TORTINI

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

David Rosner’s Document Repository

July 23rd, 2017

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz are leftist labor and social historians in Columbia University and City University of New York, respectively. Both are frequently disclosed by plaintiffs’ counsel as expert witnesses on historical issues, and both often testify at asbestos and other personal injury trials1. Markowitz has been excluded in at least one reliability challenge2.

The two historians, who appear so often together on plaintiffs’ designations that they are sometime referred to as a unified persona, Rosnowitz, have create a website, “Project Toxicdocs,” supposedly in an alpha version3.

The Toxic Docs website does not identify Rosner and Markowitz by name as authors or sponsors, but the website’s content and goals bear their indelible stamp, as well as the concordance of their institutional affiliations of Columbia and CUNY. The website promises “[b]lazingly fast” searches and access to previously confidential, classified industry documents on “industrial poisons”:

This dataset and website contain millions of pages of previously secret documents about toxic substances. They include secret internal memoranda, emails, slides, board minutes, unpublished scientific studies, and expert witness reports — among other kinds of documents — that emerged in recent toxic tort litigation.

Over the next couple years, we’ll be constantly adding material from lawsuits involving lead, asbestos, silica, and PCBs, among other dangerous substances. Innovations in parallel and cloud computing have made conversion of these documents into machine-readable, searchable text a far faster process than would have been the case just a decade ago.”

Similar efforts have been put into place for documents collected in tobacco and other litigations4. David Egilman, another regular testifier for the Lawsuit Industry once maintained a website with a large library of documents he relied upon for his ethics and state-of-the-art opinion testimony in various litigations.

A trial run through the “dataset” for the search term “silicosis” turned up 44 documents, most of which had nothing to do with silica or silicosis, and many of which were duplicates. Remarkably, there were no documents from government or labor unions.

We are sure that these historian expert witnesses will improve their efforts to be comprehensive and balanced, with practice.


1 See, e.g., Garcia v. Lone Star Indus., Case No. D-149, 527, 1997 WL 34904089 (Dist. Ct. Tex., Jefferson Cty., 1997) (identifying Rosner and Markowitz as testifying expert witnesses for plaintiff); City of Milwaukee v NL Industries, Inc., Circuit Ct., Milwaukee Cty., Wisc., 2007 WL 4676349 (Jan. 16, 2007) (referencing litigation report of Rosner and Markowitz); Gibson v. American Cyanamid Co., 719 F. Supp. 2d 1031, 1048 (E.D. Wis. 2010) (noting Rosner and Markowitz’s declaration for plaintiffs); Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Ass’n, C.A. No. PC 99-5226, Rhode Island Superior Court, Providence (Feb. 26, 2007) (discussing Rosner and Markowitz’s testimony on post-verdict motions); Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, No. 07-562, U.S. Sup. Ct., Amicus Brief of Allan M. Brandt, Robert N. Proctor, David M. Burns, Jonathan M. Samet, and David Rosner (June 18, 2008) (all amici except Rosner disclosed their litigation activities); Burton v. American Cyanamid Co., 775 F. Supp. 2d 1093 (E.D. Wis. 2011) (noting Rosner and Markowitz’s testimony in lead pigment case); California v. Atlantic Richfield Co., Santa Clara Super. Ct., Calif., No. 1-00-CV-788657, 2013 WL 4425657 (July 15, 2013) (noting Rosner’s testimony); Ostenrieder v. Rohm & Haas Co., Phila. Ct. C.P. Case No. 150602485, Motion in Limine to Exclude Testimony of Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner (filed by Rohm & Haas Co., subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co., June 18, 2015); Dumas v. ABB Group, Inc., civ. action no. 13-229-SLR-SRF (D. Del. Sept. 30, 2015) (referencing Rosner’s report for plaintiffs); Assenzio v. A.O. Smith Water Prods. Co., docket nos. 190008/12, 190026/12, 190200/12, 190183/12, 190184/12, NY Sup. Ct., NY Cty. (Feb. 5, 2015) (noting that Rosner testified for plaintiffs); Noll v American Biltrite, Inc., 188 Wash. App. 572, 355 P.3d 279 (Wash. Ct. App. June 29, 2015), aff’d, 355 P.3d 279 (Wash. 2015) (deposition of Gerald Markowitz given on behalf of plaintiff); Schwartz v. Honeywell Internat’l, Inc., 66 N.E.3d 118 (Ohio Ct. App. 2016) (same), app. granted, 148 Ohio St. 3d 1442, 72 N.E.3d 656 (2017); Clair v. Monsanto Co., 412 S.W.3d 295 (Mo. App. 2013) (noting Rosner as plaintiff’s expert witness); New v. Borg-Warner Corp., No. 13-cv-00675, 2015 WL 5166946 (W.D. Mo., Sept. 3, 2015) (identifying Rosner and Markowitz as plaintiff’s expert witnesses); Begin v. Air & Liquid Corp., Case No. 3:15-cv-830-SMY-DGW (S.D. Ill. May 10, 2016) (striking designation of plaintiff’s expert witness David Rosner as untimely in asbestos case); Rost v. Ford Motor Co., 151 A.3d 1032 (Pa. 2016) (noting Rosner and Markowitz as amici authors; no disclosure of litigation income); Dominick v. A.O. Smith Water Products, CA2014-000232, NY Sup. Ct., Oneida Cty., Notes of Testimony of David Rosner, Mar. 18, 2017 (Press Release from Plaintiffs’ law firm).

2 Quester v. B.F. Goodrich Co., Cuyahoga Cty., Ohio, C.P. Case No. 30-509539 (Jan. 12, 2008) (excluding Markowitz’s testimony as impermissible attempt to introduce expert witness opinion on defendants’ intent and motive).

3 Presumably an alpha version is one that has not made it to beta.

Slemp Trial Part 4 – Graham Colditz

July 22nd, 2017

The Witness

Somehow, in opposition to two epidemiologists presented by the plaintiff in Slemp, the defense managed to call none. The first of the plaintiffs’ two epidemiology expert witnesses was Graham A. Colditz, a physician with doctoral level training in epidemiology. For many years, Colditz was a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. Colditz left Harvard to become the Niess-Gain Professor at Washington University St. Louis School of Medicine, where he is also the Associate Director for Prevention and Control at the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center.

Colditz is a senior epidemiologist, with many book and article publications to his credit. Although he has not published a causal analysis of ovarian cancer and talc, Colditz was an investigator on the well-known Nurses’ Health Study. One of Colditz’s publications on the Nurses’ cohort featured an analysis of talc use and ovarian cancer outcomes.

Although he is not a frequent testifying expert witness, Colditz is no stranger to the courtroom. He was a regular protagonist in the estrogen-progestin hormone replacement therapy (HRT) litigation, which principally involves claims of female breast cancer. Colditz has a charming Australian accent, with a voice tremor that makes him sound older than 63, and perhaps even more distinguished. He charges $1,500 per hour for his testimonial efforts, but is quick to point out that he has given thousands to charity. At his hourly rate, we can be sure he needs tax deductions of some kind.

