TORTINI

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

Seventh Circuit Affirms Exclusion of Expert Witnesses in Vinyl Chloride Case

August 30th, 2015

Last week, the Seventh Circuit affirmed a federal district court’s exclusion of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in an environmental vinyl chloride exposure case. Wood v. Textron, Inc., No. 3:10 CV 87, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34938 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 17, 2014); 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141593, at *11 (N.D. Ind. Oct. 3, 2014), aff’d, Slip op., No. 14-3448, 20125 U.S. App. LEXIS 15076 (7th Cir. Aug. 26, 2015). Plaintiffs, children C.W. and E.W., claimed exposure from Textron’s manufacturing facility in Rochester, Indiana, which released vinyl chloride as a gas that seeped into ground water, and into neighborhood residential water wells. Slip op. at 2-3. Plaintiffs claimed present injuries in the form of “gastrointestinal issues (vomiting, bloody stools), immunological issues, and neurological issues,” as well as future increased risk of cancer. Importantly, the appellate court explicitly approved the trial court’s careful reading of relied upon studies to determine whether they really did support the scientific causal claims made by the expert witnesses. Given the reluctance of some federal district judges to engage with the studies actually cited, this holding is noteworthy.

To support their claims, plaintiffs offered the testimony from three familiar expert witnesses:

(1) Dr. James G. Dahlgren;

(2) Dr. Vera S. Byers; and

(3) Dr. Jill E. Ryer-Powder.

Slip op. at 5. This gaggle offered well-rehearsed but scientifically unsound arguments in place of actual evidence that the children were hurt, or would be afflicted, as a result of their claimed exposures:

(a) extrapolation from high dose animal and human studies;

(b) assertions of children’s heightened vulnerability;

(c) differential etiology;

(d) temporality; and

(e) regulatory exposure limits.

On appeal, a panel of the Seventh Circuit held that the district court had properly conducted “an in-depth review of the relevant studies that the experts relied upon to generate their differential etiology,” and their general causation opinions. Slip op. at 13-14 (distinguishing other Seventh Circuit decisions that reversed district court Rule 702 rulings, and noting that the court below followed Joiner’s lead by analyzing the relied-upon studies to assess analytical gaps and extrapolations). The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses simply failed in analytical gap bridging, and dot connecting.

Extrapolation

The Circuit agreed with the district court that the extrapolations asserted were extreme, and that they represented “analytical gaps” too wide to be permitted in a courtroom. Slip op. at 15. The challenged expert witnesses extrapolated between species, between exposure levels, between exposure duration, between exposure circumstances, and between disease outcomes.

The district court faulted Dahlgren for relying upon articles that “fail to establish that [vinyl chloride] at the dose and duration present in this case could cause the problems that the [p]laintiffs have experienced or claim that they are likely to experience.” C.W. v. Textron, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 34938, at *53, *45 (N.D. Ind. Mar. 17, 2014) (finding that the analytical gap between the cited studies and Dahlgren’s purpose in citing the studies was an unbridged gap, which Dahlgren had failed to explain). Slip op. at 8.

Byers, for instance, cited one study[1] that involved exposure for five years, at an average level that was over 1,000 times higher than the children’s alleged exposure levels, which lasted less than 17 and 7 months, each. Perhaps even more extreme were the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ attempted extrapolations from animal studies, which the district court recognized as “too attenuated” from plaintiffs’ case. Slip op. at 14. The Seventh Circuit rejected plaintiffs’ alleged error that the district court had imposed a requirement of “absolute precision,” in holding that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ analytical gaps (and slips) were too wide to be bridged. The Circuit provided a colorful example of a study on laboratory rodents, pressed into service for a long-term carcinogenetic assay, which found no statistically significant increase in tumors fed 0.03 milligrams vinyl chloride per kilogram of bodyweight, (0.03 mg/kg), for 4 to 5 days each week, for 59 weeks, compared to control rodents fed olive oil.[2] Slip op. at 14-15. This exposure level in this study of 0.03 mg/kg was over 10 times the children’s exposure, as estimated by Ryer-Powder. The 59 weeks of study exposure represents the great majority of the rodents’ adult years, which greatly exceeds the children’s exposure was took place over several months of their lives. Slip op. at 15.

