TORTINI

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

Carl Cranor’s Conflicted Jeremiad Against Daubert

September 23rd, 2018

Carl Cranor’s Conflicted Jeremiad Against Daubert

It seems that authors who have the most intense and refractory conflicts of interest (COI) often fail to see their own conflicts and are the most vociferous critics of others for failing to identify COIs. Consider the spectacle of having anti-tobacco activists and tobacco plaintiffs’ expert witnesses assert that the American Law Institute had an ethical problem because Institute members included some tobacco defense lawyers.1 Somehow these authors overlooked their own positional and financial conflicts, as well as the obvious fact that the Institute’s members included some tobacco plaintiffs’ lawyers as well. Still, the complaint was instructive because it typifies the abuse of ethical asymmetrical standards, as well as ethical blindspots.2

Recently, Raymond Richard Neutra, Carl F. Cranor, and David Gee published a paper on the litigation use of Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s considerations for evaluating whether an association is causal or not.3 See Raymond Richard Neutra, Carl F. Cranor, and David Gee, “The Use and Misuse of Bradford Hill in U.S. Tort Law,” 58 Jurimetrics 127 (2018) [cited here as Cranor]. Their paper provides a startling example of hypocritical and asymmetrical assertions of conflicts of interests.

Neutra is a self-styled public health advocate4 and the Chief of the Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control (DEODC) of the California Department of Health Services (CDHS). David Gee, not to be confused with the English artist or the Australian coin forger, is with the European Environment Agency, in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is perhaps best known for his precautionary principle advocacy and his work with trade unions.5

Carl Cranor is with the Center for Progressive Reform, and he teaches philosophy at one of the University of California campuses. Although he is neither a lawyer nor a scientist, he participates with some frequency as a consultant, and as an expert witness, in lawsuits, on behalf of claimants. Perhaps Cranor’s most notorious appearance as an expert witness resulted in the decision of Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., 639 F.3d 11 (1st Cir. 2011), cert. denied sub nom., U.S. Steel Corp. v. Milward, 132 S. Ct. 1002 (2012). Probably less generally known is that Cranor was one of the founders of an organization, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), which recently was the complaining party in a California case in which CERT sought money damages for Starbucks’ failure to label each cup of coffee sold as known to the State of California as causing cancer.6 Having a so-called not-for-profit corporation can also be pretty handy, especially when it holds itself out as a scientific organization and files amicus briefs in support of reversing Daubert exclusions of the founding members of the corporation, as CERT did on behalf of its founding member in the Milward case.7 The conflict of interest, in such an amicus brief, however, is no longer potential or subtle, and violates the duty of candor to the court.

In this recent article on Hill’s considerations for judging causality, Cranor followed CERT’s lead from Milward. Cranor failed to disclose that he has been a party expert witness for plaintiffs, in cases in which he was advocating many of the same positions put forward in the Jurimetrics article, including the Milward case, in which he was excluded from testifying by the trial court. Cranor’s lack of candor with the readers of the Jurimetrics article is all the more remarkable in that Cranor and his co-authors give conflicts of interest outsize importance in substantive interpretations of scholarship:

the desired reliability for evidence evaluation requires that biases that derive from the financial interests and ideological commitments of the investigators and editors that control the gateways to publication be considered in a way that Hill did not address.”

Cranor at 137 & n.59. Well, we could add that Cranor’s financial interests and ideological commitments might well be considered in evaluating the reliability of the opinions and positions advanced in this most recent work by Cranor and colleagues. If you believe that COIs disqualify a speaker from addressing important issues, then you have all the reason you need to avoid reading Cranor’s recent article.

Dubious Scholarship

The more serious problem with Cranor’s article is not his ethically strained pronouncements about financial interests, but the dubious scholarship he and his colleagues advance to thwart judicial gatekeeping of even more dubious expert witness opinion testimony. To begin with, the authors disparage the training and abilities of federal judges to assess the epistemic warrant and reliability of proffered causation opinions:

With their enhanced duties to review scientific and technical testimony federal judges, typically not well prepared by legal education for these tasks, have struggled to assess the scientific support for—and the reliability and relevance of—expert testimony.”

Cranor at 147. Their assessment is fair but hides the authors’ cynical agenda to remove gatekeeping and leave the assessment to lay juries, who are less well prepared for the task, and whose function ensures no institutional accountability, review, or public evaluation.

