TORTINI

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

From Here to CERT-ainty

June 28th, 2018

An enterprising journalist, Michael Waters, recently published an important exposé on the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT). Michael Waters, “The Secretive Non-Profit Gaming California’s Health Laws: The Council for Education and Research on Toxics has won million-dollar settlements using a controversial public health law,” The Outline (June 18, 2018). Digging deep into the shadowy organization, Mr. Waters reported that:

“CERT doesn’t have a website, a social media account, or any notable public presence, despite having won million-dollar judgments by suing corporations. However, files from the California Secretary of State show that in May 30, 2001, four people co-founded the non-profit: C. Sterling Wolfe, a former environmental lawyer; Brad Lunn; Carl Cranor, a toxicology professor at University of California Riverside; and Martyn T. Smith, a toxicology professor at Berkeley.”

Id.

Mr. Water’s investigation puts important new facts on the table about the conduct of the CERT corporation. The involvement of Christopher Sterling Wolfe, a Torrance, California, plaintiffs’ lawyer, is not terribly surprising. The involvement in CERT of frequent plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Carl F. Cranor and Martyn T. Smith, however, raises serious ethical questions. Both Cranor and Smith were expert witnesses for plaintiffs in the infamous Milward case,1 and after the trial court excluded their testimony and granted summary judgment, CERT filed an amicus brief in the Court of Appeals.2

The rules governing amicus briefs in federal appellate courts require disclosure of the amicus’s interest in the proceedings. By the time that CERT filed its amicus brief in Milward, Cranor and Smith may not have been officers of the corporation, but given CERT’s funding of Smith’s research, these “Founding Fathers” certainly had a continuing close relationship with the corporation.3Coffee with Cream, Sugar & a Dash of Acrylamide” (June 9, 2018). Given CERT’s name, which suggests a public interest mission, the corporation’s litigation activities on behalf of its founders, Cranor and Smith, exhibit a certain lack of candor with the court.

======================

My discussions with Mr. Waters, and his insightful piece in The Outline, led to a call from Madeleine Brand, who wanted to discuss CERT’s litigation against Starbucks, under California’s Proposition 65 laws, over acrylamide content in coffee. David Roe, a self-styled environmental activist and drafter of California’s bounty hunting law, was interviewed directly after me.4

As every California now no doubt knows, acrylamide is present in many foods. The substance is created when the amino acid asparagine is heated in the presence of sugars. Of course, I expected to hear Roe defend his creation, Proposition 65, generally, and the application of Proposition 65 to the low levels of acrylamide in coffee, perhaps on contrary-to-fact precautionary principle grounds. What surprised me were Roe’s blaming the victim, Starbucks for not settling, and his strident assertions that it was a long-established fact that acrylamide causes cancer.

Contrary to Roe’s asseverations, the National Cancer Institute has evaluated the acrylamide issues quite differently. On its website, the NCI has addressed “Acrylamide and Cancer Risk,” and mostly found none. Roe had outrageously suggested that there were no human data, because of the ethics of feeding acrylamide to humans, and so regulators had to rely upon rodent studies. The NCI, however, had looked at occupational studies in which workers were exposed to acrylamide in manufacturing processes at levels much higher than any dietary intake. The NCI observed “studies of occupational exposure have not suggested increased risks of cancer.” As for rodents, the NCI noted that “toxicology studies have shown that humans and rodents not only absorb acrylamide at different rates, they metabolize it differently as well.”

The NCI’s fact sheet is a relatively short précis, but the issue of acrylamide has been addressed in many studies, collected and summarized in meta-analyses.5 Since the NCI’s summary of the animal toxicology and human epidemiology, several important research groups have reported careful human studies that consistently have found no association between dietary acrylamide and cancer risk.6


1 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).

2 See “The Council for Education and Research on Toxics” (July 9, 2013).

3 A Guidestar Report show that in 2007, the corporate officer were Nancy L. Quam-Wickham and Nancy Perley, in addition to Lunn and Wolfe.

