Cartoon Advocacy for Causal Claims

I saw him today at the courthouse
On his table was a sawed-in-half man
He was practiced at the art of deception
Well I could tell by his blood-stained hands
Ah yeah! Yeah1

Mark Lanier’s Deceptive Cartoon Advocacy

A recent book by Kurt Andersen details the extent of American fantasy, in matters religious, political, and scientific.2 Andersen’s book is a good read and a broad-ranging dissection of the American psyche for cadswallop. The book has one gaping hole, however. It completely omits the penchant for fantasy in American courtrooms.

Ideally, the trial lawyers in a case balance each other and their distractions drop out of the judge or jury’s search for the truth. Sometimes, probably too frequently in so-called toxic tort cases, plaintiffs’ counsel’s penchant for fantasy is so great and persistent that it overwhelms the factfinder’s respect for the truth, and results in an unjust award. In a telling article in Forbes, Mr. Daniel Fisher has turned his sights upon plaintiffs’ lawyer Mark Lanier and his role in helping a jury deliver a $5 billion (give or take a few shekels).3

The $5 billion verdict came in the St. Louis, Missouri, courtroom of Judge Rex Burlison, who presided over a multi-plaintiff case in which the plaintiffs claimed that they had developed ovarian cancer from using Johnson & Johnson’s talcum powder. In previous trials, plaintiffs’ counsel and expert witnesses attempted to show that talc itself could cause ovarian cancer, with inconsistent jury results. Mr. Lanier took a different approach in claiming that the talcum powder was contaminated with asbestos, which caused his clients to develop ovarian cancer.

The asserted causal relationship between occupational or personal exposure to talc and ovarian cancer is tenuous at best, but there is at least a debatable issue about the claimed association between occupational asbestos use and ovarian cancer. The more thoughtful reviews of the issue, however, are cautious in noting that disease outcome misclassification (misdiagnosing mesotheliomas that would be expected in these occupational cohorts with ovarian cancer) make conclusions difficult. See, e.g., Alison Reid, Nick de Klerk and Arthur W. (Bill) Musk, “Does Exposure to Asbestos Cause Ovarian Cancer? A Systematic Literature Review and Meta-analysis,” 20 Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers & Prevention 1287 (2011).

Fisher reported that Lanier, after obtaining the $5 billion verdict, presented to a litigation industry meeting, held at a plush Napa Valley resort. In this presentation, Lanier described his St. Louis achievement by likening himself to a magician, and explained “how I sawed the man in half.” Of course, if Lanier had sawed the man in half, he would be a murderer, and the principle of charity requires us to believe that he is merely a purveyor of magical thinking, a deceiver, practiced in the art of deception.

Lanier’s boast about his magical skills is telling. The whole point of the magician’s act is to thrill an audience by the seemingly impossible suspension of the laws of nature. Deception, of course, is the key to success for a magician, or an illusionist of any persuasion. It is comforting to think that Lanier regards himself as an illusionist because his self-characterization suggests that he does not really believe in his own courtroom illusions.

Lanier’s magical thinking and acts have gotten him into trouble before. Fisher noted that Lanier had been branded as deceptive by the second highest court in the United States, the United States Court of Appeals, in Christopher v. DePuy Orthopaedics, Inc., Nos. 16-11051, et al., 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 10476 (5th Cir. April 25, 2018). In Christopher, Lanier had appeared to engineer payments to expert witnesses in a way that he thought he could tell the jury that the witnesses had no pecuniary interest in the case. Id. at *67. The Court noted that “[l]awyers cannot engage with a favorable expert, pay him ‘for his time’, then invite him to testify as a purportedly ‘non-retained’ neutral party. That is deception, plain and simple.” Id. at *67. The Court concluded that “Lanier’s deceptions furnish[ed] independent grounds for a new trial, id. at *8, because Lanier’s “deceptions [had] obviously prevented defendants from ‘fully and fairly’ defending themselves.” Id. at *69.

Cartoon Advocacy

In his presentation to the litigation industry meeting in Napa Valley, Lanier explained that “Every judge lives by certain rules, just like in sports, but every stadium is also allowed to size themselves appropriately to the game.” See Fisher at note 3. Lanier’s magic act thrives in courtrooms where anything goes. And apparently, Lanier was telling his litigation industry audience that anything goes in the St. Louis courtroom of Judge Burlison.