Similarly, the authors note the temporal context and limitations of Bradford Hill’s 1965 paper, which date and limit the advice provided over 50 years ago in a discipline that has changed dramatically with the advancement of biological, epidemiologic, and genetic science.8 Even at the time of its original publication in 1965, Bradford Hill’s paper, which was based upon an informal lecture, was not designed or intended to be a definitive treatment of causal inference. Cranor and his colleagues make no effort to review Bradford Hill’s many other publications, both before and after his 1965 dinner speech, for evidence of his views on the factors for causal inference, including the role of statistical testing and inference.

Nonetheless, Bradford Hill’s 1965 paper has become a landmark, even if dated, because of its author’s iconic status in the world of public health, earned for his showing that tobacco smoking causes lung cancer,9 and for advancing the role of double-blind randomized clinical trials.10 Cranor and his colleagues made no serious effort to engage with the large body of Bradford Hill’s writings, including his immensely important textbook, The Principles of Medical Statistics, which started as a series of articles in The Lancet, and went through 12 editions in print.11 Hill’s reputation will no doubt survive Cranor’s bowdlerized version of Sir Austin’s views.

Epidemiology is Dispensable When It Fails to Support Causal Claims

The egregious aspect of Cranor’s article is its bill of particulars against the federal judiciary for allegedly errant gatekeeping, which for these authors translates really into any gatekeeping at all. Cranor at 144-45. Indeed, the authors provide not a single example of what was a “proper” exclusion of an expert witness, who was contending for some doubtful causal claim. Perhaps they have never seen a proper exclusion, but doesn’t that speak volumes about their agenda and their biases?

High on the authors’ list of claimed gatekeeping errors is the requirement that a causal claim be supported with epidemiologic evidence. Although some causal claims may be supported by strong evidence of a biological process with mechanistic evidence, such claims are not common in United States tort litigation.

In support of the claim that epidemiology is dispensable, Cranor suggests that:

Some courts have recognized this, and distinguished scientific committees often do not require epidemiological studies to infer harm to humans. For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) [sic], the National Toxicology Program, and California’s Proposition 65 Scientific Advisory Panel, among others, do not require epidemiological data to support findings that a substance is a probable or—in some cases—a known human carcinogen, but it is welcomed if available.”

Cranor at 149. California’s Proposition 65!??? Even IARC is hard to take seriously these days with its capture by consultants for the litigation industry, but if we were to accept IARC as an honest broker of causal inferences, what substance “known” to IARC to cause cancer in humans (Category I) was branded as a “known carcinogen” without the support of epidemiologic studies? Inquiring minds might want to know, but they will not learn the answer from Cranor and his co-authors.

When it comes to adverting to legal decisions that supposedly support the authors’ claim that epidemiology is unnecessary, their scholarship is equally wanting. The paper cites the notorious Wells case, which was so roundly condemned in scientific circles, that it probably helped ensure that a decision such as Daubert would ultimately be handed down by the Supreme Court. The authors seemingly cannot read, understand, and interpret even the most straightforward legal decisions. Here is how they cite Wells as support for their views:

Wells v. Ortho Pharm. Corp., 788 F.2d 741, 745 (11th Cir. 1986) (reviewing a district court’s decision deciding not to require the use of epidemiological evidence and instead allowing expert testimony).”

Cranor at 149-50 n.122. The trial judge in Wells never made such a decision; indeed, the case was tried by the bench, before the Supreme Court decided Daubert. There was no gatekeeping involved at all. More important, however, and contrary to Cranor’s explanatory parenthetical, both sides presented epidemiologic evidence in support of their positions.12

Cranor and his co-authors similarly misread and misrepresent the trial court’s decision in the litigation over maternal sertraline use and infant birth defects. Twice they cite the Multi-District Litigation trial court’s decision that excluded plaintiffs’ expert witnesses:

In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., 26 F. Supp. 3d 449, 455 (E.D. Pa. 2014) (expert may not rely on nonstatistically significant studies to which to apply the [Bradford Hill] factors).”

Cranor at 144 n.85; 158 n.179. The MDL judge, Judge Rufe, decidedly never held that an expert witness may not rely upon a statistically non-significant study in a “Bradford Hill” analysis, and the Third Circuit, which affirmed the exclusions of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ testimony, was equally clear in avoiding the making of such a pronouncement.13

Who Needs Statistical Significance

Part of Cranor’s post-science agenda is to intimidate judges into believing that statistical significance is unnecessary and a wrong-headed criterion for judging the validity of relied upon research. In their article, Cranor and friends suggest that Hill agreed with their radical approach, but nothing could be further from the truth. Although these authors parse almost every word of Hill’s 1965 article, they conveniently omit Hill’s views about the necessary predicates for applying his nine considerations for causal inference:

Disregarding then any such problem in semantics we have this situation. Our observations reveal an association between two variables, perfectly clear-cut and beyond what we would care to attribute to the play of chance. What aspects of that association should we especially consider before deciding that the most likely interpretation of it is causation?”