4 Not to be confused with David Roe, the famous snooker player.

5 Claudio Pelucchi, Carlo La Vecchia, Bosetti C, P. Boyle & Paolo Boffetta, “Exposure to acrylamide and human cancer–a review and meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies,” 22 Ann. Oncology 1487 (2011); Claudio Pelucchi, Cristina Bosetti, Carlotta Galeone & Carlo La Vecchia, “Dietary acrylamide and cancer risk: An updated meta-analysis,” 136 Internat’l J. Cancer 2912 (2015).

6 C. Pelucchi, V. Rosato, P. M. Bracci, D. Li, R. E. Neale, E. Lucenteforte, D. Serraino, K. E. Anderson, E. Fontham, E. A. Holly, M. M. Hassan, J. Polesel, C. Bosetti, L. Strayer, J. Su, P. Boffetta, E. J. Duell & C. La Vecchia, “Dietary acrylamide and the risk of pancreatic cancer in the International Pancreatic Cancer Case–Control Consortium (PanC4),” 28 Ann. Oncology 408 (2017) (reporting that the PanC4 pooled-analysis found no association between dietary acrylamide and pancreatic cancer); Rebecca E. Graff, Eunyoung Cho, Mark A. Preston, Alejandro Sanchez, Lorelei A. Mucci & Kathryn M. Wilson, “Dietary acrylamide intake and risk of renal cell carcinoma in two large prospective cohorts,” 27 Cancer Epidemiol., Biomarkers & Prevention (2018) (in press at doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-18-0320) (failing to find an association between dietary acrylamide and renal cell carcinoma); Andy Perloy, Leo J. Schouten, Piet A. van den Brandt, Roger Godschalk, Frederik-Jan van Schooten & Janneke G. F. Hogervorst, “The Role of Genetic Variants in the Association between Dietary Acrylamide and Advanced Prostate Cancer in the Netherlands Cohort Study on Diet and Cancer,” 70 Nutrition & Cancer 620 (2018) (finding “no clear evidence was found for interaction between acrylamide intake and selected genetic variants for advanced prostate cancer”).

Coffee with Cream, Sugar & a Dash of Acrylamide

June 9th, 2018

Causal statements are made all the time without much thought of their epistemic warrant. On a day that the stock market indices fall, would-be economic pundits point to some putative cause, such as concern about wage inflation. When the stock market rises on the following day, the explanation is that investors were buoyed by corporate tax cuts, even though those tax cuts were supposedly designed to help companies increase wages. As philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt has explained:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”1

Of course, Frankfurt’s dictum aptly describes the situation with much of expert witness testimony in health effects litigation.

Nothing seems to stimulate speculative causal claiming as much as the potential rewards of rent-seeking litigation under Proposition 65. By popular referendum, the State of California has taken upon itself to make pronouncements about the causal effects of various foods, drugs, and exposures. The referendum became a California statute with the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. Proposition 65 and the subsequent Enforcement Act require the State of California to publish a list of chemicals it “knows” cause cancers or birth defects. California knows a lot. The list, updated annually, now includes about 800 chemicals.

When California knows that a chemical or an exposure causes cancer, the state does not necessarily know that the chemical or exposure causes cancer in human beings; nor does it necessarily know that the chemical or exposure causes cancer at the exposure level experienced by the citizens of the state. Furthermore, many exposures occur in the context of complex mixtures in which a hypothetical effect of one chemical might be offset or antagonized by another chemical in the mixture. But nonetheless, what California “knows” can hurt you if you are on the wrong side of a Prop 65 enforcement action.

