TORTINI

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

Good Night Styrene

April 18th, 2019

Perri Klass is a pediatrician who writes fiction and non-fiction. Her editorial article on “disruptive chemicals,” in this week’s Science Section of the New York Times contained large segments of fiction.[1]  The Times gives Dr. Klass, along with Nicholas Kristof and others, a generous platform to advance their chemophobic propaganda, on pesticides, phthalates, bisphenols, and flame retardants, without the bother of having to cite evidence. It has been just two weeks since the Times published another Klass fear piece on hormone disrupters.[2]

In her Science Times piece, Klass plugged Leonardo Trasande’s book, Sicker, Fatter, Poorer: The Urgent Threat of Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals to Our Health and Future . . . and What We Can Do About It (2019), to help wind up parents about chemical threats everywhere. Trasande, is “an internationally renowned leader in environmental health” expert; his website tells us so. Klass relies so extensively upon Trasande that it is difficult to discern whether she is presenting anything other than his opinions, which in some places she notes he has qualified as disputed and dependent upon correlational associations that have not established causal associations.

When it comes to recyclable plastic, number 6, Klass throws all journalistic caution and scientific scruple aside and tells us that “[a] number 6 denotes styrene, which is a known carcinogen.”[3] Known to whom? To Trasande? To Klass? To eco-zealots?

The first gaffe is that number 6 plastic, of course, is not styrene; rather it is polystyrene. Leaching of monomer certainly can occur,[4] and is worth noting, but equating polystyrene with styrene is simply wrong. The second gaffe, more serious yet, is that styrene is not a “known” carcinogen.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has been known to engage in epistemic inflation about carcinogenicity, addressed styrene in its monograph 82.[5] Styrene was labeled a “2B” carcinogen, that is possible, not probable, and certainly not “known.” Last year, an IARC working group revisited the assessment of styrene, and in keeping with its current practice of grade inflation bumped styrene up to Group 2A, “probably carcinogenic to humans” based upon limited evidence in human being and sufficient evidence in rats and close relatives.[6] In any event, the IARC Monograph number 121, which will address styrene, is under preparation.

A responsible journalist, or scientist, regulator, or lawyer, is obligated however to note tha “probably” does not mean “more likely than not” in IARC-jargon.[7] Given that all empirical propositions have a probability of being true, somewhere between 0 and 100%, but never actually equal to 0 or 100%, the IARC classifications of “probably” causing cancer are probably not particularly meaningful.  Everything “probably” causes cancer, in this mathematical sense.[8]

In the meanwhile, what does the scientific community have to say about the carcinogenicity of styrene?

Recent reviews and systematic reviews of the styrene carcinogenicity issue have mostly concluded that there is no causal relationship between styrene exposure and any form of cancer in humans.[9] Of course, the “Lobby,” scientists in service to the litigation industry, disagree.[10]


[1]  Perri Klass, “Beware of Disruptive Chemicals,” N.Y. Times (April 16, 2019).

[2] Perri Klass, “How to Minimize Exposures to Hormone Disrupters,” N.Y. Times (April 1, 2019).

[3]  Klass (April 16, 2019), at D6, col. 3.

[4]  See, e.g., Despoina Paraskevopoulou, Dimitris Achiliasa, and Adamantini Paraskevopoulou, “Migration of styrene from plastic packaging based on polystyrene into food simulants,” 61 Polymers Internatl’l 141 (2012); J. R. Withey, “Quantitative Analysis of Styrene Monomerin Polystyrene and Foods Including Some Preliminary Studies of the Uptake and Pharmacodynamics of the Monomer in Rats,” 17 Envt’l Health Persp. 125 (1976).

[5]  IARC Monograph No. 82, at 437-78 (2002).

[6]  IARC Working Group, “Carcinogenicity of quinoline, styrene, and styrene-7,8-oxide,” 19 Lancet Oncology 728 (2018).

[7]  The IARC Preamble definition of probable reveals that “probable” does not mean greater than 50%. See also “The IARC Process is Broken” (May 4, 2016).

[8] See Ed Yong, “Beefing With the World Health Organization’s Cancer Warnings,” The Atlantic (Oct 26, 2015).