Austin Bradford Hill, “The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation?” 58 Proc. Royal Soc’y Med. 295, 295 (1965). Cranor’s radicalism leaves no room for assessing whether a putative association is “beyond what we would care to attribute to the play of chance,” and his poor scholarship ignores Hill’s insistence that this statistical analysis be carried out.14

Hill’s work certainly acknowledged the limitations of statistical method, which could not compensate for poorly designed research:

It is a serious mistake to rely upon the statistical method to eliminate disturbing factors at the completion of the work.  No statistical method can compensate for a badly planned experiment.”

Austin Bradford Hill, Principles of Medical Statistics at 4 (4th ed. 1948). Hill was equally clear, however, that the limits on statistical methods did not imply that statistical methods are not needed to interpret a properly planned experiment or study. In the summary section of his textbook’s first chapter, Hill removed any doubt about his view of the importance, and the necessity, of statistical methods:

The statistical method is required in the interpretation of figures which are at the mercy of numerous influences, and its object is to determine whether individual influences can be isolated and their effects measured.”

Id. at 10 (emphasis added).

In his efforts to eliminate judicial gatekeeping of expert witness testimony, Cranor has struggled with understanding of statistical inference and testing.15 In an early writing, a 1993 book, Cranor suggests that we “can think of type I and II error rates as “standards of proof,” which begs the question whether they are appropriately used to assess significance or posterior probabilities.16 Indeed, Cranor goes further, in confusing significance and posterior probabilities, when he described the usual level of alpha (5%) as the “95%” rule, and claimed that regulatory agencies require something akin to proof “beyond a reasonable doubt,” when they require two “statistically significant” studies.17

Cranor has persisted in this fallacious analysis in his writings. In a 2006 book, he erroneously equated the 95% coefficient of statistical confidence with 95% certainty of knowledge.18 Later in this same text, Cranor again asserted his nonsense that agency regulations are written when supported by “beyond a reasonable doubt.”19 Given that Cranor has consistently confused significance and posterior probability, he really should not be giving advice to anyone about statistical or scientific inference. Cranor’s persistent misunderstandings of basic statistical concepts do, however, explain his motivation for advocating the elimination of statistical significance testing, even if these misunderstandings make his enterprise intellectually unacceptable.

Cranor and company fall into a similar muddle when they offer advice on post-hoc power calculations, which advice ignores standard statistical learning for interpreting completed studies.20 Another measure of the authors’ failed scholarship is their omission of any discussion of recent efforts by many in the scientific community to lower the threshold for statistical significance, based upon the belief that the customary 5% p-value is an order of magnitude too high.21

 

Relative Risks Greater Than Two

There are other tendentious arguments and treatments in Cranor’s brief against gatekeeping, but I will stop with one last example. The inference of specific causation from study risk ratios has provoked a torrent of verbiage from Sander Greenland (who is cited copiously by Cranor). Cranor, however, does not even scratch the surface of the issue and fails to cite the work of epidemiologists, such as Duncan C. Thomas, who have defended the use of probabilities of (specific) causation. More important, however, Cranor fails to speak out against the abuse of using any relative risk greater than 1.0 to support an inference of specific causation, when the nature of the causal relationship is neither necessary nor sufficient. In this context, Kenneth Rothman has reminded us that someone can be exposed to, or have, a risk, and then develop the related outcome, without there being any specific causation:

An elementary but essential principle to keep in mind is that a person may be exposed to an agent and then develop disease without there being any causal connection between the exposure and the disease. For this reason, we cannot consider the incidence proportion or the incidence rate among exposed people to measure a causal effect.”

Kenneth J. Rothman, Epidemiology: An Introduction at 57 (2d ed. 2012).

The danger in Cranor’s article in Jurimetrics is that some readers will not realize the extreme partisanship in its ipse dixit, and erroneous, pronouncements. Caveat lector


1 Elizabeth Laposata, Richard Barnes & Stanton Glantz, “Tobacco Industry Influence on the American Law Institute’s Restatements of Torts and Implications for Its Conflict of Interest Policies,” 98 Iowa L. Rev. 1 (2012).

2 The American Law Institute responded briefly. See Roberta Cooper Ramo & Lance Liebman, “The ALI’s Response to the Center for Tobacco Control Research & Education,” 98 Iowa L. Rev. Bull. 1 (2013), and the original authors’ self-serving last word. Elizabeth Laposata, Richard Barnes & Stanton Glantz, “The ALI Needs to Implement Modern Conflict of Interest Policies,” 98 Iowa L. Rev. Bull. 17 (2013).