The Circuit held that the district court was within its discretion in evaluating the analytical gaps, and that the district court was correct to look at the study details to exercise its role as a gatekeeper under Rule 702. Slip op. at 15-17. The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses failed to explain their extrapolations, which was made their opinions suspect. As the Circuit court noted, there is a methodology by which scientists sometimes attempt to model human risks from animal evidence. Slip op. at 16-17, citing Bernard D. Goldtsein & Mary Sue Henifin, “Reference Guide on Toxicology,” in Federal Manual on Scientific Evidence 646 (3d ed. 2011) (“The mathematical depiction of the process by which an external dose moves through various compartments in the body until it reaches the target organ is often called physiologically based pharmokinetics or toxicokinetics.”). Given the abject failures of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses to explain their leaps of faith, the appellate court had no occasion to explore the limits of risk assessment outside regulatory contexts.

Children’s Vulnerability

Plaintiffs’ expert witness asserted that children are much more susceptible than adult workers, and even laboratory rats. As is typical in such cases, these expert witnesses had no evidence to support their assertions, and they made no effort even to invoke models that attempted reasonable risk assessments of children’s risk.

Differential Etiology

Dahlgren and Byers both claimed that they reached individual or specific causation conclusions based upon their conduct of a “differential etiology.” The trial and appellate court both faulted them for failing to “rule in” vinyl chloride for plaintiffs’ specific ailments before going about the business of ruling out competing or alternative causes. Slip op. at 6-7; 9-10; 20-21.

The courts also rejected Dahlgren’s claim that he could rule out all potential alternative causes by noting that the children’s treating physicians had failed to identify any cause for their ailments. So after postulating a limited universe of alternative causes of “inheritance, allergy, infection or another poison,” Dahlgren ruled all of them out of the case, because these putative causes “would have been detected by [the appellants’] doctors and treated accordingly.” Slip op. at 7, 18. As the Circuit court saw the matter:

“[T]his approach is not the stuff of science. It is based on faith in his fellow physicians—nothing more. The district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting it.”

Slip op. at 18. Of course, the court might well have noted that physicians are often concerned exclusively with identifying effective therapy, and have little or nothing to offer on actual causation.

The Seventh Circuit panel did fuss with dicta in the trial court’s opinion that suggested differential etiology “cannot be used to support general causation.” C.W. v. Textron, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141593, at *11 (N.D. Ind. Oct. 3, 2014). Elsewhere, the trial court wrote, in a footnote, that “[d]ifferential [etiology] is admissible only insofar as it supports specific causation, which is secondary to general causation … .” Id. at *12 n.3. Curiously the appellate court characterized these statements as “holdings” of the trial court, but disproved their own characterization by affirming the judgment below. The Circuit court countered with its own dicta that

“there may be a case where a rigorous differential etiology is sufficient to help prove, if not prove altogether, both general and specific causation.”

Slip op. at 20 (citing, in turn, improvident dicta from the Second Circuit, in Ruggiero v. Warner-Lambert Co., 424 F.3d 249, 254 (2d Cir. 2005) (“There may be instances where, because of the rigor of differential diagnosis performed, the expert’s training and experience, the type of illness or injury at issue, or some other … circumstance, a differential diagnosis is sufficient to support an expert’s opinion in support of both general and specific causation.”).

Regulatory Pronouncements

Dahlgren based his opinions upon the children’s water supply containing vinyl chloride in excess of regulatory levels set by state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.). Slip op. at 6. Similarly, Ryer-Powder relied upon exposure levels’ exceeding regulatory permissible limits for her causation opinions. Slip op. at 10.

The district court, with the approval now of the Seventh Circuit would have none of this nonsense. Exceeding governmental regulatory exposure limits does not prove causation. The con-compliance does not help the fact finder without knowing “the specific dangers” that led the agency to set the permissible level, and thus the regulations are not relevant at all without this information. Even with respect to specific causation, the regulatory infraction may be weak or null evidence for causation. Slip op. at 18-19 (citing Cunningham v. Masterwear Corp., 569 F.3d 673, 674–75 (7th Cir. 2009).