[9]  Boffetta, P., Adami, H. O., Cole, P., Trichopoulos, D. and Mandel, J. S., “Epidemiologic studies of styrene and cancer: a review of the literature,” 51 J. Occup. & Envt’l Med. 1275 (2009) (“The available epidemiologic evidence does not support a causal relationship between styrene exposure and any type of human cancer.”); James J. Collins & Elizabeth Delzell, “A systematic review of epidemiologic studies of styrene and cancer,” 48 Critical Revs. Toxicol. 443 (2018)  (“Consideration of all pertinent data, including substantial recent research, indicates that the epidemiologic evidence on the potential carcinogenicity of styrene is inconclusive and does not establish that styrene causes any form of cancer in humans.”).

[10] James Huff & Peter F. Infante, “Styrene exposure and risk of cancer,” 26 Mutagenesis 583 (2011).

Litigation Science – In re Zambelli-Weiner

April 8th, 2019

Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the silicone gel breast implant litigation, I participated in a Federal Judicial Center (FJC) television production of “Science in the Courtroom, program 6” (2001). Program six was a round-table discussion among the directors (past, present, and future) of the FJC, all of whom were sitting federal judges, with two lawyers in private practice, Elizabeth Cabraser and me.1 One of the more exasperating moments in our conversation came when Ms. Cabraser, who represented plaintiffs in the silicone litigation, complained that Daubert was unfair because corporate defendants were able to order up supporting scientific studies, whereas poor plaintiffs counsel did not have the means to gin up studies that confirmed what they knew to be true.2 Refraining from talking over her required all the self-restraint I could muster, but I did eventually respond by denying her glib generalization and offering the silicone litigation as one in which plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ counsel, and plaintiffs’ support groups were all involved in funding and directing some of the sketchiest studies, most of which managed to find homes in so-called peer-reviewed journals of some sort, even if not the best.

The litigation connections of the plaintiff-sponsored studies in the silicone litigation were not apparent on the face of the published articles. The partisan funding and provenance of the studies were mostly undisclosed and required persistent discovery and subpoenas. Cabraser’s propaganda reinforced the recognition of what so-called mass tort litigation had taught me about all scientific studies: “trust but verify.” Verification is especially important for studies that are sponsored by litigation-industry actors who have no reputation at stake in the world of healthcare.

Verification is not a straightforward task, however. Peer-review publication usually provides some basic information about “methods and materials,” but rarely if ever do published articles provide sufficient data and detail about methodology to replicate the reported analysis. In legal proceedings, verification of studies conducted and relied upon by testifying expert witnesses is facilitated by the rules of expert witness discovery. In federal court, expert witnesses must specify all opinions and all bases for their opinions. When such witnesses rely upon their own studies, and thus have had privileged access to the complete data and all analyses, courts have generally permitted full inquiry into the underlying materials of relied-upon studies. On the other, when the author of a relied-upon study is a “stranger to the litigation,” neither a party nor a retained expert witness, courts have permitted generally more limited discovery of the study’s full data set and analyses. Regardless of the author’s status, the question remains how litigants are to challenge an adversary’s expert witness’s trusted reliance upon a study, which cannot be “verified.”

Most lawyers would prefer, of course, to call an expert witness who has actually conducted studies pertinent to the issues in the case. The price, however, of allowing the other side to discover the underlying data and materials of the author expert witness’s studies may be too high. The relied-upon studies may well end up discredited, as well as the professional reputation of the expert witness. The litigation industry has adapted to these rules of discovery by avoiding, in most instances, calling testifying expert witnesses who have published studies that might be vulnerable.3

One work-around to the discovery rules lies in the use of “consulting, non-testifying expert witnesses.” The law permits the use of such expert witnesses to some extent to facilitate candid consultations with expert witnesses, usually without concerns that communications will be shared with the adversary party and witnesses. The hope is that such candid communications will permit realistic assessment of partisan positions, as well as allowing scientists and scholars to participate in an advisory capacity without the burden of depositions, formal report writing, and appearances at judicial hearings and trials. The confidentiality of consulting expert witnesses is open to abuse by counsel who would engage the consultants to conduct and publish studies, which can then be relied upon by the testifying expert witnesses. The upshot is that legal counsel can manipulate the published literature in a favorable way, without having to disclose their financial sponsorship or influence of the published studies used by their testifying expert witnesses.