3 Austin Bradford Hill, “The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation?” 58 Proc. Royal Soc’y Med. 295 (1965).

4 Raymond Richard Neutra, “Epidemiology Differs from Public Health Practice,” 7 Epidemiology 559 (1996).

7From Here to CERT-ainty” (June 28, 2018).

8 Kristen Fedak, Autumn Bernal, Zachary Capshaw, and Sherilyn A Gross, “Applying the Bradford Hill Criteria in the 21st Century: How Data Integration Has Changed Causal Inference in Molecular Epidemiology,” Emerging Themes in Epidemiol. 12:14 (2015); John P. A. Ioannides, “Exposure Wide Epidemiology, Revisiting Bradford Hill,” 35 Stats. Med. 1749 (2016).

9 Richard Doll & Austin Bradford Hill, “Smoking and Carcinoma of the Lung,” 2(4682) Brit. Med. J. (1950).

10 Geoffrey Marshall (chairman), “Streptomycin Treatment of Pulmonary Tuberculosis: A Medical Research Council Investigation,” 2 Brit. Med. J. 769, 769–71 (1948).

11 Vern Farewell & Anthony Johnson,The origins of Austin Bradford Hill’s classic textbook of medical statistics,” 105 J. Royal Soc’y Med. 483 (2012). See also Hilary E. Tillett, “Bradford Hill’s Principles of Medical Statistics,” 108 Epidemiol. Infect. 559 (1992).

13 In re Zoloft Prod. Liab. Litig., No. 16-2247 , __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 2385279, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9832 (3d Cir. June 2, 2017) (affirming exclusion of biostatistician Nichols Jewell’s dodgy opinions, which involved multiple methodological flaws and failures to follow any methodology faithfully).

14 See Bradford Hill on Statistical Methods” (Sept. 24, 2013).

16 Carl F. Cranor, Regulating Toxic Substances: A Philosophy of Science and the Law at 33-34 (1993) (arguing incorrectly that one can think of α, β (the chances of type I and type II errors, respectively and 1- β as measures of the “risk of error” or “standards of proof.”); see also id. at 44, 47, 55, 72-76. At least one astute reviewer called Cranor on his statistical solecisms. Michael D. Green, “Science Is to Law as the Burden of Proof is to Significance Testing: Book Review of Cranor, Regulating Toxic Substances: A Philosophy of Science and the Law,” 37 Jurimetrics J. 205 (1997) (taking Cranor to task for confusing significance and posterior (burden of proof) probabilities).

17 Id. (squaring 0.05 to arrive at “the chances of two such rare events occurring” as 0.0025, which impermissibly assumes independence between the two studies).

18 Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 100 (2006) (incorrectly asserting that “[t]he practice of setting α =.05 I call the “95% rule,” for researchers want to be 95% certain that when knowledge is gained [a study shows new results] and the null hypothesis is rejected, it is correctly rejected.”).

19 Id. at 266.

21 See, e.g., John P. A. Ioannidis, “The Proposal to Lower P Value Thresholds to .005,” 319 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 1429 (2018); Daniel J. Benjamin, James O. Berger, Valen E. Johnson, et al., “Redefine statistical significance,” 2 Nature Human Behavior 6 (2018).

Ninth Circuit’s Difficulty with Process of Elimination

September 16th, 2018

Differential etiology is a high-fallutin’ term given to a simple disjunctive syllogism in which all disjuncts in the premise but one are eliminated. The syllogism would be a persuasive argument for the one remaining disjunct but only if all the other premises are effectively eliminated. Otherwise, we are left with competing disjunctive premises that remain, without any way of embracing the “one,” for which someone is contending.

Over 100 years ago, the United States Supreme Court recognized the need for eliminating all but the claimed cause in a simple FELA negligence action. In a unanimous decision, the Court declared:

And where the testimony leaves the matter uncertain and shows that any one of half a dozen things may have brought about the injury, for some of which the employer is responsible and for some of which he is not, it is not for the jury to guess between these half a dozen causes and find that the negligence of the employer was the real cause, when there is no satisfactory foundation in the testimony for that conclusion. If the employe is unable to adduce sufficient evidence to show negligence on the part of the employer, it is only one of the many cases in which the plaintiff fails in his testimony, and no mere sympathy for the unfortunate victim of an accident justifies any departure from settled rules of proof resting upon all plaintiffs.”