In discussing his own qualifications, Colditz was low-key and modest except for what seemed like a strange claim that his HRT litigation work for plaintiffs led the FDA to require a boxed warning of breast cancer risk on the package insert for HRT medications. This claim is certainly false, and an extreme instance of post hoc ergo propter hoc. Colditz gilded the lilly by claiming that he does not get involved unless he believes that general causation exists between the exposure or medication and the disease claimed. Since he has only been a plaintiffs’ expert witness, this self-serving claim is quite circular.

The Examinations

The direct and cross-examinations of Dr. Colditz were long and tedious. Most lawyers are reluctant to have an epidemiologists testify at all, and try to limit the length of their examinations, when they must present epidemiologic testimony. Indeed, the defense in Slemp may have opted to present a clinician based upon the prejudice against epidemiologists testifying about quantitative data and analysis. In any event, Colditz’s direct examination went not hours, but days, as did the defense’s cross-examination.

The tedium of the direct examination was exacerbated by the shameless use of leading, loaded, and argumentative questions by plaintiff’s counsel, Allen Smith. A linguistic analysis might well show that Smith spoke 25 to 30 words for every one word spoken by Colditz on direct examination. Even aside from the niceties of courtroom procedure, the direct examination was lacking in aesthetic qualities. Still, it is hard to argue with a $110 million verdict, which cries out for explanation.

There were virtually no objections to Smith’s testifying in lieu of Colditz, with Colditz reduced to just “yes.” Sometimes, Colditz waxed loquacious, and answered, “yes, sir.” From judicial responses to other objections, however, it was clear that the trial court would have provided little control of the leading and argumentative questions.

Smith’s examination also took Colditz beyond the scope of his epidemiologic expertise in to ethics, social policy, and legal requirements of warnings, again without judicial management or control. We learned, over objection, from Colditz of all witnesses that the determination of causation has nothing to do with whether a warning should be given.

The Subject Matter

Colditz was clearly familiar with the subject matter, and allowed Smith to testify for him on a fairly simplistic level. The testimony was a natural outgrowth of his professional interests, and Colditz must have appeared to have been a credible expert witness, especially in a St. Louis courtroom, given that he was in a leadership role at the leading cancer center in that city.

With Smith’s lead, Colditz broached technical issues of bias evaluation, meta-analysis and pooling, which would never be addressed later by a defense expert witness at an equal level of expertise, sophistication, and credibility. Colditz offered criticisms of the Gonzalez (Sister Study) and the latency built into the observation period of that cohort, and he introduced the concept of Berkson bias in some of the case-control studies. Neither of these particular criticisms was rebutted in the defense case, again raising the question whether the defense expert witness, Dr. Huh, a clinician specializing in gynecologic oncology, was an appropriate foil for the line up of plaintiffs’ expert witness. Dr. Colditz was able to talk authoritatively (and in some cases misleadingly) about issues, which Dr. Huh could not contradict effectively, even if he were to have tried.

Colditz characterized his involvement in the talc cases as starting with his conducting a systematic review, undertaken for litigation, but still systematic. As a professor of epidemiology, Colditz should know what a systematic review is, although he never fully described the process on either direct or cross-examinations. No protocol for the systematic review was adduced into evidence. Sadly, the defense expert witness, Dr. Huh, never stated that he had done a systematic review; nor did he offer any criticisms of Dr. Colditz’s systematic review. Indeed, Huh admitted that he had not read Colditz’s testimony. In general, observing Colditz’s testimony after having watched Dr. Huh testify shouted MISMATCH.

The Issues

Statistical Significance

The beginning point of a case such as Slemp, involving a claim that talc causes ovarian cancer, and that it caused her ovarian cancer, is whether there is supporting epidemiology for the claim. As Sir Austin Bradford Hill put it over 50 years ago:

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). Colditz, and plaintiff’s counsel, did not run away from the challenge; they embraced statistical significance and presented an argument for why the association was “clear-cut” (not created by bias or confounding).

In one of his lengthy, leading questions, plaintiffs’ counsel attempted to suggest that statistical significance, or a confidence interval that excluded a risk ratio of 1.0, excluded bias as well as chance. Colditz to his credit broke from the straight jacket of “yes, sirs,” and disagreed as to bias. Smith, perhaps chastised then took a chance and asked an open-ended question about what a confidence interval was. With the bit in his mouth, Colditz managed to describe the observed confidence interval incorrectly as providing the range within which the point estimate would fall 95% of the time if the same study were repeated many times! There is a distribution of 95% confidence intervals, which cover the true parameter 95% of the time, assuming a correct statistical model, random sampling, and no bias or confounding. For the observed confidence interval, the true value is either included or not. Perhaps Colditz was thinking of a prediction interval, but Smith had asked for a definition of a confidence interval, and the jury got non-sense.

Dose Response

Colditz parsed the remaining Bradford Hill factors, and opined that exposure-gradient or dose response was good to have but not necessary to support a causal conclusion. Colditz opined, with respect to whether the statistical assessment of a putative dose-response should include non-exposed women, that the non-exposed women should be excluded. This was one of the few technical issues that Dr. Huh engaged with, in the defense case, but Dr. Colditz was not confronted with any textbooks or writings that cast doubt on his preference for excluding non-users.

Plausibility

Plaintiff’s counsel spent a great deal of time, mostly reading lengthy passages of articles on this or that plausible mechanism for talc’s causing human ovarian cancer, only to have Colditz, with little or no demonstrated expertise in biological mechanism, say “yes.” Some articles discussed that talc use was a modifiable risk and that avoiding perineal talc use “may” reduce ovarian cancer risk. Smith would read (accurately) and then ask Colditz whether he agreed that avoiding talc use would reduce ovarian cancer in women. Colditz himself catches and corrects Smith, some times, but not others.

Smith read from an article that invokes a claim that asbestos (with definition as to what mineral) causes ovarian cancer. Colditz agreed. Smith testified that talc has asbestos in it, and Colditz agreed. Smith read from an article that stated vaguely that talc is chemically similar to asbestos and thus this creates plausibility for a causal connection between talc and cancer. Colditz agreed, without any suggestion that he understands whether or not talc is morphologically similar to asbestos. It seems unlikely that Colditz had any real expertise to offer here, but Smith could not resist touching all bases with Colditz; and the defense did not object or follow up on these excesses.

Smith and Colditz, well mostly Smith, testified that tubal ligation reduces the otherwise observed increased risk of ovarian cancer from talc use. Smith here entrusts Colditz with providing the common-sense explanation. There is no meaningful cross-examination on this “jury friendly” point.