This game of hiding study data and sponsorship through the litigation industry’s use of confidential consulting expert witnesses pervades so-called mass tort litigation, which provides ample financial incentives for study sponsorship and control. Defendants will almost always be unable to play the game, without detection. A simple interrogatory or other discovery request about funding of studies will reveal the attempt to pass off a party-sponsored study as having been conducted by disinterested scientists. Furthermore, most scientists will feel obligated to reveal corporate funding as a potential conflict of interest, in their submission of manuscripts for publication.

Revealing litigation-industry (plaintiffs’) funding of studies is more complicated. First, the funding may be through one firm, which is not the legal counsel in the case for which discovery is being conducted. In such instances, the plaintiff’s lawyers can truthfully declare that they lack personal knowledge of any financial support for studies relied upon by their testifying expert witnesses. Second, the plaintiffs’ lawyer firm is not a party is not itself subject to discovery. Even if the plaintiffs’ lawyers funded a study, they can claim, with plausible deniability, that they funded the study in connection with another client’s case, not the client who is plaintiff in the case in which discovery is sought. Third, the plaintiffs’ firm may take the position, however dubious it might be, that the funding of the relied-upon study was simply a confidential consultation with the authors of that study, and not subject to discovery.

The now pending litigation against ondansetron (Zofran) provides the most recent example of the dubious use of consulting expert witnesses to hide party sponsorship of an epidemiologic study. The plaintiffs, who are claiming that Zofran causes birth defects in this multi-district litigation assigned to Judge F. Dennis Saylor, have designated Dr. Carol Luik as their sole testifying expert witness on epidemiology. Dr. Luik, in turn, has relied substantially upon a study conducted by Dr. April Zambelli-Weiner.4

According to motion papers filed by defendants,5 the plaintiffs’ counsel initially claimed that they had no knowledge of any financial support or conflicts for Dr Zambelli-Weiner. The conflict-of-interest disclosure in Zambelli-Weiner’s paper was, to say the least, suspicious:

The authors declare that there was no outside involvement in study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript; and in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.”

As an organization TTi reports receiving funds from plaintiff law firms involved in ondansetron litigation and a manufacturer of ondansetron.”

According to its website, TTi

is an economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business headquartered in Westminster, Maryland. We are focused on the development, evaluation, and implementation of technologies and solutions that advance the transformation of data into actionable knowledge. TTi serves a diverse clientele, including all stakeholders in the health space (governments, payors, providers, pharmaceutical and device companies, and foundations) who have a vested interest in advancing research to improve patient outcomes, population health, and access to care while reducing costs and eliminating health disparities.”

According to defendants’ briefing, and contrary to plaintiffs’ initial claims and Zambelli-Weiner’s anemic conflicts disclosure, plaintiffs’ counsel eventually admitted that “Plaintiffs’ Leadership Attorneys paid $210,000 as financial support relating to” Zambelli-Weiner’s epidemiologic study. The women at TTi are apparently less economically disadvantaged than advertised.

The Zofran defendants served subpoenas duces tecum and ad testificandum on two of the study authors, Drs. April Zambelli-Weiner and Russell Kirby. Curiously, the plaintiffs (who would seem to have no interest in defending the third-party subpoenas) sought a protective order by arguing that defendants were harassing “third-party scientists.” Their motion for protection conveniently and disingenuously omitted, that Zambelli-Weiner had been a paid consultant to the Zofran plaintiffs.