Patton v. Texas & Pacific RR, 179 U.S. 658, 663-64 (1901).

Recently the United States Court of Appeals, for the Ninth Circuit, recognized the need to rule out alternative factual explanations before a court could enter judgment on a claim of copyright infringement.1 Cobbler Nevada, LLC v Thomas Gonzales, No. 17-35041 (9th Cir., Aug. 27, 2018). The facts of Cobbler Nevada are illustrative.

Someone with access to an IP address registered to Thomas Gonzales used BitTorrent to download a copy of “The Cobbler,” an Adam Sandler movie. Cobbler Nevada LLC sued Mr. Gonzales, not for bad taste, but for infringing on its copyright to the movie. Mr. Gonzales, however, was the owner of an adult foster home, in which several other people had access to Gonzales’ IP address. Cobbler Nevada had no evidence that eliminated the possibility of downloading by other people in the home.

An amended complaint accused Mr. Gonzales of directly infringing the copyright, and alternatively, of contributing to the infringement by not policing this own internet connection.

The panel affirmed the rejection of the infringement claim because the claimant had failed to rule out downloading by someone who other Gonzales:

The direct infringement claim fails because Gonzales’ status as the registered subscriber of an infringing IP address, standing alone, does not create a reasonable inference that he is also the infringer… .”

Id. The panel reasoned that others in the household could have accessed Gonzales’ internet connection, and that the law did not impose a duty to secure the connection from a “frugal” neighbor.

In personal injury cases, the Ninth Circuit takes a very different, and thoroughly illogical approach from its astute reasoning in Cobbler Nevada. In one Ninth Circuit case, the plaintiff claimed without much of any supporting evidence that he had sustained a drug-induced disease, when over 70 percent of cases of that disease were idiopathic. The trial court accurately diagnosed the situation as an impossible proof problem for the plaintiff because the differential etiology method could not eliminate idiopathic causes in the case before the court. Rule 702 led to the exclusion of plantiffs’ proffered opinions, and the trial court entered summary judgment for the defendants. The Ninth Circuit reversed in an ipse dixit judgment that threw logic to the wind. Wendell v. Johnson & Johnson, No. 09-cv-04124, 2014 WL 2943572, at *5 (N.D. Cal. June 30, 2014), rev’d sub nom. Wendell v. GlaxoSmithKline LLC, 858 F.3d 1227 (9th Cir. 2017).2

The two cases, Wendell and Cobbler Nevada, cannot be reconciled. The aberrant and costive reasoning of Wendell will give rise to unflattering speculation about the Circuit’s motivation. Perhaps the next edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence should have a chapter on elementary logic, to help avoid such embarrassing situations.


1 Jason Tashea, “9th Circuit rules that sharing IP address is insufficient for copyright infringement,” Am. Bar. Ass’n J. (Sept. 4, 2018).

2 For a lively vivisection of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Wendell, see David L. Faigman & Jennifer Mnookin, “The Curious Case of Wendell v. GlaxoSmithKline LLC,” 48 Seton Hall L. Rev. 607 (2018).

The Expert Witness Who Put God on His Reference List

August 28th, 2018

And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side”

                                Bob Dylan, “With God on Our Side” 1963.

Cases involving claims of personal injury have inspired some of the most dubious scientific studies in the so-called medical literature, but the flights of fancy in published papers are nothing compared with what is recorded in the annals of expert witness testimony. The weaker the medical claims, the more outlandish is the expert testimony proffered. Claims for personal injury supposedly resulting from mold exposure are no exception to the general rule. The expert witness opinion testimony in mold litigation has resulted in several commentaries1 and professional position papers,2 offered to curb the apparent excesses.

Ritchie Shoemaker, M.D., has been a regular expert witness for the mold lawsuit industry. Professional criticism has not deterred Shoemaker, although discerning courts have put the kibosh on some of Shoemaker’s testimonial adventures.3

Shoemaker cannot be everywhere, and so in conjunction with the mold lawsuit industry, Shoemaker has taken to certifying new expert witnesses. But how will Shoemaker and his protégées overcome the critical judicial reception?

Enter Divine Intervention

Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.4

Some say the age of prophets, burning bushes, and the like is over, but perhaps not so. Maybe God speaks to expert witnesses to fill in the voids left by missing evidence. Consider the testimony of Dr. Scott W. McMahon, who recently testified that he was Shoemaker trained, and divinely inspired:

Q. Jumping around a little bit, Doctor, how did your interest in indoor environmental quality in general, and mold in particular, how did that come about?