Consistency

Colditz testifed that the studies, both case-control and cohort studies, were consistent in showing an increased risk of ovarian cancer in association with talc use. Indeed, the studies are mostly consistent; the issue is whether they are consistently biased or consistently showing the true population risk. The defense chose to confront Colditz with the lack of statistical significance in some studies (with elevated risk ratios) as though these studies were inconsistent with the studies that found similar risk ratios, with p-values less than 5%. This confrontation did not go well for the defense, either on cross-examination of Colditz, or on direct examination of Dr. Huh. Colditz backed up his opinion on consistency with the available meta-analyses, which find very low p-values for the summary estimate of risk ratio for talc use and ovarian cancer.

Unlike the Zoloft case1, in which consistency was generated across different end points by cherry picking, the consistency in the talc case was evidenced by a consistent elevation of risk ratios for the same end point, across studies. When subgroups of ovarian cell or tumor types were examined, statistical significance was sometimes lost, but the direction of the risk ratio above one was maintained. Meta-analyses generated summary point estimates with very low p-values.

The Gold Standard

Colditz further gilded the consistency lilly by claiming that the Terry study2, a pooled analysis of available case-control studies, was the “gold standard” in this area of observational epidemiology. Smith and Colditz presented at some length as to how the Cochrane Collaboration has labeled combined “individual patient data” (IPD) analyses as the gold standard. Colditz skimmed over the Cochrane’s endorsement of IPD analyses as having been made in the context of systematic reviews, involving primarily randomized clinical trials, for which IPD analyses allow time-to-event measurements, which can substantially modify observed risk ratios, and even reverse their direction. The case-control studies in the Terry pooled analysis did not have anything like the kind of prospectively collected individual patient data, which would warrant holding the Terry paper up as a “gold standard,” and Terry and her co-authors never made such a claim for their analysis. Colditz’s claim about the Terry study cried out for strong rebuttal, which never came.

The defense should have known that this hyperbolic testimony would be forthcoming, but they seemed not to have a rebuttal planned, other than dismissing case-controls studies generally as smaller than cohort studies. Rather than “getting into the weeds” about the merits of pooled analyses of observational studies, as opposed to clinical trials, the defense continued with its bizarre stance that the cohort studies were better because larger, while ignoring that they are smaller with respect to number of ovarian cancer cases and have less precision than the case-control studies. SeeNew Jersey Kemps Ovarian Cancer – Talc Cases” (Sept. 16, 2016). The defense also largely ignored Colditz’s testimony that exposure data collected in the available cohort studies was of limited value because lacking in details about frequency and intensity of use, and in some cases, collected on only one occasion.

Specific Causation

Colditz disclaimed the ability or intention to offer a specific causation opinion about Ms. Slemp’s ovarian cancer. Nonetheless, Colditz volunteered that “cancer is multifactorial,” which says very little because it says so much. In plaintiffs’ counsel’s hands, this characterization became a smokescreen to indict every possible present risk factor as playing a part in the actual causation of a particular case, such as Ms. Slemp’s case. No matter that the plaintiff was massively obese, and a smoker; every risk factor present must be, by fiat, in the “causal pie.”

But this would seem not to be Colditz’s own opinion. Graham Colditz has elsewhere asserted that an increased risk of disease cannot be translated into the “but-for” standard of causation3:

Knowledge that a factor is associated with increased risk of disease does not translate into the premise that a case of disease will be prevented if a specific individual eliminates exposure to that risk factor. Disease pathogenesis at the individual level is extremely complex.”

Just because a risk factor (assuming it is real and causal) is present does not put in the causal set.

Cross-Examination

The direct examination of Graham Colditz included scurrilous attacks on J & J’s lobbying, paying FDA user fees, and other corporate conduct, based upon documents of which Colditz had not personal knowledge. Colditz was reduced to nothing more than a backboard, off which plaintiff’s counsel could make his shots. On cross, the defense carefully dissected this direct examination and obtained disavowals from Colditz that he had suggested any untoward conduct by J & J. The jury could have been spared their valuable time by a trial judge who did not allow the scurrilous, collateral attacks in the first place.

The defense also tried to diminish Dr. Colditz’s testimony as an opinion coming from a non-physician. The problem, however, was that Colditz is a physician, who understands the biological issues, even if he is not a pathologist, toxicologist, or oncologist. Colditz did not offer opinions about Slemp’s medical treatment, and there was nothing in this line of cross-examination that lessened the impact of Colditz’s general causation testimony.

Generally, the cross-examination did not hurt Dr. Colditz’s strongly stated opinion that talc causes ovarian cancer. The defense (and plaintiff’s counsel before them) spent an inordinate amount of time on why Dr. Colditz has not updated his website to state publicly that talc causes ovarian cancer. Colditz blamed the “IT” guys, a rather disingenuous excuse. His explanation on direct, and on cross, as to why he could not post his opinion on his public-service website was so convoluted, however, that there was no clear admission or inference of dereliction. Colditz was permitted to bill his opinion, never posted to his institution’s website, as a “consensus opinion,” endorsed by several researchers, based upon hearsay emails and oral conversations.


1 See 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 dodgy opinion, which involved changing subgroup end points across studies of maternal sertraline use and infant cardiac birth defects ).

2 Kathryn L. Terry, et al., “Genital powder use and risk of ovarian cancer: a pooled analysis of 8,525 cases and 9,859 controls,” 6 Cancer Prev. & Research 811 (2013).

3 Graham A. Colditz, “From epidemiology to cancer prevention: implications for the 21st Century,” 18 Cancer Causes Control 117, 118 (2007).

Welding Litigation – Another Positive Example of Litigation-Generated Science

July 11th, 2017

In a recent post1, I noted Samuel Tarry’s valuable article2 for its helpful, contrarian discussion of the importance of some scientific articles with litigation provenances. Public health debates can spill over to the courtroom, and developments in the courtroom can, on occasion, inform and even resolve those public health debates that gave rise to the litigation. Tarry provided an account of three such articles, and I provided a brief account of another article, a published meta-analysis, from the welding fume litigation.

The welding litigation actually accounted for several studies, but in this post, I detail the background of another published study, this one an epidemiologic study by a noted Harvard epidemiologist. Not every expert witness’s report has the making of a published paper. In theory, if the expert witness has conducted a systematic review, and reached a conclusion that is not populated among already published papers, we might well expect that the witness had achieved the “least publishable unit.” The reality is that most causal claims are not based upon what could even remotely be called a systematic review. Given the lack of credibility to the causal claim, rebuttal reports are likely to have little interest to serious scientists.

Martin Wells

In the welding fume cases, one of plaintiffs’ hired expert witnesses, Martin Wells, a statistician, proffered an analysis of Parkinson’s disease (PD) mortality among welders and welding tradesmen. Using the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) database, Wells aggregated data from 1993 to 1999, for PD among welders and compared this to PD mortality among non-welders. Wells claimed to find an increased risk of PD mortality among younger (under age 65 at death) welders and welding tradesmen in this dataset.