Judge Saylor refused to quash the subpoenas, and Zambelli-Weiner appeared herself, through counsel, to seek a protective order. Her supporting affidavit averred that she had not been retained as an expert witness, and that she had no documents “concerning any data analyses or results that were not reported in the [published study].” Zambelli-Weiner’s attempt to evade discovery was embarrassed by her having presented a “Zofran Litigation Update” with Plaintiffs’ counsel Robert Jenner and Elizabeth Graham at a national conference for plaintiffs’ attorneys. Judge Saylor was not persuaded, and the MDL court refused Dr. Zambelli-Weiner’s motion. The law and the public has a right to every man’s, and every woman’s, (even if economically disadvantaged) evidence.6

Tellingly, in the aftermath of the motions to quash, Zambelli-Weiner’s counsel, Scott Marder, abandoned his client by filing an emergency motion to withdraw, because “certain of the factual assertions in Dr. Zambelli-Weiner’s Motion for Protective Order and Affidavit were inaccurate.” Mr. Marder also honorably notified defense counsel that he could no longer represent that Zambelli-Weiner’s document production was complete.

Early this year, on January 29, 2019, Zambelli-Weiner submitted, through new counsel, a “Supplemental Affidavit,” wherein she admitted she had been a “consulting expert” witness for the law firm of Grant & Eisenhofer on the claimed teratogenicity of Zofran.7 Zambelli-Weiner also produced a few extensively redacted documents. On February 1, 2019, Zambelli-Weiner testified at deposition that the moneys she received from Grant & Eisenhofer were not to fund her Zofran study, but for other, “unrelated work.” Her testimony was at odds with the plaintiffs’ counsel’s confession that the $210,000 related to her Zofran study.

Zambelli-Weiner’s etiolated document production was confounded by the several hundred of pages of documents produced by fellow author, Dr. Russell Kirby. When confronted with documents from Kirby’s production, Zambelli-Weiner’s lawyer unilaterally suspended the deposition.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Federal courts have seen the Zambelli maneuver before. In litigation over claimed welding fume health effects, plaintiffs’ counsel Richard (Dickie) Scruggs and colleagues funded some neurological researchers to travel to Alabama and Mississippi to “screen” plaintiffs and potential plaintiffs in litigation for over claims of neurological injury and disease from welding fume exposure, with a novel videotaping methodology. The plaintiffs’ lawyers rounded up the research subjects (a.k.a. clients and potential clients), talked to them before the medical evaluations, and administered the study questionnaires. The study subjects were clearly aware of Mr. Scruggs’ “research” hypothesis, and had already promised him 40% of any recovery.8

After their sojourn, at Scruggs’ expense to Alabama and Mississippi, the researchers wrote up their results, with little or no detail of the circumstances of how they had acquired their research “participants,” or those participants’ motives to give accurate or inaccurate medical and employment history information.9

Defense counsel served subpoenas upon both Dr. Racette and his institution, Washington University St. Louis, for the study protocol, underlying data, data codes, and all statistical analyses. Racette and Washington University resisted sharing their data and materials with every page in the Directory of Non-Transparent Research. They claimed that the subpoenas sought production of testimony, information and documents in violation of:

(1) the Federal Regulations set forth in the Department of Health and Human Services Policy for Protection of Human Research Subjects,

(2) the Federal regulations set forth in the HIPPA Regulations,

(3) the physician/patient privilege,

(4) the research scholar’s privilege,

(5) the trade secret/confidential research privilege and

(6) the scope of discovery as codified by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure.”

After a long discovery fight, the MDL court largely enforced the subpoenas.10 The welding MDL court ordered Racette to produce

a ‘limited data set’ which links the specific categories requested by defendants: diagnosis, occupation, and age. This information may be produced as a ‘deidentified’ data set, such that the categories would be linked to each particular patient, without using any individual patient identifiers. This data set should: (1) allow matching of each study participant’s occupational status and age with his or her neurological condition, as diagnosed by the study’s researchers; and (2) to the greatest extent possible (except for necessary de-identification), show original coding and any code-keys.”

After the defense had the opportunity to obtain and analyze the underlying data in the Scruggs-Racette study, the welding plaintiffs retreated from their epidemiologic case. Various defense expert witnesses analyzed the underlying data produced by Racette, and prepared devastating rebuttal reports. These reports were served upon plaintiffs’ counsel, whose expert witnesses never attempted any response. Reliance upon Racette’s study was withdrawn or abandoned. After the underlying data were shared with the parties to MDL 1535, no scientist appeared to defend the results in the published papers.11 The Racette Alabama study faded into the background of the subsequent welding-fume cases and trials.