A. I had — in 2009, I had been asked to give a talk at a medical society at the end of October and the people who were involved in it were harassing me almost on a weekly basis asking me what the title of my talk was going to be. I had spoken to the same society the previous four years. I had no idea what I was going to speak about. I am a man of faith, I’ve been a pastor and a missionary and other things, so I prayed about it and what I heard in my head verbatim was pediatric mold exposure colon the next great epidemic question mark. That’s what I heard in my head. And so because I try to live by faith, I typed that up as an email and said this is the name of my topic. And then I said, okay, God, you have ten weeks to teach me about this, and he did. Within three, four weeks maybe five, he had connected me to Dr. Shoemaker who was the leading person in the world at that time and the discoverer of this chronic inflammatory response.

*****

I am a man of faith, I’ve been a pastor and everything. And I realized that this was a real entity.

*****

Q. And do you attribute your decision or the decision for you to start Whole World Health Care also to be a divine intervention?

A. Well, that certainly started the process but I used my brain, too. Like I said, I went and I investigated Dr. Shoemaker, I wanted to make sure that his methods were real, that he wasn’t doing, you know, some sort of voodoo medicine and I saw that he wasn’t, that his scientific practice was standard. I mean, he changes one variable at a time in tests. He tested every step of the way. And I found that his conclusions were realistic. And then, you know, over the last few years, I’ve 1 gathered my own data and I see that they confirm almost every one of his conclusions.

Q. Doctor, was there anything in your past or anything dealing with your family in terms of exposure to mold or other indoor health issues?

A. No, it was totally off my radar.

Q. *** I’m not going to go into great detail with respect to Dr. Shoemaker, but are you Shoemaker certified?

A. I am.

Deposition transcript of Dr. Scott W. McMahon, at pp.46-49, in Courcelle v. C.W. Nola Properties LLC, Orleans Parish, Louisiana No. 15-3870, Sec. 7, Div. F. (May 18, 2018).

You may be surprised that the examining lawyer did not ask about the voice in which God spoke. The examining lawyer seems to have accepted without further question that the voice was that of an adult male voice. Still did the God entity speak in English, or in tongues? Was it a deep, resonant voice like Morgan Freeman’s in Bruce Almighty (2003)? Or was it a Yiddische voice like George Burns, in Oh God (1977)? Were there bushes burning when God spoke to McMahon? Or did the toast burn darker than expected?

Some might think that McMahon was impudent if not outright blasphemous for telling God that “He” had 10 weeks in which to instruct McMahon in the nuances of how mold causes human illness. Apparently, God was not bothered by this presumptuousness and complied with McMahon, which makes McMahon a special sort of prophet.

Of course, McMahon says he used his “brain,” in addition to following God’s instructions. But really why bother? Were there evidentiary or inferential gaps filled in by the Lord? The deposition does not address this issue.

In federal court, and in many state courts, an expert witness may base opinions on facts or data that are not admissible if, and only if, expert witnesses “in the particular field would reasonably rely on those kinds of facts or data in forming an opinion on the subject.5

Have other expert witnesses claimed divine inspiration for opinion testimony? A quick Pubmed search does not reveal any papers by God, or papers with God as someone’s Co-Author. It is only a matter of time, however, before a judge, some where, takes judicial notice of divinely inspired expert witness testimony.


1 See, e.g., Howard M. Weiner, Ronald E. Gots, and Robert P. Hein, “Medical Causation and Expert Testimony: Allergists at this Intersection of Medicine and Law,” 12 Curr. Allergy Asthma Rep. 590 (2012).

2 See, e.g., Bryan D. Hardin, Bruce J. Kelman, and Andrew Saxon, “ACOEM Evidence-Based Statement: Adverse Human Health Effects Associated with Molds in the Indoor Environment,” 45 J. Occup. & Envt’l Med. 470 (2003).

3 See, e.g., Chesson v. Montgomery Mutual Insur. Co., 434 Md. 346, 75 A.3d 932, 2013 WL 5311126 (2013) (“Dr. Shoemaker’s technique, which reflects a dearth of scientific methodology, as well as his causal theory, therefore, are not shown to be generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.”); Young v. Burton, 567 F. Supp. 2d 121, 130-31 (D.D.C. 2008) (excluding Dr. Shoemaker’s theories as lacking general acceptance and reliability; listing Virginia, Florida, and Alabama as states in which courts have rejected Shoemaker’s theory).