Temporality

Byers and Dahlgren also emphasized that the children’s symptoms began after exposure and abated after removal from exposure. Slip op. at 9, 6-7. Both the trial and appellate courts were duly unimpressed by the post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. Slip op. at 19, citing Ervin v. Johnson & Johnson, 492 F.3d 901, 904-05 (7th Cir. 2007) (“The mere existence of a temporal relationship between taking a medication and the onset of symptoms does not show a sufficient causal relationship.”).

Increased Risk of Cancer

The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses offered opinions about the children’s future risk of cancer that were truly over the top. Dahlgren testified that the children were “highly likely” to develop cancer in the future. Slip op. at 6. Ryer-Powder claimed that the children’s exposures were “sufficient to present an unacceptable risk of cancer in the future.” Slip op. at 10. With no competence evidence to support their claims of present or past injury, these opinions about future cancer were no longer relevant. The Circuit thus missed an opportunity to comment on how meaningless these opinions were. Most people will develop a cancer at some point in their lifetime, and we might all agree that any risk is unacceptable, which is why medical research continues into the causes, prevention, and cure of cancer. An unquantified risk of cancer, however, cannot support an award of damages even if it were a proper item of damages. See, e.g., Sutcliffe v. G.A.F. Corp., 15 Phila. 339, 1986 Phila. Cty. Rptr. LEXIS 22, 1986 WL 501554 (1986). See alsoBack to Baselines – Litigating Increased Risks” (Dec. 21, 2010).


[1] Steven J. Smith, et al., “Molecular Epidemiology of p53 Protein Mutations in Workers Exposed to Vinyl Chloride,” 147 Am. J. Epidemiology 302 (1998) (average level of workers’ exposure was 3,735 parts per million; children were supposedly exposed at 3 ppb). This study looked only at a putative biomarker for angiosarcoma of the liver, not at cancer risk.

[2] Cesare Maltoni, et al., “Carcinogenity Bioassays of Vinyl Chloride Monomer: A Model of Risk Assessment on an Experimental Basis, 41 Envt’l Health Persp. 3 (1981).

District Court Denies Writ of Coram Nobis to Dr Harkonen

August 27th, 2015

Courts are generally suspicious of convicted defendants who challenge the competency of their trial counsel on any grounds that might reflect strategic trial decisions. A convicted defendant can always speculate about how his trial might have gone better had some witnesses, who did not fare well at trial, not been called. Similarly, a convicted defendant might well speculate that his trial counsel could and should have called other or better witnesses. Still, sometimes, trial counsel really do screw up, especially when it comes to technical, scientific, or statistical issues.

The Harkonen case is a true comedy of errors – statistical, legal, regulatory, and practical. Indeed, some would say it is truly criminal to convict someone for an interpretation of a clinical trial result.[1] As discussed in several previous posts, Dr. W. Scott Harkonen was convicted under the wire fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1343, for having distributed a faxed press release about InterMune’s clinical trial, in which he described the study as having “demonstrated” Actimmune’s survival benefit in patients with mild to moderate idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (cryptogenic fibrosing alveolitis). The trial had not shown a statistically significant result on its primary outcome, and the significance probability on the secondary outcome of survival benefit was 0.08. Dr. Harkonen reported on a non-prespecified subgroup of patients with mild to moderate disease at randomization, in which subgroup, the trial showed better survival in the experimental therapy group, p-value of 0.004, compared with the placebo group.

Having exhausted his direct appeal, Dr. Harkonen petitioned for post-conviction relief in the form of a writ of coram nobis, on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Last week, federal District Judge Richard Seeborg, in San Francisco, denied Dr. Harkonen’s petition. United States v. Harkonen, Case No. 08-cr-00164-RS-1, Slip op. (N.D. Cal. Aug. 21, 2015). See Dani Kass, “Ex-InterMune CEO’s Complaints Against Trial Counsel Nixed,” Law360 (Aug. 24, 2015). Judge Seeborg held that Dr. Harkonen had failed to explain why he had not raised the claim of ineffective assistance earlier, and that trial counsel’s tactical and strategic decisions, with respect to not calling statistical expert witnesses, were “not so beyond the pale of reasonable conduct as to warrant the finding of ineffective assistance.” Slip op. at 1.