What has California gotten for all its “knowledge”? Clearly, the Proposition 65 statute has created huge incentives for private citizens to sue for violations by creating private rights of action against businesses that supposedly violate the law by failing to warn about what California knows. The proof standards for “known to cause cancer” are so removed from scientific discourse that forcing monetary settlements out of California businesses has become at once a big business itself, and a twisted process that distorts the truth of health hazards and benefits. There have been occasional outcries about the abusive system created from what once was perhaps a well-intentioned reform,2 but for the most part, Prop 65 has become the abnormal normal in California.

Mostly California has gotten lawsuits and a glut of warnings with no difference in cancer or birth defect rates than those observed in states less knowledgeable on such matters.3 Some of California’s cancer rates may be a bit lower than the national rates but this outcome is largely the result of lower state rates for smoking and obesity. Some birth defect rates (neural tube defects) are actually higher in California than in the country as a whole.4

Last year, 681 Prop 65 settlements worth $25.6 million were reported to the California attorney general’s office. Attorneys’ and expert witness fees and other litigation costs made up more than 75% of the total.5 The rate of return has been steady over the years. In 2011, 74 percent of Proposition 65 awards went to attorneys’ fees and costs.6

Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT)

For all the hoopla over CERT’s lawsuit against Starbucks,7 there has been little coverage of the actual testimony from the trial. One journalist did report that Peter Infante, a frequent testifier for the lawsuit industry, testified on epidemiology for CERT’s lawyer, Raphael Metzger.8 Apparently, Infante described some studies as showing statistically significant correlations between coffee drinking and some kinds of cancer. Infante demurred on whether coffee caused these kinds of cancer, and admitted that one “would need a clinical trial to resolve the issue.” David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who helped create the breast implant litigation fiasco and who now testifies frequently for the Lawsuit Industry, testified for Starbucks. Despite his substantial fear-mongering credentials, Dr Kessler emphasized that coffee is a “staple of the American diet,” and that drinking coffee has known health benefits. As everyone now knows, Starbucks failed to persuade the California trial judge that coffee, acrylamide and all, should come under the statute’s safe harbor provisions.

Almost five years ago, I first blogged about the CERT, in connection with the Milward case.9 When I first wrote back in 2013, and until the present, CERT, has not had a website, which is odd for an organization that professes to have an educational mission. In 2013, my research on CERT showed it to be a California corporation, EIN: 42-1571530, founded in 2003, with a business address at 401 E. Ocean Blvd., Ste. 800, Long Beach, California 90802-4967, and a telephone number:  1-877-TOX-TORT. CERT’s reported mission statement was furthering scientific understanding of toxins. Plaintiffs’ lawyer Ralph Metzger, a denizen of the Prop 65 world, was noted as the contact person for CERT, and indeed, the telephone number for CERT was the same as that for Metzger’s lawfirm, the Metzger Law Group.

As I started to watch the activities of CERT, I detected some curious patterns. I saw CERT file amicus briefs in legal cases, which is not the typical activity of a scientific research organization.10 Even more curious, and somewhat dubious, in two cases in which Ralphael Metzger of the Metzger Law Group represented the plaintiffs, another firm, Richard Alexander of the Alexander Law Group, represented CERT as an amicus in the same cases.11

Given the publicity created by CERT’s victory in its Proposition 65 citizen’s action against Starbucks, I recently revisited this research. See Alexander Nazaryan, “Will coffee in California come with a cancer warning?Los Angeles Times (Feb. 18, 2018). One group, “Deniers for Hire,” which describes itself as committed to “debunk anti-science propaganda and expose the activists who produce it,” identified CERT as:

a sham environmentalist nonprofit that sues food companies and collects settlements to fund additional lawsuits against other food companies. Founded in 2002 by toxicologist Martyn T. Smith, with backing from the shameless trial lawyers at Metzger Law Group, CERT uses junk science to target California businesses that can be sued under the state’s ill-conceived Proposition 65.”

The connection with Martyn T. Smith, was news to me, and interesting given how frequently Smith testifies for plaintiffs in cases involving even minimal benzene exposure. If correct, this website’s connecting Martyn Smith with CERT raises additional conflict-of-interest issues.