The defense sought discovery of Wells’s methods and materials, and obtained the underlying data from the NCHS. Wells had no protocol, no pre-stated commitment to which years in the dataset he would use, and no pre-stated statistical analysis plan. At a Rule 702 hearing, Wells was unable to state how many welders were included in his analysis, why he selected some years but not others, or why he had selected age 65 as the cut off. His analyses appeared to be pure data dredging.

As the defense discovered, the NCHS dataset contained mortality data for many more years than the limited range employed by Wells in his analysis. Working with an expert witness at the Harvard School of Public Health, the defense discovered that Wells had gerrymandered the years included (and excluded) in his analysis in a way that just happened to generate a marginally, nominally statistically significant association.

NCHS Welder Age Distribution

The defense was thus able to show that the data overall, and in each year, were very sparse. For most years, the value was either 0 or 1, for PD deaths under age 65. Because of the huge denominators, however, the calculated mortality odds ratios were nominally statistically significant. The value of four PD deaths in 1998 is clearly an outlier. If the value were three rather than four, the statistical significance of the calculated OR would have been lost. Alternatively, a simple sensitivity test suggests that if instead of overall n = 7, n were 6, statistical significance would have been lost. The chart below, prepared at the time with help from Dr. David Schwartzof Innovative Science solutions, shows the actual number of “underlying cause” PD deaths that were in the dataset for each year in the NCHS dataset, and how sparse and granular” these data were:

A couple of years later, the Wells’ litigation analysis showed up as a manuscript, with only minor changes in its analyses, and with authors listed as Martin T. Wells and Katherine W. Eisenberg, in the editorial offices of Neurology. Katherine W. Eisenberg, AB and Martin T. Wells, Ph.D., “A Mortality Odds Ratio Study of Welders and Parkinson Disease.” Wells disclosed that he had testified for plaintiffs in the welding fume litigation, but Eisenberg declared no conflicts. Having only an undergraduate degree, and attending medical school at the time of submission, Ms. Eisenberg would not seem to have had the opportunity to accumulate any conflicts of interest. Undisclosed to the editors of Neurology, however, was that Ms. Eisenberg was the daughter of Theodore (Ted) Eisenberg, a lawyer who taught at Cornell University and who represented plaintiffs in the same welding MDL as the one in which Wells testified. Inquiring minds might have wondered whether Ms. Eisenberg’s tuition, room, and board were subsidized by Ted’s earnings in the welding fume and other litigations. Ted Eisenberg and Martin Wells had collaborated on many other projects, but in the welding fume litigation, Ted worked as an attorney for MDL welding plaintiffs, and Martin Wells was compensated handsomely as an expert witness. The acknowledgment at the end of the manuscript thanked Theodore Eisenberg for his thoughtful comments and discussion, without noting that he had been a paid member of the plaintiff’s litigation team. Nor did Wells and Eisenberg tells the Neurology editors that the article had grown out of Wells’ 2005 litigation report in the welding MDL.

The disclosure lapses and oversights by Wells and the younger Eisenberg proved harmless error because Neurology rejected the Wells and Eisenberg paper for publication, and it was never submitted elsewhere. The paper used the same restricted set of years of NCHS data, 1993-1999. The defense had already shown, through its own expert witness’s rebuttal report, that the manuscript’s analysis achieved statistical significance only because it omitted years from the analysis. For instance, if the authors had analyzed 1992 through 1999, their Parkinson’s disease mortality point estimate for younger welding tradesmen would no longer have been statistically significant.

Robert Park

One reason that Wells and Eisenberg may have abandoned their gerrymandered statistical analysis of the NCHS dataset was that an ostensibly independent group3 of investigators published a paper that presented a competing analysis. Robert M. Park, Paul A. Schulte, Joseph D. Bowman, James T. Walker, Stephen C. Bondy, Michael G. Yost, Jennifer A. Touchstone, and Mustafa Dosemeci, “Potential Occupational Risks for Neurodegenerative Diseases,” 48 Am. J. Ind. Med. 63 (2005) [cited as Park (2005)]. The authors accessed the same NCHS dataset, and looked at hundreds of different occupations, including welding tradesmen, and four neurodegenerative diseases.

Park, et al., claimed that they looked at occupations that had previously shown elevated proportional mortality ratios (PMR) in a previous publication of the NIOSH. A few other occupations were included; in all their were hundreds of independent analyses, without any adjustment for multiple testing. Welding occupations4 were included “[b]ecause of reports of Parkinsonism in welders [Racette et al.,, 2001; Levy and Nassetta, 2003], possibly attributable to manganese exposure (from welding rods and steel alloys)… .”5 Racette was a consultant for the Lawsuit Industry, which had been funded his research on parkinsonism among welders. Levy was a testifying expert witness for Lawsuit, Inc. A betting person would conclude that Park had consulted with Wells and Eisenberg, and their colleagues.

These authors looked at four neurological degenerative diseases (NDDs), Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron disease, and pre-senile dementia. The authors looked at NCHS death certificate occupational information from 1992 to 1998, which was remarkable because Wells had insisted that 1992 somehow was not available for inclusion in his analyses. During 1992 to 1998, in 22 states, there were 2,614,346 deaths with 33,678 from Parkinson’s diseases. (p. 65b). Then for each of the four disease outcomes, the authors conducted an analysis for deaths below age 65. For the welding tradesmen, none of the four NDDs showed any associations. Park went on to conduct subgroup analyses for each of the four NDDs for death below age 65. In these subgroup analyses for welding tradesmen, the authors purported to find only an association only with Parkinson’s disease:

Of the four NDDs under study, only PD was associated with occupations where arc-welding of steel is performed, and only for the 20 PD deaths below age 65 (MOR=1.77, 95% CI=1.08-2.75) (Table V).”

Park (2005), at 70.

The exact nature of the subgroup was obscure, to say the least. Remarkably, Park and his colleagues had not calculated an odds ratio for welding tradesmen under age 65 at death compared with non-welding tradesmen under age 65 at death. The table’s legend attempts to explain the authors’ calculation:

Adjusted for age, race, gender, region and SES. Model contains multiplicative terms for exposure and for exposure if age at death <65; thus MOR is estimate for deaths occurring age 65+, and MOR, age <65 is estimate of enhanced risk: age <65 versus age 65+”

In other words, Park looked to see whether welding tradesmen who died at a younger age (below age 65) were more likely to have a PD cause of death than welding tradesmen who died an older age (over age 65). The meaning of this internal comparison is totally unclear, but it cannot represent a comparison of welder’s with non-welders. Indeed, every time, Park and his colleagues calculated and reported this strange odds ratio for any occupational group in the published paper, the odds ratio was elevated. If the odds ratio means anything, it is that younger Parkinson’s patients, regardless of occupation, are more likely to die of their neurological disease than older patients. Older men, regardless of occupation, are more likely to die of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases. Furthermore, this age association within (not between) an occupational groups may be nothing other than a reflection of the greater severity of early-onset Parkinson’s disease in anyone, regardless of their occupation.