To meet its burden at trial, the government presented Dr. Thomas Fleming, a statistician and “trialist,” who had served on the data safety and monitoring board of the clinical trial at issue.[2] Fleming took the rather extreme view that a clinical trial that “fails” to meet its primary pre-stated end point at the conventional p-value of less than 5 percent is an abject failure and provides no demonstration of any claim of efficacy. (Other experts might well say that the only failed clinical trial is one that was not done.) Judge Seeborg correctly discerned that Fleming’s testimony was in the form of an opinion, and that the law of wire fraud prohibits prosecution of scientific opinions about which reasonable scientists may differ. The government’s burden was thus to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that no reasonable scientist could have reported the Actimmune clinical trial as having “demonstrated” a survival benefit in the mild to moderate disease subgroup. Slip op. at 2.

Remarkably, at trial, the government presented no expert witnesses, and Fleming testified as a fact witness. While acknowledging that the contested issue, whether anyone could fairly say that the Actimmune clinical trial had demonstrated efficacy in a non-prespecified subgroup, called for an opinion, Judge Seeborg gave the government a pass for not presenting expert witnesses to make out its case. Indeed, Judge Seeborg noted that the government had “stressed testimony from its experts touting the view that study results without sufficiently low p-values are inherently unreliable and meaningless.” Slip op. at 3 (emphasis added). Judge Seeborg’s description of Fleming as an expert witness is remarkable because the government never sought to qualify Dr. Fleming as an expert witness, and the trial judge never gave the jury an instruction on how to evaluate the testimony of an expert witness, including an explanation that the jury was free to accept some, all, or none of Fleming’s opinion testimony. After the jury returned its guilty verdict, Harkonen’s counsel filed a motion for judgment of acquittal, based in part upon the government’s failure to qualify Fleming as an expert witness in the field of biostatistics. The trial judge refused this motion on grounds that

(1) at one point Fleming had been listed as an expert witness;

(2) Fleming’s curriculum vitae had been marked and admitted into evidence; and

(3) “[m]ost damningly,” according to the trial judge, Harkonen’s lawyers had failed to object to Fleming’s holding forth on opinions about statistical theory and practice.

Slip op. at 7. Damning indeed as evidence of a potentially serious deviation from a reasonable standard of care and competence for trial practice! On the petition for coram nobis, Judge Seeborg curiously refers to Dr. Harkonen as not objecting, when the very issue before the court, on the petition for coram nobis, is the competency of his counsel’s failing to object. Allowing a well-credentialed statistician, such as Fleming, to testify, without requesting a limiting instruction on expert witness opinion testimony certainly seems “beyond the pale.” If there were some potential tactic involved in this default, Judge Seeborg does not identify it, and none comes to mind. And even if this charade, of calling Fleming as a fact witness, were some sort of tactical cat-and-mouse litigation game between government and defendant, certainly the trial judge should have taken control of the matter by disallowing a witness, not tendered as an expert witness, from offering opinion testimony on arcane statistical issues.

Having not objected to Fleming’s opinions, Dr. Harkonen’s counsel decided not to call its own defense expert witnesses. The post-conviction court makes much of the lesser credentials of the defense witnesses, and a decision not to call expert witnesses based upon defense counsel’s apparent belief that it had undermined Fleming’s opinion on cross-examination. There is little in the cross-examination of Fleming to support the coram nobis court’s assessment. Fleming’s opinions were vulnerable in ways that trial counsel failed to exploit, and in ways that even a lesser credentialed expert witness could have made clear to a lay jury or the court. Even a journeyman statistician would have realized that Fleming had overstated the statistical orthodoxy that p-values are “magical numbers,” by noting that many statisticians and epidemiologists disagreed with invoking statistical hypothesis testing as a rigid decision procedure, based upon p-values less than 0.05. Indeed, the idea of statistical testing as driven by a rigid, pre-selected level of acceptable Type 1 error rate was rejected by the very statistician who developed and advanced computations of the p-value. See Sir Ronald Fisher, Statistical Methods and Scientific Inference 42 (Hafner 1956) (ridiculing rigid hypothesis testing as “absurdly academic, for in fact no scientific worker has a fixed level of significance at which from year to year, and in all circumstances, he rejects hypotheses; he rather gives his mind to each particular case in the light of his evidence and his ideas.”).