4 Genesis 6:14 (King James translation).

5 Federal Rule of Evidence. Bases of an Expert.

The Appeal of the Learned Treatise

August 16th, 2018

In many states, the so-called “learned treatise” doctrine creates a pseudo-exception to the rule against hearsay. The contents of such a treatise can be read to the jury, not for its truth, but for the jury to consider against the credibility of an expert witness who denies the truth of the treatise. Supposedly, some lawyers can understand the distinction between the treatise’s content’s being admitted for its truth as opposed to the credibility of an expert witness who denies its truth. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, and in some states, the language of the treatise may be considered for its truth as well, but the physical treatise may not be entered into evidence. There are several serious problems with both the state and the federal versions of the doctrine.1

Legal on-line media recently reported about an appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which heard arguments in a case that apparently turned on allegations of trial court error in refusing to allow learned treatise cross-examination of a plaintiff’s expert witness in Pledger v. Janssen Pharms., Inc., Phila. Cty. Ct. C.P., April Term 2012, No. 1997. See Matt Fair, “J&J Urges Pa. Appeals Court To Undo $2.5M Risperdal Verdict,” Law360 (Aug. 8, 2018) (reporting on defendants’ appeal in Pledger, Pa. Super. Ct. nos. 2088 EDA 2016 and 2187 EDA 2016).

In Pledger, plaintiff claimed that he developed gynecomastia after taking the defendants’ antipsychotic medication Risperdal. Defendants warned about gynecomastia, but the plaintiff claimed that the defendants had not accurately quantified the rate of gynecomastia in its package insert.

From Mr. Fair’s reporting, readers can discern only one ground for appeal, namely whether the “trial judge improperly barred it from using a scientific article to challenge an expert’s opinion that the antipsychotic drug Risperdal caused an adolescent boy to grow breasts.” Without having heard the full oral argument, or having read the briefs, the reader cannot tell whether there were other grounds. According to Mr. Fair, defense counsel contended that the trial court’s refusal to allow the learned treatise “had allowed the [plaintiff’s] expert’s opinion to go uncountered during cross-examination.” The argument, according to Mr. Fair, continued:

Instead of being able to confront the medical causation expert with an article that absolutely contradicted and undermined his opinion, the court instead admonished counsel in front of the jury and said, ‘In Pennsylvania, we don’t try cases by books, we try them by live witnesses’.”

The cross-examination at issue, on the other hand, related to whether gynecomastia could occur naturally in pre-pubertal boys. Plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Mark Solomon, a plastic surgeon, opined that gynecomastia did not occur naturally, and the defense counsel attempted to confront him with a “learned treatise,” an article from the Journal of Endocrinology, which apparently stated to the contrary. Solomon, following the usual expert witness playbook, testified that he had not read the article (and why would a surgeon have read this endocrinology journal?) Defense counsel pressed, and according to Mr. Fair, the trial judge disallowed further inquiry on cross-examination. On appeal, the defendants argued that the trial judge violated the learned treatise rule that allows “scholarly articles to be used as evidence.” The plaintiffs contended, in defense of their judgment below, that the “learned treatise rule” does not allow “scholarly articles to simply be read verbatim into the record,” and that the defense had the chance to raise the article in the direct examination of its own expert witnesses.

The Law360 reporting is curious on several fronts. The assigned error would have only been in support of a challenge to the denial of a new trial, and in a Risperdal case, the defense would likely have made a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, as well as for new trial. Although the appellate briefs are not posted online, the defense’s post-trial motions in Pledger v. Janssen Pharms., Inc., Phila. Cty. Ct. C.P., April Term 2012, No. 1997, are available. See Defendants’ Motions for Post-Trial Relief Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 227.1 (Mar. 6, 2015).

At least at the post-trial motion stage, the defendants clearly made both motions for judgment and for a new trial, as expected.

As for the preservation of the “learned treatise” issue, the entire assignment of error is described in a single paragraph (out of 116 paragraphs) in the post-trial motion, as follows:

27. Moreover, appearing to rely on Aldridge v. Edmunds, 750 A.2d 292 (Pa. 2000), the Court prevented Janssen from cross-examining Dr. Solomon with scientific authority that would undermine his position. See, e.g., Tr. 60:9-63:2 (p.m.). Aldridge, however, addresses the use of learned treatises in the direct examination, and it cites with approval the case of Cummings v. Borough of Nazareth, 242 A.2d 460, 466 (Pa. 1968) (plurality op.), which stated that “[i]t is entirely proper in examination and cross-examination for counsel to call the witness’s attention to published works on the matter which is the subject of the witness’s testimony.” Janssen should not have been so limited in its cross examination of Dr. Solomon.

