Nelson Johnson is the author of Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2010), a rattling good yarn, which formed the basis for a thinly fictionalized story of Atlantic City under the control of mob boss (and Republican politician) Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. HBO transformed Johnson’s book into a multi-season series, with Steve Buscemi playing Nucky Johnson (Thompson in the series). Robert Strauss, “Judge Nelson Johnson: Atlantic City’s Godfather — A Q&A with Judge Nelson Johnson,” New Jersey Monthly (Aug. 16, 2010).
Nelson Johnson is also known as the Honorable Nelson Johnson, a trial court judge in Atlantic County, New Jersey, where he inherited some of the mass tort docket of Judge Carol Higbee. Judge Higbee has since ascended to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. One of the litigations Judge Johnson presides over is the mosh pit of isotretinoin (Accutane) cases, involving claims that the acne medication causes irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease (CD). Judge Johnson is not only an accomplished writer of historical fiction, but he is also an astute evaluator of the facts and data, and the accompanying lawyers’ rhetoric, thrown about in pharmaceutical products liability litigation.
Perhaps more than his predecessor ever displayed, Judge Johnson recently demonstrated his aptitude for facts and data in serving as a gatekeeper of scientific evidence, as required by the New Jersey Supreme Court, in Kemp v. The State of New Jersey, 174 NJ 412 (2002). Faced with a complex evidentiary display on the validity and reliability of the scientific evidence, Judge Johnson entertained extensive briefings, testimony, and oral argument. When the dust settled, the court ruled that the proffered testimony of Dr, Arthur Kornbluth and Dr. David Madigan did not meet the liberal New Jersey test for admissibility. In re Accutane, No. 271(MCL), 2015 WL 753674, 2015 BL 59277 (N.J.Super. Law Div. Atlantic Cty. Feb. 20, 2015). And in settling the dust, Judge Johnson dispatched several bogus and misleading “lines of evidence,” which have become standard ploys to clog New Jersey and other courthouses.
As so often is the case when there is no serious scientific evidence of harm in pharmaceutical cases, plaintiffs in the Accutane litigation relied heavily upon case and adverse event reports. Id. at *11. Judge Johnson was duly unimpressed, and noted that:
“[u]nsystematic clinical observations or case reports and adverse event reports are at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy.”
Id. at *16.
Bootstrapped, Manufactured Evidence
With respect to case reports that are submitted to the FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), Judge Johnson acknowledged the “serious limitations” of the hearsay anecdotes that make up such reports. Despite the value of AERs in generating signals for future investigation, Judge Johnson, citing FDA’s own description of the reporting system, concluded that the system’s anecdotal data are “not evidentiary in a court of law.” Id. at 14 (quoting FDA’s description of FAERS).
Judge Johnson took notice of another fact; namely, the industry litigation creates evidence that it then uses to claim causal connections in the courtroom. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in pharmaceutical cases routinely file Medwatch adverse event reports, which thus inflate the “signal,” they claim supports the signal of harm from medication use. This evidentiary bootstrapping machine was hard at work in the isotretinoin litigation. See Derrick J. Stobaugh, Parakkal Deepak, and Eli D. Ehrenpreis, “Alleged Isotretinoin-Associated Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Disproportionate reporting by attorneys to the Food and Drug Administration Adverse Event Reporting System,” 69 J. Am. Acad. Dermatol. 398 (2013) (“Attorney-initiated reports inflate the pharmacovigilance signal of isotretinoin-associated IBD in the FAERS.”). Judge Johnson gave a wry hat tip to plaintiffs’ counsel’s industry, by acknowledging that the litigation industry itself had inflated this signal-generating process:
“The legal profession is a bulwark of our society, yet the courts should never underestimate the resourcefulness of some attorneys.”
In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *15.
Bias and Confounding
The epidemiologic studies referenced by the parties had identified a fairly wide range of “risk factors” for irritable bowel syndrome, including many prevalent factors in Westernized countries such as prior appendectomy, breast-feeding as an infant, stress, Vitamin D deficiency, tobacco or alcohol use, refined sugars, dietary animal fat, fast food. In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *9. The court also noted that there were four medications known to be risk factors for IBD: aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), oral contraceptives, and antibiotics.
