d ed. 2011)) (emphasis in the original). Kramer and Frazier never got off the dime with the Bradford Hill guidelines.

In considering the plaintiffs’ motions, the trial court also had occasion to revisit the assertion that “weight of the evidence” (WOE) substituted for, or counted as, a scientific basis for a conclusion of causality:

“The metaphorical use of the term is, if nothing else, ‘a colorful way to say the body of evidence we have examined and judged using a method we have not described but could be more or less inferred from a careful between-the-lines reading of our paper’.”

Id. at 5 (quoting Douglas Weed, “Weight of Evidence: A Review of Concept and Methods,” 25 Risk Analysis 1545, 1546-47 (2005).

Unmoved by the sophistical hand waving, the court emphasized that Kramer and Frazier had confused “suggestive” evidence with “conclusions,” and they had misrepresented the meaning and significance of threshold limit values.  All in all, a convincing demonstration of the need for, and the judicial competence to carry out, gatekeeping of expert witness opinion testimony.

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