Funding of Research

Does CERT actually support research? Perhaps, after a fashion, but the money trail is as sketchy as is the ownership issue. Searching in Google Scholar turns up several publications that openly acknowledge funding from CERT. Perhaps only the young and naïve will be surprised that CERT money went to Martyn Smith, alleged founder of CERT and testifier for plaintiffs’ counsel, and to Smith’s students.12 In one instance, CERT support has been acknowledged by Martyn Smith and co-authors for the production of a meta-analysis, which can then be relied upon by Smith and other plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in benzene litigation. Although this meta-analysis credits funding from CERT, most readers of a professional journal will have little idea of the funding’s litigation provenance.13 The corresponding author of the CERT-funded meta-analysis was an official in the California state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, an office which is in a position to make decisions that help CERT in its California litigation goals.14

The funding of Martyn Smith and his students would certainly be questionable if Smith was a founder of or a participant in CERT. When Smith’s litigation opinions were challenged in one high-profile case, CERT rallied to his rescue with an amicus brief, which did not disclose any relationship between CERT and Martyn Smith, or CERT’s funding of Smith’s research. Milward v. Acuity Specialty Prods. Group, Inc., 639 F.3d 11 (1st Cir. 2011).

A current online listing at Guidestar gives Nancy Quam-Wickham as the “principal officer,” with the same EIN for CERT, as I saw five years ago. Quam-Wickham is a professor of history at California State University, in Long Beach. She seems an unlikely person to head up an organization given to research and education on “toxics.” The phone number for CERT is now 6101824891, but the mailing address is still Ralphael Metzger’s law office.

The Charity Navigator website does not rate CERT because its annual revenue is below $1 million. The website describes CERT as a 501(c)(3), with the same current address as Metzger’s lawfirm. According to Charity Navigator, CERT’s IRS 990 return listed assets of $21,880, and income of $137,354, for 2017.

So what are CERT’s educational activities? The sketchiness of CERT’s appearance as an “amicus” in Ralphael Metzger’s own lawsuits seems matched by the sketchiness of the organization’s professed educational mission. A deeper dive discovered that CERT has garnered some acknowledgements on the websites of other organizations. For instance, the Green Science Policy Institute, founded in 2008, for instance, acknowledges CERT for its “generous support” of the Institute’s work.

Some of CERT’s “educational” efforts have not fared particularly well. In the Chemtura Corporation bankruptcy, CERT attempted to intervene to assert a $9 billion claim to compensate “the public” for alleged injuries from the bankrupt’s allegedly toxic chemicals. In re Chemtura Corp., No. 09-11233, U.S. Bankruptcy Court (S.D.N.Y. 2010). Bankruptcy Judge Robert Gerber was not impressed with CERT’s educational efforts, and dismissed the entity as lacking the necessary standing to make a claim.15


1 Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit 63 (2005).

2 See, e.g., Lisa L. Halko, “California’s Attorney General Acknowledges Prop 65 Abuse,” 22 no. 29 Wash. Leg. Fdtn. Legal Backgrounder (July 27, 2007); Pamela A. MacLean, “California Judge Blasts Firm in Toxic-Warnings Case,” Nat’l L.J. (April 13, 2006); Consumer Defense Group v. Rental Housing Industry Members40 Cal. Rptr. 3d 832 (Cal. Ct. App. 4th 2006) (“As the Attorney General pointed out in oral argument, it does not serve the public interest to have the almost the entirety of the state of California ‘swamped in a sea [of] generic warning signs’.”).

7 Council for Education and Research on Toxics v. Starbucks Corp., BC435759, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County.

8 Edvard Pettersson, “Toxic Java? California Law Carries Big Fines, Little Evidence,” Bloomberg (Oct. 25, 2017).

10 See, e.g., Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., 7 N.Y.3d 434, 857 N.E.2d 1114, 824 N.Y.S.2d 584 (2006).