Like the manuscript by Eisenberg and Wells, the Park paper was an exercise in data dredging. The Park study reported increased odds ratios for Parkinson’s disease among the following groups on the primary analysis:

biological, medical scientists [MOR 2.04 (95% CI, 1.37-2.92)]

clergy [MOR 1.79 (95% CI, 1.58-2.02)]

religious workers [MOR 1.70 (95% CI, 1.27-2.21)]

college teachers [MOR 1.61 (95% CI, 1.39-1.85)]

social workers [MOR 1.44 (95% CI, 1.14-1.80)]

As noted above, the Park paper reported all of the internal mortality odds ratios for below versus above age 65, within occupational groups were nominally statistically significantly elevated. Nonetheless, the Park authors were on a mission, and determined to make something out of nothing, at least when it came to welding and Parkinson’s disease among younger patients. The authors’ conclusion reflected stunningly poor scholarship:

Studies in the US, Europe, and Korea implicate manganese fumes from arc-welding of steel in the development of a Parkinson’s-like disorder, probably a manifestation of manganism [Sjogren et al., 1990; Kim et al., 1999; Luccini, et al., 1999; Moon et al., 1999]. The observation here that PD mortality is elevated among workers with likely manganese exposures from welding, below age 65 (based on 20 deaths), supports the welding-Parkinsonism connection.”

Park (2005) at 73.

Stunningly bad because the cited papers by Sjogren, Luccini, Kim, and Moon did not examine Parkinson’s disease as an outcome; indeed, they did not even examine a parkinsonian movement disorder. More egregious, however, was the authors’ assertion that their analysis, which compared the odds of Parkinson’s disease mortality between welders under age 65 to that mortality for welders over age 65, supported an association between welding and “Parkinsonism.” 

Every time the authors conducted this analysis internal to an occupational group, they found an elevation among under age 65 deaths compared with over age 65 deaths within the occupational group. They did not report comparisons of any age-defined subgroup of a single occupational group with similarly aged mortality in the remaining dataset.

Elan Louis

The plaintiffs’ lawyers used the Park paper as “evidence” of an association that they claimed was causal. They were aided by a cadre of expert witnesses who could cite to a paper’s conclusions, but could not understand its methods. Occasionally, one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses would confess ignorance about exactly what Robert Park had done in this paper. Elan Louis, one of the better qualified expert witnesses on the side of claimants, for instance, testified in the plaintiffs’ attempt to certify a national medical monitoring class action for welding tradesmen. His testimony about what to make of the Park paper was more honest than most of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses:

Q. My question to you is, is it true that that 1.77 point estimate of risk, is not a comparison of this welder and allied tradesmen under this age 65 mortality, compared with non-welders and allied tradesmen who die under age 65?

A. I think it’s not clear that the footnote — I think that the footnote is not clearly written. When you read the footnote, you didn’t read the punctuation that there are semicolons and colons and commas in the same sentence. And it’s not a well constructed sentence. And I’ve gone through this sentence many times. And I’ve gone through this sentence with Ted Eisenberg many times. This is a topic of our discussion. One of the topics of our discussions. And it’s not clear from this sentence that that’s the appropriate interpretation. *  *  *  However, the footnote, because it’s so poorly written, it obscures what he actually did. And then I think it opens up alternative interpretations.

Q. And if we can pursue that for a moment. If you look at other tables for other occupational titles, or exposure related variables, is it true that every time that Mr. Park reports on that MOR age under 65, that the estimate is elevated and statistically significantly so?

A. Yes. And he uses the same footnote every time. He’s obviously cut and paste that footnote every single time, down to the punctuation is exactly the same. And I would agree that if you look for example at table 4, the mortality odds ratios are elevated in that manner for Parkinson’s Disease, with reference to farming, with reference to pesticides, and with reference to farmers excluding horticultural deaths.

Deposition testimony of Elan Louis, at p. 401-04, in Steele v. A. O. Smith Corp., no. 1:03 CV-17000, MDL 1535 (Jan. 18, 2007). Other less qualified, or less honest expert witnesses on the plaintiffs’ side were content to cite Park (2005) as support for their causal opinions.

Meir Stampfer

The empathetic MDL trial judge denied the plaintiffs’ request for class certification in Steele, but individual personal injury cases continued to be litigated. Steele v. A.O. Smith Corp., 245 F.R.D. 279 (N.D. Ohio 2007) (denying class certification); In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 1:03-CV-17000, MDL 1535, 2008 WL 3166309 (N.D. Ohio Aug. 4, 2008) (striking pendent state-law class actions claims)

Although Elan Louis was honest enough to acknowledge his own confusion about the Park paper, other expert witnesses continued to rely upon it, and plaintiffs’ counsel continued to cite the paper in their briefs and to use the apparently elevated point estimate for welders in their cross-examinations of defense expert witnesses. With the NCHS data in hand (on a DVD), defense counsel returned to Meir Stampfer, who had helped them unravel the Martin Wells’ litigation analysis. The question for Professor Stampfer was whether Park’s reported point estimate for PD mortality odds ratio was truly a comparison of welders versus non-welders, or whether it was some uninformative internal comparison of younger welders versus older welders.

The one certainty available to the defense is that it had the same dataset that had been used by Martin Wells in the earlier litigation analysis, and now by Robert Park and his colleagues in their published analysis. Using the NCHS dataset, and Park’s definition of a welder or a welding tradesman, Professor Stampfer calculated PD mortality odds ratios for each definition, as well as for each definition for deaths under age 65. None of these analyses yielded statistically significant associations. Park’s curious results could not be replicated from the NCHS dataset.

For welders, the overall PD mortality odds ratio (MOR) was 0.85 (95% CI, 0.77–0.94), for years 1985 through 1999, in the NCHS dataset. If the definition of welders was expanded to including welding tradesmen, as used by Robert Park, the MOR was 0.83 (95% CI, 0.78–0.88) for all years available in the NCHS dataset.

When Stampfer conducted an age-restricted analysis, which properly compared welders or welding tradesmen with non-welding tradesmen, with death under age 65, he similarly obtained no associations for PD MOR. For the years 1985-1991, death under 65 from PD, Stampfer found MORs 0.99 (95% CI, 0.44–2.22) for just welders, and 0.83 (95% CI, 0.48–1.44) all welding tradesmen.