The motion battle in the welding MDL revealed interesting contradictions, similar to those seen in the Zambelli-Weiner affair. For example, Racette claimed he had no relationship whatsoever with plaintiffs’ counsel, other than showing up by happenstance in Alabama at places where Scruggs’ clients also just happened to show up. Racette claimed that the men and women he screened were his patients, but he had no license to practice in Alabama, where the screenings took place. Plaintiffs’ counsel disclaimed that Racette was a treating physician, which acknowledgment would have made the individual’s screening results discoverable in their individual cases. And more interestingly, plaintiffs’ counsel claimed that both Dr. Racette and Washington University were “non-testifying, consulting experts utilized to advise and assist Plaintiffs’ counsel with respect to evaluating and assessing each of their client’s potential lawsuit or claim (or not).”12

Over the last decade or so, best practices and codes of conduct for the relationship between pharmacoepidemiologists and study funders have been published.13 These standards apply with equal force to public agencies, private industry, and regulatory authories. Perhaps it is time for them to specify that the apply to the litigation industry as well.


1 See Smith v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs. Co., 278 F. Supp. 2d 684, 710 & n. 56 (W.D.N.C. 2003).

2 Ironically, Ms. Cabraser has published her opinion that failure to disclose conflicts of interest and study funding should result in evidentiary exclusions, a view which would have simplified and greatly shortened the silicone gel breast implant litigation. See 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).

3 Litigation concerning Viagra is one notable example where plaintiffs’ counsel called an expert witness who was the author of the very study that supposedly supported their causal claim. It did not go well for the plaintiffs or the expert witness. See Lori B. Leskin & Bert L. Slonim, “A Primer on Challenging Peer-Reviewed Scientific Literature in Mass Tort and Product Liability Actions,” 25 Toxics L. Rptr. 651 (Jul. 1, 2010).

4 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).

5 Nate Raymond, “GSK accuses Zofran plaintiffs’ law firms of funding academic study,” Reuters (Mar. 5, 2019).

6 See Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 674 (1972).

7 Affidavit of April Zambelli-Weiner, dated January 9, 2019 (Doc. No. 1272).

8 The plaintiffs’ lawyers’ motive and opportunity to poison the study by coaching their “clients” was palpable. See David B. Resnik & David J. McCann, “Deception by Research Participants,” 373 New Engl. J. Med. 1192 (2015).

9 See Brad A. Racette, S.D. Tabbal, D. Jennings, L. Good, J.S. Perlmutter, and Brad Evanoff, “Prevalence of parkinsonism and relationship to exposure in a large sample of Alabama welders,” 64 Neurology 230 (2005); Brad A. Racette, et al., “A rapid method for mass screening for parkinsonism,” 27 Neurotoxicology 357 (2006) (a largely duplicative report of the Alabama welders study).

10 See, e.g., In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL 1535, 2005 WL 5417815 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 18, 2005) (upholding defendants’ subpoena for protocol, data, data codes, statistical analyses, and other things from Dr. Racette’s Alabama study on welding and parkinsonism).

11 Racette sought and obtained a protective order for the data produced, and thus I still cannot share the materials he provided asking that any reviewer sign the court-mandated protective order. Revealingly, Racette was concerned about who had seen his underlying data, and he obtained a requirement in the court’s non-disclosure affidavit that any one who reviews the underlying data will not sit on peer review of his publications or his grant applications. See Motion to Compel List of Defendants’ Reviewers of Data Produced by Brad A. Racette, M.D., and Washington University Pursuant to Protective Order, in In re Welding Fume Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1535, Case 1:03-cv-17000-KMO, Document 1642-1 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 14, 2006). Curiously, Racette never moved to compel a list of Plaintiffs’ Reviewers!

12 Plaintiffs’ Motion for Protective Order, Motion to Reconsider Order Requiring Disclovery from Dr. Racette, and Request for In Camera Inspection as to Any Responses or Information Provided by Dr. Racette, filed in Solis v. Lincoln Elec. Co., case No. 1:03-CV-17000, MDL 1535 (N.D. Ohio May 8, 2006).