After the jury convicted on the wire fraud count, Dr. Harkonen changed counsel from Kasowitz Benson Torres & Friedman LLP, to Mark Haddad at Sidley Austin LLP. Mr. Haddad was able, in relatively short order, to line up two outstanding statisticians, Professor Steven Goodman, of Stanford University’s Medical School, and Professor Donald Rubin, of Harvard University. Both Professors Goodman and Rubin robustly rejected Fleming’s orthodox positions in post-trial declarations, which were too late to affect the litigation of the merits, although their contributions may well have made it difficult for the trial judge to side with the government on its request for a Draconian ten-year prison sentence. From my own perspective, I can say it was not difficult to recruit two leading, capable epidemiologists, Professors Kenneth Rothman and Timothy Lash to join in an amicus brief that criticized Fleming’s testimony in a way that would have been devastating had it been done at trial.

The entire Harkonen affair is marked by extraordinary governmental hypocrisy. As Judge Seeborg reports:

“[t]hroughout its case in chief, the government stressed testimony from Fleming and Crager who offered that, in the world of biostatistical analysis, a 0.05 p-value threshold is ‘somewhat of a magic number’; that the only meaningful p-value from a study is the one for its primary endpoint; and that data from post-hoc subgroup analyses cannot be reported upon accurately without information about the rest of the sampling context.”[3]

Slip op. at 4. And yet, in another case, when it was politically convenient to take the opposite position, the government proclaimed, through its Solicitor General, on behalf of the FDA, that statistical significance at any level is not necessary at all for demonstrating causation:

“[w]hile statistical significance provides some indication about the validity of a correlation between a product and a harm, a determination that certain data are not statistically significant … does not refute an inference of causation.”

Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae Supporting Respondents, in Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 2010 WL 4624148, at *14 (Nov. 12, 2010). The methods of epidemiology and data analysis are not, however, so amenable to political expedience. The government managed both to overstate the interpretation of p-values in Harkonen, and to understate them in Matrixx Initiatives.

Like many of the judges who previously have ruled on one or another issue in the Harkonen case, Judge Seeborg struggled with statistical concepts and gave a rather bizarre, erroneous definition of what exactly was at issue with the p-values in the Actimmune trial:

“In clinical trials, a p-value is a number between one and zero which represents the probability that the results establish a cause-and-effect relationship, rather than a random effect, between the drug and a positive health benefit. Because a p-value indicates the degree to which the tested drug does not explain observed benefits, the smaller the p-value, the larger a study’s significance.”

Slip op. at 2-3. Ultimately, this error was greatly overshadowed by a simpler error of overlooking, and condoning, trial counsel’s default in challenging the government’s failure to present credible expert witness opinion testimony on the crucial issue in the case.

At the heart of the government’s complaint is that Dr. Harkonen’s press release does not explicitly disclose that the subgroup of mild and moderate disease patients was not pre-specified for analysis in the trial protocol and statistical analysis plan. Dr. Harkonen’s failure to disclose the ad hoc nature of the subgroup, while not laudable, hardly rose to the level of criminal fraud, especially when considered in the light of the available prior clinical trials on the same medication, and prevalent practice in not making the appropriate disclosure in press releases, and even in full, peer-reviewed publications of clinical trials and epidemiologic studies.