And for 1992-1999, the years used by Park (2005), and similar to the date range used by Martin Wells, for PD deaths at under age 65, for welders only, Stampfer found a MOR of 1.44 (95% CI, 0.79–2.62), and for all welding tradesmen, 1.20 (95% CI, 0.79–1.84)

None of Park’s slicing, dicing, and subgrouping of welding and PD results could be replicated. Although Dr. Stampfer submitted a report in Steele, there remained the problem that Park (2005) was a peer-reviewed paper, and that plaintiffs’ counsel, expert witnesses, and other published papers were citing it for its claimed results and errant discussion. The defense asked Dr. Stampfer whether the “least publishable unit” had been achieved, and Stampfer reluctantly agreed. He wrote up his analysis, and published it in 2009, with an appropriate disclosure6. Meir J. Stampfer, “Welding Occupations and Mortality from Parkinson’s Disease and Other Neurodegenerative Diseases Among United States Men, 1985–1999,” 6 J. Occup. & Envt’l Hygiene 267 (2009).

Professor Stampfer’s paper may not be the most important contribution to the epidemiology of Parkinson’s disease, but it corrected the distortions and misrepresentations of data in Robert Park’s paper. His paper has since been cited by well-known researchers in support of their conclusion that there is no association between welding and Parkinson’s disease7. Park’s paper has been criticized on PubPeer, with no rebuttal8.

Almost comically, Park has cited Stampfer’s study tendentiously for a claim that there is a healthy worker bias present in the available epidemiology of welding and PD, without noting, or responding to, the devastating criticism of his own Park (2005) work:

For a mortality study of neurodegenerative disease deaths in the United States during 1985 – 1999, Stampfer [61] used the Cause of Death database of the US National Center for Health Statistics and observed adjusted mortality odds ratios for PD of 0.85 (95% CI, 0.77 – 0.94) and 0.83 (95% CI, 0.78 – 0.88) in welders, using two definitions of welding occupations [61]. This supports the presence of a significant HWE [healthy worker effect] among welders. An even stronger effect was observed in welders for motor neuron disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, OR 0.71, 95% CI, 0.56 – 0.89), a chronic condition that clearly would affect welders’ ability to work.”

Robert M. Park, “Neurobehavioral Deficits and Parkinsonism in Occupations with Manganese Exposure: A Review of Methodological Issues in the Epidemiological Literature,” 4 Safety & Health at Work 123, 126 (2013). Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has a sudden onset, usually in middle age, without any real prodomal signs or symptoms, which would keep a young man from entering welding as a trade. Just shows you can get any opinion published in a peer-reviewed journal, somewhere. Stampfer’s paper, along with Mortimer’s meta-analysis helped put the kabosh on welding fume litigation.

Addendum

A few weeks ago, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a class action that was attempted based upon claims of environmental manganese exposure. Abrams v. Nucor Steel Marion, Inc., Case No. 3:13 CV 137, 2015 WL 6872511 (N. D. Ohio Nov. 9, 2015) (finding testimony of neurologist Jonathan Rutchik to be nugatory, and excluding his proffered opinions), aff’d, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9323 (6th Cir. May 25, 2017). Class plaintiffs employed one of the regulators, Jonathan Rutchik, from the welding fume parkinsonism litigation).


2 Samuel L. Tarry, Jr., “Can Litigation-Generated Science Promote Public Health?” 33 Am. J. Trial Advocacy 315 (2009)

3 Ostensibly, but not really. Robert M. Park was an employee of NIOSH, but he had spent most of his career working as an employee for the United Autoworkers labor union. The paper acknowledged help from Ed Baker, David Savitz, and Kyle Steenland. Baker is a colleague and associate of B.S. Levy, who was an expert witness for plaintiffs in the welding fume litigation, as well as many others. The article was published in the “red” journal, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

4 The welding tradesmen included in the analyses were welders and cutters, boilermakers, structural metal workers, millwrights, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters. Robert M. Park, Paul A. Schulte, Joseph D. Bowman, James T. Walker, Stephen C. Bondy, Michael G. Yost, Jennifer A. Touchstone, and Mustafa Dosemeci, “Potential Occupational Risks for Neurodegenerative Diseases,” 48 Am. J. Ind. Med. 63, 65a, ¶2 (2005).

5 Id.

6 “The project was supported in part through a consulting agreement with a group of manufacturers of welding consumables who had no role in the analysis, or in preparing this report, did not see any draft of this manuscript prior to submission for publication, and had no control over any aspect of the work or its publication.” Stampfer, at 272.

7 Karin Wirdefeldt, Hans-Olov Adami, Philip Cole, Dimitrios Trichopoulos, and Jack Mandel, “Epidemiology and etiology of Parkinson’s disease: a review of the evidence,” 26 Eur. J. Epidemiol. S1 (2011).

8 The criticisms can be found at <https://pubpeer.com/publications/798F9D98B5D2E5A832136C0A4AD261>, last visited on July 10, 2017.

Slemp Trial Part 3 – The Defense Expert Witness – Huh

July 9th, 2017

On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court curtailed the predatory jurisdictional practices of the lawsuit industry in seeking out favorable trial courts with no meaningful connection to their claims. See Bristol-Myers Squib Co. v. Superior Court, No. 16-466, 582 U.S. ___ (June 19, 2017). The same day, the defendants in a pending talc cancer case in St. Louis filed a motion for a mistrial. Swann v. Johnson & Johnson, Case No. 1422-CC09326-01, Division 10, Circuit Court of St. Louis City, Missouri. Missouri law may protect St. Louis judges from having to get involved in gatekeeping scientific expert witness testimony, but when the Supreme Court speaks to the requirements of the federal constitution’s due process clause, even St. Louis judges must listen. Bristol-Myers held that the constitution limits the practice of suing defendants in jurisdictions unrelated to the asserted claims, and the St. Louis trial judge, Judge Rex Burlison, granted the requested mistrial in Swann. As a result, there will not be another test of plaintiffs’ claims that talc causes ovarian cancer, and the previous Slemp case will remain an important event to interpret.

The Sole Defense Expert Witness

Previous posts1 addressed some of the big picture issues as well as the opening statements in Slemp. This posts turns to the defense expert witness, Dr. Walter Huh, in an attempt to understand how and why the jury returned its egregious verdict. Juries can, of course, act out of sympathy, passion, or prejudice, but their verdicts are usually black boxes when it comes to discerning their motivations and analyses. A more interesting and fruitful exercise is to ask whether a reasonable jury could have reached the conclusion in the case. The value of this exercise is limited, however. A reasonable jury should have reasonable expertise in the subject matter, and in our civil litigation system, this premise is usually not satisfied.

Dr. Walter Huh, a gynecologic oncologist, was the only expert witness who testified for the defense. As the only defense witness, and as a clinician, Huh had a terrible burden. He had to meet and rebut testimony outside his fields of expertise, including pathology, toxicology, and most important, epidemiology. Huh was by all measures well-spoken, articulate, and well-qualified as a clinical gynecologic oncologist. Defense counsel and Huh, however, tried to make the case that Huh was qualified to speak to all issues in the case. The initial examination on qualifications was long and tedious, and seemed to overcompensate for the obvious gaps in Dr. Huh’s qualifications. In my view, the defense never presented much in the way of credible explanations about where Huh had obtained the training, experience, and expertise to weigh in on areas outside clinical medicine. Ultimately, the cross-examination is the crucial test of whether this strategy of one witness for all subjects can hold. The cross-examination of Dr. Huh, however, exposed the gaps in qualifications, and more important, Dr. Huh made substantive errors that were unnecessary and unhelpful to the defense of the case.