In Cummings, the issue revolved around using manuals that contained industry standards for swimming pool construction, not the appropriateness of a learned scientific treatise. Cummings v. Nazareth Borough, 430 Pa. 255, 266-67 (Pa. 1968). The defense motion did not contend that the defense counsel had laid the appropriate foundation for the learned treatise to be used. In any event, the trial judge wrote an opinion on the post-trial motions, in which he did not appear to address the learned treatise issue at all. Pledger v Janssen Pharms, Inc., Phila. Ct. C.P., Op. sur post-trial motions (Aug. 10., 2017) (Djerassi, J.).

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has addressed the learned treatise exception to the rule against hearsay on several occasions. Perhaps the leading case described the law as:

well-settled that an expert witness may be cross-examined on the contents of a publication upon which he or she has relied in forming an opinion, and also with respect to any other publication which the expert acknowledges to be a standard work in the field. * * * In such cases, the publication or literature is not admitted for the truth of the matter asserted, but only to challenge the credibility of the witness’ opinion and the weight to be accorded thereto. * * * Learned writings which are offered to prove the truth of the matters therein are hearsay and may not properly be admitted into evidence for consideration by the jury.”

Majdic v. Cincinnati Mach. Co., 537 A. 2d 334, 621-22 (Pa. 1988) (internal citations omitted).

The Law360 report is difficult to assess. Perhaps the reporting by Mr. Fair was non-eponymously unfair? There is no discussion of how the defense had laid its foundation. Perhaps the defense had promised “to connect up” by establishing the foundation of the treatise through a defense expert witness. If there had been a foundation established, or promised to be established, the post-trial motion would have, in the normal course of events, cited the transcript for the proffer of a foundation. And why did Mr. Fair report on the oral argument as though the learned treatise issue was the only issue before the court? Inquiring minds want to know.

Judge Djerassi’s opinion on post-trial motions was perhaps more notable for embracing some testimony on statistical significance from Dr. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA, and now a frequent testifier for the lawsuit industry on regulatory matters. Judge Djerassi, in his opinion, stated:

This statistically significant measure is shown in Table 21 and was within a chi-square rate of .02, meaning within a 98% chance of certainty. In Dr. Kessler’s opinion this is a statistically significant finding. (N.T. 1/29/15, afternoon, pp. p. 27, ln. 2 10-11, p. 28, lns. 7-12).”

Post-trial opinion at p.11.2 Surely, the defense’s expert witnesses explained that the chi-square test did not yield a measure of certainty that the measured statistic was the correct value.

The trial court’s whopper was enough of a teaser to force me to track down Kessler’s testimony, which was posted to the internet by the plaintiffs’ law firm. Judge Djerassi’s erroneous interpretation of the p-value can indeed be traced to Kessler’s improvident testimony:

Q. And since 2003, what have you been doing at University of California San Francisco, sir?

A. Among other things, I am currently a professor of pediatrics, professor of epidemiology, professor of biostatistics.

Pledger Transcript, Thurs., Jan. 28, 2015, Vol. 3, Morning Session at 111:3-7.

A. What statistical significance means is it’s mathematical and scientific calculations, but when we say something is statistically significant, it’s unlikely to happen by chance. So that association is very likely to be real. If you redid this, general statistically significant says if I redid this and redid the analysis a hundred times, I would get the same result 95 of those times.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Morning Session at 80:18 – 81:2.

Q. So, sir, if we see on a study — and by the way, do the investigators of a study decided in their own criteria what is statistically significant? Do they assign what’s called a P value?

A. Exactly. So you can set it at 95, you can set it at 98, you can set it at 90. Generally, 95 significance level, for those of you who are mathematicians or scientifically inclined, it’s a P less than .05.

Q. As a general rule?

A. Yes.

Q. So if I see a number that is .0158, next to a dataset, that would mean that it occurs by chance less than two in 100. Correct?

A. Yes, that’s what the P value is saying.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Morning Session at 81:5-20

Q. … If someone — if something has a p-value of less than .02, the converse of it is that your 98 — .98, that would be 98 percent certain that the result is not by chance?

A. Yes. That’s a fair way of saying it.

Q. And if you have a p-value of .10, that means the converse of it is 90 percent, or 90 percent that it’s not by chance, correct?

A. Yes.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Afternoon Session at 7:14-22.

Q. Okay. And the last thing I’d like to ask about — sorry to keep going back and forth — is so if the jury saw a .0158, that’s of course less than .02, which means that it is 90 — almost 99 percent not by chance.

A. Yes. It’s statistically significant, as I would call it.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Afternoon Session at 8:7-13.


2 See also Djerassi opinion at p.13 n. 13 (“P<0.02 is the chi—square rate reflecting a data outcome within a 98% chance of certainty.”).

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