For better or worse, the practice of presenting unplanned subgroup analyses, is quite common in the scientific community. Several years ago the New England Journal of Medicine published a survey of publication practice in its own pages, and documented the widespread failure to limit “demonstrated” findings to pre-specified analyses.[4] In general, the survey authors were unable to determine the total number of subgroup analyses performed; and in the majority (68%) of trials discussed, the authors could not determine whether the subgroup analyses were pre-specified.[5] Although the authors of this article proposed guidelines for identifying subgroup analyses as pre-specified or post-hoc, they emphasized that the proposals were not “rules” that could be rigidly prescribed.[6]

Of course, what was at issue in Dr. Harkonen’s case was not a peer-reviewed article in a prestigious journal, but a much more informal, less rigorous communication that is typical of press releases. Lack of rigor in this context is not limited to academic and industry press releases. Consider the press release recently issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in connection with a NIH funded clinical trial on age-related macular degeneration (AMD). NIH Press Release, “NIH Study Provides Clarity on Supplements for Protection against Blinding Eye Disease,” NIH News & Events Website (May 5, 2013) [last visited August 27, 2015]. The clinical trial studied a modified dietary supplement in common use to prevent or delay AMD. The NIH’s press release claimed that the study “provides clarity on supplements,” and announced a “finding” of “some benefits” when looking at just two of the subgroups. The press release does not use the words “post hoc” or “ad hoc” in connection with the subgroup analysis used to support the “finding” of benefit.

The clinical trial results were published the same day in a journal article that labeled the subgroup findings as post hoc subgroup findings.[7] The published paper also reported that the pre-specified endpoints of the clinical trial did not show statistically significant differences between therapies and placebo.

None of the p-values for any of the post-hoc subgroup analysis was adjusted for multiple comparisons. NIH webpages with Questions and Answers for the public and the media both fail to report the post-hoc nature of the subgroup findings.[8] By the standards imposed upon Dr. Harkonen in this case through Dr. Fleming’s testimony, and contrary to the NIH’s public representations, the NIH trial had “failed,” and no inferences could be drawn with respect to any endpoint because the primary endpoint did not yield a statistically significant result.

There are, to be sure, hopeful signs that the prevalent practice is changing. A recent article documented an increasing number of “null” effect clinical trials that have been reported, perhaps as the result of better reporting of trials without dramatic successes, increasing willingness to publish such trial results, and greater availability of trial protocols in advance of, or with, peer-review publication of trial results.[9] Transparency in clinical and other areas of research is welcome and should be the norm, descriptively and prescriptively, but we should be wary of criminalizing lapses with indictments of wire fraud for conduct that can be found in most scientific journals and press releases.


[1] See, e.g.,Who Jumped the Shark in United States v. Harkonen”; “Multiplicity versus Duplicity – The Harkonen Conviction”; “The (Clinical) Trial by Franz Kafka”; “Further Musings on U.S. v. Harkonen”; and “Subgroups — Subpar Statistical Practice versus Fraud.” In the Supreme Court, two epidemiologists and a law school lecturer filed an Amicus Brief that criticized the government’s statistical orthodoxy. Brief by Scientists And Academics as Amici Curiae, in Harkonen v. United States, 2013 WL 5915131, 2013 WL 6174902 (Supreme Court Sept. 9, 2013).

[2] The government also presented the testimony of Michael Crager, an InterMune biostatistician. Reading between the lines, we may infer that Dr. Crager was induced to testify in exchange for not being prosecuted, and that his credibility was compromised.

[3] This testimony was particularly egregious because mortality or survival is often the most important outcome measure, but frequently not made the primary trial end point because of concern over whether there would be a sufficient number of deaths over the course of the trial to assess efficacy in this outcome. In the context of the Actimmune trial, this concern was in full display, but as it turned out, when the data were collected, there was a survival benefit (p = 0.08, which shrank to 0.055 when the analysis was limited to patients who met entrance criteria, and shrank further to 0.004, when the analysis was limited plausibly to patients with only mild or moderate disease at randomization).

[4] Rui Wang, et al., “Statistics in Medicine – Reporting of Subgroup Analyses in Clinical Trials,” 357 New Eng. J. Med. 2189 (2007).

[5] Id. at 2192.

[6] Id. at 2194.

[7] Emily Chew, et al., Lutein + Zeaxanthin and Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Age-Related Macular Degeneration, 309 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 2005 (2013).