The defense pitched the notion that Dr. Huh somehow trumped all the expert witnesses called by plaintiff because Huh was the “only physician heard by the jury” in court. Somehow, I wonder whether the jury was so naïve. It seems like a poor strategic choice to hope that the biases of the jury in favor of the omniscience of physicians (over scientists) will carry the day.

There were, to be sure, some difficult clinical issues, on which Dr. Huh could address within his competence. Cancer causation itself is a multi-disciplinary science, but in the case of a disease, such as ovarian cancer, with a substantial base-rate in the general population and without any biomarker of a causal pathway between exposure and outcome, epidemiology will be a necessary tool. Huh was thus forced to “play” on the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ home court, much to his detriment.

General Causation

Don’t confuse causation with links, association, and risk factors

The defense strong point is that virtually no one, other than the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses themselves, and only in the context of litigation, has causally attributed ovarian cancer to talc exposure. There are, however, some ways that this point can be dulled in the rough and tumble of trial. Lawyers, like journalists, and even some imprecise scientists, use a variety of terms such as “risk,” “risk factor,” “increased risk,” and “link,” for something less than causation. Sometimes these terms are used deliberately to try to pass off something less than causation as causation; sometimes the speaker is confused; and sometimes the speaker is simply being imprecise. It seems incumbent upon the defense to explain the differences between and among these terms, and to stick with a consistent, appropriate terminology.

One instance in which Dr. Huh took his eye off the “causation ball,” arose when plaintiffs’ counsel showed him a study conclusion that talc use among African American women was statistically significantly associated with ovarian cancer. Huh answered, non-responsively, “I disagree with the concept that talc causes ovarian cancer.” The study, however, did not advance a causal conclusion and there was no reason to suggest to the jury that he disagreed with anything in the paper; rather it was the opportunity to repeat that association is not causation, and the article did not contradict anything he had said.

Similarly, Dr. Huh was confronted with several precautionary recommendations that women “may” benefit from avoiding talc. Remarkably, Huh simply disagreed, rather than making the obvious point that the recommendation was not stated as something that would in fact benefit women.

When witnesses answer long, involved questions, with a simple “yes,” then they may have made every implied proposition in the questions into facts in the case. In an exchange between plaintiff’s counsel and Huh, counsel asked whether a textbook listed talc as a risk factor.2 Huh struggled to disagree, which disagreement tended to impair his credibility, for disagreeing with a textbook he acknowledged using and relying upon. Disagreement, however, was not necessary; the text merely stated that “talc … may increase risk.” If “increased risk” had been defined and explained as something substantially below causation, then Huh could have answered simply “yes, but that quotation does not support a causal claim.”

At another point, plaintiffs’ counsel, realizing that none of the individual studies reached a causal conclusion, asked whether it would be improper for a single study to give such a conclusion. It was a good question, with a solid premise, but Dr. Huh missed the opportunity for explaining that the authors of all the various individual studies had not conducted systematic reviews that advanced the causal conclusion that plaintiffs would need. Certainly, the authors of individual studies were not prohibited from taking the next step to advance a causal conclusion in a separate paper with the appropriate analysis.

Bradford Hill’s Factors

Dr. Huh’s testimony provided the jury with some understanding of Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s nine factors, but Dr. Huh would have helped himself by acknowledging several important points. First, as Hill explained, the nine factors are invoked only after there is a clear-cut (valid) association beyond that which we care to attribute to chance. Second, establishing all nine factors is not necessary. Third, some of the nine factors are more important than others.

Study validity

In the epidemiology of talc and ovarian cancer, statistical power and significance are not the crucial issues; study validity is. It should have been the plaintiff’s burden to rule out bias, and confounding, as well as chance. Hours had passed in the defense examination of Dr. Huh before study validity was raised, and it was never comprehensively explained. Dr. Huh explained recall bias as a particular problem of case-control studies, which made up the bulk of evidence upon which plaintiffs’ expert witnesses relied. A more sophisticated witness on epidemiology might well have explained that the selection of controls can be a serious problem without obvious solutions in case-control studies.

On cross-examination, plaintiffs’ counsel, citing Kenneth Rothman, asked whether misclassification bias always yields a lower risk ratio. Dr. Huh resisted with “not necessarily,” but failed to dig in whether the conditions for rejecting plaintiffs’ generalization (such as polychotomous exposure classification) obtained in the relevant cohort studies. More importantly, Huh missed the opportunity to point out that the most recent, most sophisticated cohort study reported a risk ratio below 1.0, which on the plaintiffs’ theory about misclassification would have been even lower than 1.0 than reported in the published paper. Again, a qualified epidemiologist would not have failed to make these points.

Dr. Huh never read the testimony of one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses on epidemiology, Graham Colditz, and offered no specific rebuttal of Colditz’s opinions. With respect to the other of plaintiffs’ epidemiology expert witness, Dr. Cramer, Huh criticized him for engaging in post-hoc secondary analyses and asserted that Cramer’s meta-analysis could not be validated. Huh never attempted to validate the meta-analysis himself; nor did Huh offer his own meta-analysis or explain why a meta-analysis of seriously biased studies was unhelpful. These omissions substantially blunted Huh’s criticisms.

On the issue of study validity, Dr. Huh seem to intimate that cohort studies were necessarily better than case-control studies because of recall bias, but also because there are more women involved in the cohort studies than in the case-control studies. The latter point, although arithmetically correct, is epidemiologically bogus. There are often fewer ovarian cancer cases in the cohort study, especially if the cohort is not followed for a very long time. The true test comes in the statistical precision of the point estimate, relative risk or odds ratio, in the different type of study. The case-control studies often generate much more precise point estimates as seen from their narrower confidence intervals. Of course, the real issue is not precision here, but accuracy.  Still, Dr. Huh appeared to have endorsed the defense counsel misleading argument about study size, a consideration that will not help the defense when the contentions of the parties are heard in scientific fora.

Statistical Significance

Huh appeared at times to stake out a position that if a study does not have statistical significance, then we must accept the null hypothesis. I believe that most careful scientists would reject this position. Null studies simply fail to reject the null hypothesis.

Although there seems to be no end to fallacious reasoning by plaintiffs, there is a particular defense fallacy seen in some cases that turn on epidemiology. What if we had 10 studies that each found an elevated risk ratio of 1.5, with two-tailed 95 percent confidence intervals of 0.92 – 2.18, or so. Can the defense claim victory because no study is statistically significant? Huh seemed to suggest so, but this is clearly wrong. Of course, we might ask why no one conducted the 11th study, with sufficient power to detect a risk ratio of 1.5, at the desired level of significance. But parties go to trial with the evidence they have, not what they might want to have. On the above 10-study hypothetical, a meta-analysis might well be done (assuming the studies could be appropriately included), and the summary risk ratio for all studies would be 1.5, and highly statistically significant.