13 See, e.g., Xavier Kurz, Susana Perez‐Gutthann, and 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 Pharmacoepidem. & Drug Safety 245 (2018).

Has the American Statistical Association Gone Post-Modern?

March 24th, 2019

Last week, the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a special issue of its journal, The American Statistician, with 43 articles addressing the issue of “statistical significance.” If you are on the ASA’s mailing list, you received an email announcing that

the lead editorial calls for abandoning the use of ‘statistically significant’, and offers much (not just one thing) to replace it. Written by Ron Wasserstein, Allen Schirm, and Nicole Lazar, the co-editors of the special issue, ‘Moving to a World Beyond ‘p < 0.05’ summarizes the content of the issue’s 43 articles.”

In 2016, the ASA issued its “consensus” statement on statistical significance, in which it articulated six principles for interpreting p-values, and for avoiding erroneous interpretations. Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “The ASA’s Statement on p-Values: Context, Process, and Purpose,” 70 The American Statistician 129 (2016) [ASA Statement] In the final analysis, that ASA Statement really did not change very much, and could be read fairly only to state that statistical significance was not sufficient for causal inference.1 Aside from overzealous, over-claiming lawyers and their expert witnesses, few scientists or statisticians had ever maintained that statistical significance was sufficient to support causal inference. Still, many “health effect claims” involve alleged causation that is really a modification of a base rate of a disease or disorder that happens without the allegedly harmful exposure, and which does not invariably happen even with the exposure. It is hard to imagine drawing an inference of such causation without ruling out random error, as well as bias and confounding.

According to the lead editorial for the special issue:

The ASA Statement on P-Values and Statistical Significance stopped just short of recommending that declarations of ‘statistical significance’ be abandoned. We take that step here. We conclude, based on our review of the articles in this special issue and the broader literature, that it is time to stop using the term ‘statistically significant’ entirely. Nor should variants such as ‘significantly different’, ‘p < 0.05’, and ‘nonsignificant’ survive, whether expressed in words, by asterisks in a table, or in some other way.”2

The ASA (through Wasserstein and colleagues) appear to be condemning dichotomizing p-values, which are a continuum between zero and one. Presumably saying that a p-value is less than 5% is tantamount to dichotomizing, but providing the actual value of the p-value would cause no offense, as long as it was not labeled “significant.”

So although the ASA appears to have gone “whole hog,” the Wasserstein editorial does not appear to condemn assessing random error, or evaluating the extent of random error as part of assessing a study’s support for an association. Reporting p < 0.05 as opposed to p = a real number between zero and one is largely an artifact of statistical tables in the pre-computer era.

So what is the ASA affirmatively recommending? “Much, not just one thing?” Or too much of nothing, which we know makes a man feel ill at ease. Wasserstein’s editorial earnestly admits that there is no replacement for:

the outsized role that statistical significance has come to play. The statistical community has not yet converged on a simple paradigm for the use of statistical inference in scientific research—and in fact it may never do so.”3

The 42 other articles in the special issue certainly do not converge on any unified, coherent response to the perceived crisis. Indeed, a cursory review of the abstracts alone suggests deep disagreements over an appropriate approach to statistical inference. The ASA may claim to be agnostic in the face of the contradictory recommendations, but there is one thing we know for sure: over-reaching litigants and their expert witnesses will exploit the real or apparent chaos in the ASA’s approach. The lack of coherent, consistent guidance will launch a thousand litigation ships, with no epistemic compass.4


2 Ronald L. Wasserstein, Allen L. Schirm, and Nicole A. Lazar, “Editorial: Moving to a World Beyond ‘p < 0.05’,” 73 Am. Statistician S1, S2 (2019).

3 Id. at S2.

4 See, e.g., John P. A. Ioannidis, “Retiring statistical significance would give bias a free pass,” 567 Nature 461 (2019); Valen E. Johnson, “Raise the Bar Rather than Retire Significance,” 567 Nature 461 (2019).

Expert Witnesses Who Don’t Mean What They Say

March 24th, 2019

’Then you should say what you mean’, the March Hare went on.
‘I do’, Alice hastily replied; ‘at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know’.
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see!”’