[8] SeeFor the Public: What the Age-Related Eye Disease Studies Mean for You” (May 2013) [last visited August 27, 2015]; “For the Media: Questions and Answers about AREDS2” (May 2013) [last visited August 27, 2015].

[9] See Robert M. Kaplan & Veronica L. Irvin, “Likelihood of Null Effects of Large NHLBI Clinical Trials Has Increased over Time,” 10 PLoS ONE e0132382 (2015); see also Editorial, “Trials register sees null results rise,” 524 Nature 269 (Aug. 20, 2015); Paul Basken, “When Researchers State Goals for Clinical Trials in Advance, Success Rates Plunge,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Aug. 5, 2015).

Time to Retire Ancient Documents As Hearsay Exception

August 23rd, 2015

The Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure of the Judicial Conference of the United States has prepared a Preliminary Draft of Proposed Amendments to the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence (Aug. 2015). The Committee seeks approval of proposed amendments to Bankruptcy Rules 1001 and 1006, and to Federal Rules of Evidence Rules 803 (16)and 902. See Debra Cassens Weiss, “Federal judiciary considers dumping ‘ancient documents’ rule,” ABA Journal Online (Aug. 19, 2015).

Rule 803(16) of the Federal Rules of Evidence is the so-called ancient document exception to the rule against hearsay. The proposed amendment would abolish this hearsay exception.

The Federal Rules of Evidence, as well as most state rules and common law, allow for the authentication of ancient documents, by showing just three things:

(A) is in a condition that creates no suspicion about its authenticity;

(B) was in a place where, if authentic, it would likely be; and

(C) is at least 20 years old when offered.

Federal Rule of Evidence 902(8) (“Evidence About Ancient Documents or Data Compilations”). Rule 803(16) goes beyond the authentication to permit the so-called ancient document, more than 20-years old, appearing to be authentic, to be admitted for its truth. The Committee is seeking the abrogation of Rule 803(16), the ancient documents exception to the hearsay rule. The proposal is based upon an earlier report of the Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules. See Hon. William K. Sessions, III, Chair, Report of the Advisory Committee on Evidence Rules (May 7, 2015).

The requested change is based upon the Committee’s understanding that the exception is rarely used, and upon the development of electronic documents, which makes the exception unneccessary because so-called ancient documents would usually be admissible under the business records or the residual hearsay exceptions. Comments can be submitted online or in writing, by February 16, 2016.

The fact that a document is old may perhaps add to its authenticity, but in many technical, scientific, and medical contexts, the “ancient” provenance actually makes the content unlikely to be true. The pace of change of technical and scientific opinion and understanding is too fast to indulge this exception that permits false statements of doubtful validity to confuse the finder of fact. The rule as currently in effect is thus capable of a good deal of mischief. With respect to statements or claims to scientific knowledge, the Federal Rules of Evidence has evolved towards a system of evidence-based opinion, and away from naked opinion based upon the apparent authority or prestige of the speaker. Similarly, the age of the speaker or of the document provides no warrant for the truth of the document’s content. Of course, the statements in authenticated ancient documents remain relevant to the declarant’s state of mind, and nothing in the proposed amendment would affect this use of the document. As for the contested truth of the document’s content, there will usually be better, more recent, and sounder scientific evidence to support the ancient document’s statements if those statements are indeed correct. In the unlikely instance that more recent, more exacting evidence is unavailable, and the trustworthiness of the ancient document’s statements can be otherwise established, then the statements would probably be admissible pursuant to other exceptions to the rule against hearsay, as noted by the Committee.

Let Me Not Be Frank With You – Frank Subpoena Quashed

August 19th, 2015

In June 2015, Honeywell International Inc. subpoenaed non-party witness Dr. Arthur Frank, to produce documents and to testify, in Yates v. Ford Motor Co., et al., No. 5:12-cv-752-FL (E.D.N.C.). Although Dr. Frank is a “prolific plaintiffs’ expert” witness, he was not retained in Yates. Dr. Frank thus moved to quash the subpoena in the district where he was served, and the matter ended up on the docket of Judge Gerald J. Pappert. Frank v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., No. 15-mc-00172, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 106453, 2015 BL 260668 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 12, 2015) [cited below as Yates]. See also Steven M. Sellers, “Asbestos Expert Tops Honeywell in Subpoena Battle,” BNA Bloomberg Law (Aug. 18, 2015).