On the question of talc and ovarian cancer, there were several meta-analyses at issue, and so the role of statistical significance of individual studies was less relevant. The real issue was study validity. This issue was muddled by assertions that risk ratios such as 2.05 (95%, 0.94 – 4.47) were “chance findings.” Chance may not have been ruled out, but the defense can hardly assert that chance and chance alone produced the findings; otherwise, it will be sunk by the available meta-analyses.

Strength of Association

The risk ratios involved in most of the talc ovarian cancer studies are small, and that is obviously an important factor to consider in evaluating the studies for causal conclusions. Still, it is also obvious that sometimes real causal associations can be small in magnitude. Dr Huh could and should have conceded in direct that small associations can be causal, but explained that validity concerns about the studies that show small associations become critical. Examples would have helped, such as the body of observational epidemiology that suggested that estrogen replacement therapy in post-menopausal women provided cardiovascular benefit, only to be reversed by higher quality clinical trials. Similarly, observational studies suggested that lung cancer rates were reduced by Vitamin A intake, but again clinical trial data showed the opposite.

Consistency of Studies

Are studies that have statistically non-significant risk ratios above 1.0 inconsistent with studies that find statistically significant elevated risk ratios? At several points, Huh appears to say that such a group of studies is inconsistent, but that is not necessarily so. Huh’s assertion provoked a good bit of harmful cross-examination, in which he seemed to resist the notion that meta-analysis could help answer whether a group of studies is statistically consistent. Huh could have conceded the point readily but emphasized that a group of biased studies would give only a consistently biased estimate of association.

Authority

One of the cheapest tricks in the trial lawyers’ briefcase is the “learned treatise” exception to the rule against hearsay.”3 The lawyer sets up witnesses in deposition by obtaining their agreement that a particular author or text is “authoritative.” Then at trial, the lawyer confronts the witnesses with a snippet of text, which appears to disagree with the expert witnesses’ testimony. Under the rule, in federal and in some state courts, the jury may accept the snippet or sound bite as true, and also accept that the witnesses do not know what they are talking about when they disagree with the “authoritative” text.

The rule is problematic and should have been retired long ago. Since 1663, the Royal Society has sported the motto:  “Nullius in verba.”  Disputes in science are resolved with data, from high-quality, reproducible experimental or observational studies, not with appeals to the prestige of the speaker. And yet, we lawyers will try, and sometimes succeed, with this greasy kidstuff approach cross-examination. Indeed, when there is an opportunity to use it, we may even have an obligation to use so-called learned treatises to advance our clients’ cause.

In the Slemp trial, the plaintiff’s counsel apparently had gotten a concession from Dr. Huh that plaintiff’s expert witness on epidemiology, Dr. Daniel Cramer, was “credible and authoritative.” Plaintiff’s counsel then used Huh’s disagreement with Cramer’s testimony as well as his published papers to undermine Huh’s credibility.

This attack on Huh was a self-inflicted wound. The proper response to a request for a concession that someone or some publication is “authoritative,” is that this word really has no meaning in science. “Nullius in verba,” and all that. Sure, someone can be a respected research based upon past success, but past performance is no guarantee of future success. Look at Linus Pauling and Vitamin C. The truth of a conclusion rests on the data and the soundness of the inferences therefrom.

Collateral Attacks

The plaintiff’s lawyer in Slemp was particularly adept at another propaganda routine – attacking the witness on the stand for having cited another witness, whose credibility in turn was attacked by someone else, even if that someone else was a crackpot. Senator McCarthy (Joseph not Eugene) would have been proud of plaintiff’s lawyer’s use of the scurrilous attack on Paolo Boffetta for his views on EMF and cancer, as set out in Microwave News, a fringe publication that advances EMF-cancer claims. Now, the claim that non-ionizing radiation causes cancer has not met with much if any acceptance, and Boffetta’s criticisms of the claims are hardly unique or unsupported. Yet plaintiff’s counsel used this throw-away publication’s characterization of Boffetta as “the devil’s advocate,” to impugn Boffetta’s publications and opinions on EMF, as well as Huh’s opinions that relied upon some aspect of Boffetta’s work on talc. Not that “authority” counts, but Boffetta is the Associate Director for Population Sciences of the Tisch Cancer Institute and Chief of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control of the Department of Oncological Sciences, at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. He has published many epidemiologic studies, as well as a textbook on the epidemiology of cancer.4

The author from the Microwave News was never identified, but almost certainly lacks the training, experience, and expertise of Paolo Boffetta. The point, however, is that this cross-examination was extremely collateral, had nothing to do with Huh, or the issues in the Slemp case, and warranted an objection and admonition to plaintiff’s counsel for the scurrilous attack. An alert trial judge, who cared about substantial justice, might have shut down this frivolous, highly collateral attack, sua sponte. When Huh was confronted with the “devil’s advocate” characterization, he responded “OK,” seemingly affirming the premise of the question.

Specific Causation

Dr. Huh and the talc defendants took the position that epidemiology never informs assessment of individual causation. This opinion is hard to sustain. Elevated risk ratios reflect more individual cases than expected in a sample. Epidemiologic models are used to make individual predictions of risk for purposes of clinical monitoring and treatment. Population-based statistics are used to define range of normal function and to assess individuals as impaired or disabled, or not.

At one point in the cross-examination, plaintiffs’ counsel suggested the irrelevance of the size of relative risk by asking whether Dr. Huh would agree that a 20% increased risk was not small if you are someone who has gotten the disease. Huh answered “Well, if it is a real association.” This answer fails on several levels. First, it conflates “increased risk” and “real association” with causation. The point was for Huh to explain that an increased risk, if statistically significant, may be an association, but it is not necessary causal.

Second, and equally important, Huh missed the opportunity to explain that even if the 20% increased risk was real and causal, it would still mean that an individual patient’s ovarian cancer was most likely not caused by the exposure. See David H. Schwartz, “The Importance of Attributable Risk in Toxic Tort Litigation,” (July 5, 2017).

Conclusion

The defense strategy of eliciting all their scientific and medical testimony from a single witness was dangerous at best. As good a clinician as Dr. Huh appears to be, the defense strategy did not bode well for a good outcome when many of the scientific issues were outside of Dr. Huh’s expertise.


2 Jonathan S. Berek & Neville F. Hacker, Gynecologic Oncology at 231 (6th ed. 2014).

3 SeeTrust-Me Rules of Evidence” (Oct. 18 2012).

4 See, e.g., Paolo Boffetta, Stefania Boccia, Carol La Vecchia, A Quick Guide to Cancer Epidemiology (2014).

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.