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII (1865)

Anick Bérard is an epidemiologist at the Université de Montréal. Most of her publications involve birth outcomes and maternal medication use, but Dr. Bérard’s advocacy also involves social media (Facebook, YouTube) and expert witnessing in litigation against the pharmaceutical industry.

When the FDA issued its alert about cardiac malformations in children born to women who took Paxil (paroxetine) in their first trimesters of pregnancy, the agency characterized its assessment of the “early results of new studies for Paxil” as “suggesting that the drug increases the risk for birth defects, particularly heart defects, when women take it during the first three months of pregnancy.”1 The agency also disclaimed any conclusion of “class effect” among the other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Zoloft (sertraline), Celexa (citalopram), and Prozac (fluoxetine). Indeed, the FDA requested the manufacturer of paroxetine to undertake additional research to look at teratogenicity of paroxetine, as well as the possibility of class effects. That research never showed an SSRI teratogenicity class effect.

A “suggestion” from the FDA of an adverse effect is sufficient to launch a thousand litigation complaints, which were duly filed against GlaxoSmithKline. The plaintiffs’ counsel recruited Dr. Bérard to serve as an expert witness in support of a wide array of birth defects in Paxil cases. In her hands, the agency’s “suggestion” of causation became a conclusion. The defense challenged Bérard’s opinions, but the federal court motion to exclude her causal opinions were taken under advisement, without decision. Hayes v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 2009 WL 4912178 (N.D. Okla. Dec. 14, 2009). One case in state court went to trial, with a verdict for plaintiffs.

Despite Dr. Bérard;s zealous advocacy for a causal association between Paxil and birth defects, she declined to assert any association between maternal use of the other, non-paroxetine SSRIs and birth defects. Here is an excerpt from her Rule 26 report in a paroxetine case:

Taken together, the available scientific evidence makes it clear that Paxil use during the first trimester of pregnancy is an independent risk factor that at least doubles the risk of cardiovascular malformations in newborns at all commonly used doses. This risk has been consistent and was further reinforced by repeated observational study findings as well as meta-analyses results. No such associations were found with other types of SSRI exposures during gestation.”2

In her sworn testimony, Dr. Bérard made clear that she really meant what she had written in her report, about exculpating the non-paroxetine SSRIs of any association with birth defects:

Q. Is it fair to say that you will not be offering an opinion that SSRIs as a class, or individual SSRIs other than Paxil increased the risk of cardiovascular malformations in newborns?

A. This is not what I was asked to do.

Q. But in fact you actually write in your report that you don’t believe there’s sufficient data to reach any conclusion about other SSRIs, true?

A. Correct.”3

In 2010, Dr. Bérard, along with two professional colleagues, published what they called a systematic review of antidepressant use in pregnancy and birth outcomes.4 In this review, Bérard specifically advised that paroxetine should be avoided by women of childbearing age, but she and her colleagaues affirmatively encouraged use of other SSRIs, such as fluoxetine, sertraline, and citalopram:

Clinical Approach: A Brief Overview

For women planning a pregnancy or when a treatment initiation during pregnancy is deemed necessary, the decision should rely not only on drug safety data but also on other factors such as the patient’s condition, previous response to other antidepressants, comorbidities, expected adverse effects and potential interactions with other current pharmacological treatments. Since there is a more extensive clinical experience with SSRIs such as fluoxetine, sertraline, and citalopram, these agents should be used as first-line therapies. Whenever possible, one should refrain from prescribing paroxetine to women of childbearing potential or planning a pregnancy. However, antenatal screening such as fetal echocardiography should be considered in a woman exposed prior to finding out about her pregnancy.5

When Bérard wrote and published her systematic review, she was still actively involved as an expert witness for plaintiffs in lawsuits against the manufacturers of paroxetine. In her 2010 review, Dr. Bérard gave no acknowledgment of monies earned in her capacity as an expert witness, and her disclosure of potential conflicts of interest was limited to noting that she was “a consultant for a plaintiff in the litigation involving Paxil.”6 In fact, Bérard had submitted multiple reports, testified at deposition, and had been listed as a testifying expert witness in many cases involving Paxil or paroxetine.