Back in 2009, Dr. Frank lobbied the National Cancer Institute (“NCI”), and succeeded in having the NCI change its website and “Fact Sheets” about the supposed cancer risks among auto mechanics from exposure to asbestos in repairing brakes. The NCI had proposed describing any increased risk of mesothelioma or lung cancer among brake repairman as “controversial,” and not supported by the available evidence. Dr. Frank, who routinely testifies for the litigation industry that the risk is certain, known, and substantial, believed the NCI statement would be “misleading, erroneous, and contrary to the public health.” Frank believed that the NCI was basing its evaluation upon studies that were “unreliable,” and so set out to lobby the NCI. As a result of his telephoning and letter writing campaign, the NCI eliminated citations to two studies deemed unreliable (or inconvenient) to Dr. Frank, and adopted the following Frank-approved language:

“Studies into the cancer risk experienced by automobile mechanics exposed to asbestos through brake repair are limited, but the overall evidence suggests that there is no safe level for asbestos exposure.”

Yates at *4.

Operating in cahoots with, and under the guidance of asbestos plaintiffs’ counsel, Frank wrote to the NCI, of course mindful to run a draft of his correspondence past his litigation industry members. Plaintiffs’ counsel made various suggestions that Frank adopted. Yates at *5-7.

Frank objected to the subpoena on grounds that it:

(1) was too broad and unduly burdensome, as well as intended to harass;

(2) sought communications protected by attorney-client privilege; and

(3) sought the opinion of an unretained expert witness, contrary to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 45(d)(3)(B)(ii).

The court quashed Honeywell’s subpoena only on grounds of burden, Rule 45(d)(3)(A), and did not reach Frank’s other arguments. Yates at *8.

Citing local Eastern District of Pennsylvania precedent, Judge Pappert noted that a claim of undue burden is resolved by considering several factors:

“(1) relevance of the requested materials,

(2) the party’s need for the documents,

(3) the breadth of the request,

(4) the time period covered by the request,

(5) the particularity with which the documents are described,

(6) the burden imposed, and

(7) the recipient’s status as a non-party.”

Yates at *12.

Honeywell was easily able to show the relevance of Frank’s lobbying shenanigans. Plaintiffs’ counsel have used the Frank-approved NCI website language to cross-examine defense expert witnesses, in asbestos personal injury cases.

Judge Pappert was not persuaded that Honeywell needed the requested discovery because Frank had given much of the material before, and he had previously acknowledged his working in concert with plaintiffs’ lawyers to change the NCI statement.

Honeywell thus had the evidence it needed to rehabilitate defense expert witnesses challenged with the Frank-approved NCI language. The court thus left the discovery into Frank’s ex parte lobbying activities for a case in which Frank was actually a retained expert witness, which surely will be soon. Judge Pappert exercised restraint by not addressing Frank’s improvident claim of attorney-client privilege and involuntarily servitude as an expert witness.

Frank’s lawyer, John O’Riordan, was quoted by the BNA as chastizing Honeywell:

“What the auto industry, Honeywell and others are trying to do is attack Dr. Frank personally, and what they tried to do was improper. … If they think he was wrong as a matter of science, the answer is to come back with good science.”

Steven M. Sellers, “Asbestos Expert Tops Honeywell in Subpoena Battle,” BNA Bloomberg Law (Aug. 18, 2015).

O’Riordan’s response is rather disingenuous, given that plaintiffs’ counsel in asbestos cases exploit the imprimatur of the NCI in its Frank-approved statement to challenge defense expert witnesses. This game is not about science, it is about name dropping and authority-based decision making, the antithesis of science.

The opinions, statements, and asseverations expressed on Tortini are my own, or those of invited guests, and these writings do not necessarily represent the views of clients, friends, or family, even when supported by good and sufficient reason.