In reviewing the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ methodology, Judge Johnson found that they had been inordinately, and inappropriately selective in the studies chosen for reliance. The challenged witnesses had discounted and discarded most of the available studies in favor of two studies that were small, biased, and not population based. Indeed, one of the studies evidenced substantial selection bias by using referrals to obtain study participants, a process deprecated by the trial court as “cherry picking the subjects.” Id. at *18. “The scientific literature does not support reliance upon such insignificant studies to arrive at conclusions.” Id.
Both sides in the isotretinoin cases seemed to concede the relative unimportance of animal studies. The trial court discussed the limitations on animal studies, especially the absence of a compelling animal model of human irritable bowel syndrome. Id. at *18.
Cherry Picking and Other Crafty Stratagems
With respect to the complete scientific evidentiary display, plaintiffs asserted that their expert witnesses had considered everything, but then failed to account for most of the evidence. Judge Johnson found this approach deceptive and further evidence of a cherry-picking, pathological methodology:
‘‘Finally, coursing through Plaintiffs’ presentation is a refrain that is a ruse. Repeatedly, counsel for the Plaintiffs and their witnesses spoke of ‛lines of evidence”, emphasizing that their experts examined ‛the same lines of evidence’ as did the experts for the Defense. Counsels’ sophistry is belied by the fact that the examination of the ‘lines of evidence’ by Plaintiffs’ experts was highly selective, looking no further than they wanted to—cherry picking the evidence—in order to find support for their conclusion-driven testimony in support of a hypothesis made of disparate pieces, all at the bottom of the medical evidence hierarchy.’’
Id. at *21.
New Jersey Rule of Evidence 703
The New Jersey rules of evidence, like the Federal Rules, imposes a reasonableness limit on what sorts of otherwise inadmissible evidence an expert witness may rely upon. See “RULE OF EVIDENCE 703 — Problem Child of Article VII” (Sept. 9, 2011). Although Judge Johnson did not invoke Rule 703 specifically, he was clearly troubled by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ reliance upon an unadjusted odds ratio from an abstract, which did not address substantial confounding from a known causal risk factor – antibiotics use. Judge Johnson concluded that the reliance upon the higher, unadjusted risk figure, contrary to the authors’ own methods and conclusions, and without a cogent explanation for so doing was “pure advocacy” on the part of the witnesses. In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *17; see also id. at *5 (citing Landrigan v. Celotex Corp., 127 N.J. 404, 417 (1992), for the proposition that “when an expert relies on such data as epidemiological studies, the trial court should review the studies, as well as other information proffered by the parties, to determine if they are of a kind on which such experts ordinarily rely.”).
Discordance Between Courtroom and Professional Opinions
One of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Dr. Arthur Kornbluth actually had studied putative association between isotretinoin and CD before he became intensively involved in litigation as an expert witness. In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *7. Having an expert witness who is a real world expert can be a plus, but not when that expert witness maintains a double standard for assessing causal connections. Back in 2009, Kornbluth published an article, “Ulcerative Colitis Practice Guidelines in Adults” in The American Journal of Gastroenterology. Id. at *10. This positive achievement became a large demerit when cross-examination at the Kemp hearing revealed that Kornbluth had considered but rejected the urgings of a colleague, Dr. David Sachar, to comment on isotretinoin as a cause of irritable bowel syndrome. In front of Judge Johnson, Dr. Kornbluth felt no such scruples. Id. at *11. Dr. Kornbluth’s stature in the field of gastroenterology, along with his silence on the issue in his own field, created a striking contrast with his stridency about causation in the courtroom. The contrast raised the trial court’s level of scrutiny and skepticism about his causal opinions in the New Jersey litigation. Id. (citing and quoting Soldo v. Sandoz Pharms. Corp, 244 F. Supp. 2d 434, 528 (W.D. Pa. 2003) (“Expert opinions generated as the result of litigation have less credibility than opinions generated as the result of academic research or other forms of ‘pure’ research.”) (“The expert’s motivation for his/her study and research is important. … We may not ignore the fact that a scientist’s normal work place is the lab or field, not the courtroom or the lawyer’s office.”).