Not long after the 2010 review article, Glaxo settled most of the pending paroxetine birth defect cases, and the plaintiffs’ bar pivoted to recast their expert witnesses’ opinions as causal teratogenic conclusions about the entire class of SSRIs. In 2012, the federal courts established a “multi-district litigation,” MDL 2342, for birth defect cases involving Zoloft (sertraline), in the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Cynthia Rufe, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Notwithstanding her 2010 clinical advice that pregnant women with depression should use fluoxetine, sertraline, or citalopram, Dr. Bérard became actively involved in the new litigation against the other, non-Paxil SSRI manufacturers. By 2013, Dr. Bérard was on record as a party expert witness for plaintiffs, opining that setraline causes virtually every major congenital malformation.7

In the same year, 2013, Dr. Bérard published another review article on teratogens, but now she gave a more equivocal view of the other SSRIs, claiming that they were “known carcinogens,” but acknowledging in a footnote that teratogenicity of the SSRIs was “controversial.”8 Incredibly, this review article states that “Anick Bérard and Sonia Chaabane have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.”9

Ultimately, Dr. Bérard could not straddle her own contradictory statements and remain upright, which encouraged the MDL court to examine her opinions closely for methodological shortcomings and failures. Although Bérard had evolved to claim a teratogenic “class effect” for all the SSRIs, the scientific support for her claim was somewhere between weak to absent.10 Perhaps even more distressing, many of the pending claims involving the other SSRIs arose from pregnancies and births that predated Bérard’s epiphany about class effect. Finding ample evidence of specious claiming, the federal court charged with oversight of the sertraline birth defect claims excluded Dr. Bérard’s causal opinions for failing to meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 702.11

Plaintiffs sought to substitute Nicholas Jewell for Dr. Bérard, but Dr. Jewell fared no better, and was excluded for other methodological shenanigans.12 Ultimately, a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals, for the Third Circuit, upheld the expert witness exclusions.13


1 See “FDA Advising of Risk of Birth Defects with Paxil; Agency Requiring Updated Product Labeling,” P05-97 (Dec. 8, 2005) (emphasis added).

2 Bérard Report in Hayes v. SmithKline Beecham Corp, 2009 WL 3072955, at *4 (N.D. Okla. Feb. 4, 2009) (emphasis added).

3 Deposition Testimony of Anick Bérard, in Hayes v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., at 120:16-25 (N.D. Okla. April 2009).

4 Marieve Simoncelli, Brigitte-Zoe Martin & Anick Bérard, “Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy: A Critical Systematic Review of the Literature,” 5 Current Drug Safety 153 (2010).

5 Id. at 168b.

6 Id. at 169 (emphasis added).

7 See Anick Bérard, “Expert Report” (June 19, 2013).

8 Sonia Chaabanen & Anick Bérard, “Epidemiology of Major Congenital Malformations with Specific Focus on Teratogens,” 8 Current Drug Safety 128, 136 (2013).

9 Id. at 137b.

10 See, e.g., Nicholas Myles, Hannah Newall, Harvey Ward, and Matthew Large, “Systematic meta-analysis of individual selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications and congenital malformations,” 47 Australian & New Zealand J. Psychiatry 1002 (2013).

11 See In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 2342; 26 F.Supp. 3d 449 (E.D.Pa. 2014) (Rufe, J.). Plaintiffs, through their Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, moved for reconsideration, but Judge Rufe reaffirmed her exclusion of Dr. Bérard. In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 2342; 12-md-2342, 2015 WL 314149 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2015) (Rufe, J.) (denying PSC’s motion for reconsideration). See Zoloft MDL Relieves Matrixx Depression” (Jan. 30, 2015).

12 See In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 12–md–2342, 2015 WL 7776911 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 2, 2015) (excluding Jewell’s opinions as scientifically unwarranted and methodologically flawed); In re Zoloft Prod. Liab. Litig., MDL NO. 2342, 12-MD-2342, 2016 WL 1320799 (E.D. Pa. April 5, 2016) (granting summary judgment after excluding Dr. Jewell). See alsoThe Education of Judge Rufe – The Zoloft MDL” (April 9, 2016).

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.