In some of the ovarian cancer cases, Lanier had a problem: the women had a BrCa2 deletion mutation, which put them at a very high lifetime risk of ovarian cancer, irrespective of what exogenous exposures they may have had. Lanier was undaunted by this adverse evidence, and he spun a story that these women were at the edge of a cliff, when evil Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder came along and pushed them over the cliff:

Lanier Exhibit (from Fisher’s article in Forbes)

Whatever this cartoon lacks in artistic ability, we should give the magician his due; this is a powerful rhetorical metaphor, but it is not science. If it were, there would be a study that showed that ovarian cancers occurred more often in women with BrCa 2 mutations and talcum exposure than in women with BrCa 2 mutations without talcum exposure. The cartoon also imputes an intention to harm specific plaintiffs, which is not supported by the evidence. Lanier’s argument about the “edge of the cliff” does not change the scientific or legal standard that the alleged harm be the sine qua non of the tortious exposure. In the language of the American Law Institute’s Restatement of Torts4:

An actor’s tortious conduct must be a factual cause of another’s physical harm for liability to be imposed. Conduct is a factual cause of harm when the harm would not have occurred absent the conduct.”

Lanier’s cartoon also mistakes risk, if risk it should be, with cause in fact. Reverting back to basic principles, Kenneth Rothman reminds us5:

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.”

Chain, Chain, Chain — Chain of Foolish Custody

Johnson & Johnson has moved for a new trial, complaining about Lanier’s illusionary antics, as well as cheesy lawyering. Apparently, Lanier used a block of cheese to illustrate his view of talc mining. In most courtrooms, argument is confined to closing statements of counsel, but in Judge Burlison’s courtroom, Lanier seems to have engaged in one, non-stop argument from the opening bell.

Whether there was asbestos in Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder was obviously a key issue in Lanier’s cases. According to Fisher’s article, Lanier was permitted, over defense objections, to present expert witness opinion testimony based upon old baby powder samples bought from collectors on eBay, for which chain of custody was lacking or incomplete. If this reporting is accurate, then Mr. Lanier is truly a magician, with the ability to make well-established law disappear.6

The Lanier Firm’s Website

One suggestion of how out of control Judge Burlison’s courtroom was is evidenced in Johnson & Johnson’s motion for a new trial, as reported by Fisher. Somehow, defense counsel had injected the content of Lanier’s firm’s website into the trial. According to the motion for new trial, that website had stated that talc “used in modern consumer products” was not contaminated with asbestos. In his closing argument, however, Lanier told the jury he had looked at his website, and the alleged admission was not there.

How the defense was permitted to talk about what was on Lanier’s website is a deep jurisprudential puzzle. Such a statement would be hearsay, without an authorizing exception. Perhaps the defense argued that Lanier’s website was the admission by an agent of the plaintiffs, authorized to speak for them. The attorney-client relationship does create an agent-principal relationship, but it is difficult to fathom that it extends to every statement that Mr. Lanier made outside the record of the trials before the court. If you dear reader are aware of authority to the contrary, please let me know.

Whatever tenuous basis the defense may have advanced, in this cartoon trial, to inject Mr. Lanier’s personal extrajudicial statements into evidence, Mr. Lanier went one parsec farther, according to Fisher. In his closing argument, Lanier blatantly testified that he had checked the website cited and that the suggested statement was not there.

Sounds like a cartoon and a circus trial all bound up together; something that would bring smiles to the faces of Penn Jillette, P.T. Barnum, and Donald Duck.


1 With apologies to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and their “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” from which I have borrowed.

2 Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – A 500-Year History (2017).

4 “Factual Cause,” A.L.I. Restatement of the Law of Torts (Third): Liability for Physical & Emotional Harm § 26 (2010).

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

6 Paul C. Giannelli, “Chain of Custody,” Crim. L. Bull. 446 (1996); R. Thomas Chamberlain, “Chain of Custody: Its Importance and Requirements for Clinical Laboratory Specimens,” 20 Lab. Med. 477 (1989).

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