Meta-analysis has become an important facet of pharmaceutical and other products liability litigation. Fortunately for Judge Johnson, he had before him an extremely capable expert witness, Dr. Stephen Goodman, to explain meta-analysis generally, and two meta-analyses performed on isotretinoin and irritable bowel outcomes. In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *8. Dr. Goodman explained that:
“the strength of the meta-analysis is that no one feature, no one study, is determinant. You don’t throw out evidence except when you absolutely have to.”
Id. Dr. Goodman further explained that plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ failure to perform a meta-analysis was telling meta-analysis “can get us closer to the truth.” Id.
After such a commanding judicial performance by Judge Johnson, nitpicking on specific causation might strike some as ungrateful. For some reason, however, Judge Johnson cited several cases on the appropriateness of expert witnesses’ reliance upon epidemiologic studies for assessing specific causation or for causal apportionment between two or more causes. In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *5 (citing Landrigan v. Celotex Corp., 127 N.J. 404 (1992), Caterinicchio v. Pittsburgh Corning, 127 N.J. 428 (1992), and Dafler v. Raymark Inc., 259 N.J. Super. 17, 36 (App. Div. 1992), aff’d. o.b. 132 N.J. 96 (1993)). Fair enough, but specific causation was not at issue in the Accutane Kemp hearing, and the Landrigan and Caterinicchio cases are irrelevant to general causation.
In both Landrigan and Caterincchio, the defendants moved for directed verdicts by arguing that, assuming arguendo that asbestos causes colon cancer, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses had not presented a sufficient opinion to support that Landrigan’s and Caterinnichio’s colon cancers were caused by asbestos. See “Landrigan v. The Celotex Corporation, Revisited” (June 4, 2013). General causation was thus never at issue, and the holdings never addressed the admissibility of the expert witnesses’ causation opinions. Only sufficiency of the opinions that equated increased risks, less than 2.0, to specific causation was at issue in the directed verdicts, and the appeals taken from the judgments entered on those verdicts.
Judge Johnson, in discussing previous case law suggests that the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and remanded the Landrigan case for trial, holding that “epidemiologists could help juries determine causation in toxic tort cases and rejected the proposition that epidemiological studies must show a relative risk factor of 2.0 before gaining acceptance by a court.” In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *5, citing Landrigan, 127 N.J. at 419. A close and fair reading of Landrigan, however, shows that it was about a directed verdict, 127 N.J. at 412, and not a challenge to the use of epidemiologic studies generally, or to their use to show general causation.
Necessity of Precise Biological Mechanism
In the Accutane hearings, the plaintiffs’ counsel and their expert witnesses failed to provide a precise biological mechanism of the cause of IBD. Judge Johnson implied that any study that asserted that Accutane caused IBD ‘‘would, of necessity, require an explication of a precise biological mechanism of the cause of IBD and no one has yet to venture more than alternate and speculative hypotheses on that question.’’ In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *8. Conclusions of causality, however, do not always come accompanied by understood biological mechanisms, and Judge Johnson demonstrated that the methods and evidence relied upon by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses could not, in any event, allow them to draw causal conclusions.
Interpreting Results Contrary to Publication Authors’ Interpretations
There is good authority, no less than the United States Supreme Court in Joiner, that there is something suspect in expert witnesses’ interpreting a published study’s results in contrary to the authors’ publication. Judge Johnson found that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in the Accutane litigation had inferred that two studies showed increased risk when the authors of those studies had concluded that their studies did not appear to show an increased risk. Id. at *17. There will be times, however, when a published study may have incorrectly interpreted its own data, when “real” expert witnesses can, and should, interpret the data appropriately. Accutane was not such a case. In In re Accutane, Judge Johnson carefully documented and explained how the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ supposed reinterpretation was little more than attempted obfuscation. His Honor concluded that the witnesses’ distortion of, and ‘‘reliance upon these two studies is fatal and reveals the lengths to which legal counsel and their experts are willing to contort the facts and torture the logic associated with Plaintiffs’ hypothesis.’’ Id. at *18.
 “The Treatment of Meta-Analysis in the Third Edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence” (Nov. 14, 2011) (The Reference Manual fails to come to grips with the prevalence and importance of meta-analysis in litigation, and fails to provide meaningful guidance to trial judges).