11 In Uriarte v. Scott Sales Co., 226 Cal. App. 4th 1396, 172 Cal. Rptr. 3d 886 (2014); Ramos v. Brenntag Specialties, Inc., 63 Cal.4th 500, 203 Cal. Rptr. 3d 273, 372 P.3d 200 (2016). In both of these cases, CERT was joined by a band of scientists proclaiming neutrality and failing to disclose their significant litigation activities and income: Dr. Jerrold Abraham, Dr. Richard W. Clapp, Dr. Ronald Crystal, Dr. David A. Eastmond, Dr. Arthur L. Frank, Dr. Robert J. Harrison, Dr. Ronald Melnick, Dr. Lee Newman, Dr. Stephen M. Rappaport, Dr. David Joseph Ross and Dr. Janet Weiss. SeeSand in My Shoe – CERTainly” (June 17, 2014). Of course, California appellate courts require that amici disclose financial interests. A motion for leave to file an amicus brief must include, among other things, the names of all persons or entities that contributed financially to the brief, and acknowledgments about whether any party of party’s lawyer helped fund the preparation or filing of the brief. Cal. Rules of Court, Rule 8.200(c)(3)(A)(ii), (B), 8.882(d)(3)(A)(ii) and (B).

12 See, e.g., Jimmy Phuong, Simon Kim, Reuben Thomas & Luoping Zhang, “Predicted Toxicity of the Biofuel Candidate 2,5-Dimethylfuran in Envt’l & Biological Systems,” 53 Envt’l & Molecular Mutagenesis 478 (2012); Michele Fromowitz, Joe Shuga, AntonioYip Wlassowsky, Zhiying Ji, Matthew North, Chris D. Vulpe, Martyn T. Smith, and Luoping Zhang, “Bone Marrow Genotoxicity of 2,5-Dimethylfuran, a Green Biofuel Candidate,” 53 Envt’l & Molecular Mutagenesis 488 (2012); Reuben Thomas, Jimmy Phuong, Cliona M. McHale and Luoping Zhang, “Using Bioinformatic Approaches to Identify Pathways Targeted by Human Leukemogens,” 9 Internat’l J. Envt’l. Research & Public Health 2479 (2012).

13 Frolayne M. Carlos-Wallace, Luoping Zhang, Martyn T. Smith, Gabriella Rader & Craig Steinmaus, “Parental, In Utero, and Early-Life Exposure to Benzene and the Risk of Childhood Leukemia: A Meta-Analysis,” 183 Am. J. Epidem. 1 (2016).

14 Dr. Craig Steinmaus, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, 1515 Clay Street, 16th Floor, Oakland, CA 94612.

15 Caroline Humer, “Judge rules against big Chemtura bankruptcy claim,” Reuters (April 8, 2010); John Parry, “Chemtura hits back at $9 billion claim over toxins,” Reuters (Mar. 24, 2010).

Wrong Words Beget Causal Confusion

February 12th, 2018

In clinical medical and epidemiologic journals, most articles that report about associations will conclude with a discussion section in which the authors hold forth about

(1) how they have found that exposure to X “increases the risk” of Y, and

(2) how their finding makes sense because of some plausible (even if unproven) mechanism.

In an opinion piece in Significance,1 Dalmeet Singh Chawla cites to a study that suggests the “because” language frequently confuses readers into believing that a causal claim is being made. The study abstract explains:

Most researchers do not deliberately claim causal results in an observational study. But do we lead our readers to draw a causal conclusion unintentionally by explaining why significant correlations and relationships may exist? Here we perform a randomized study in a data analysis massive online open course to test the hypothesis that explaining an analysis will lead readers to interpret an inferential analysis as causal. We show that adding an explanation to the description of an inferential analysis leads to a 15.2% increase in readers interpreting the analysis as causal (95% CI 12.8% – 17.5%). We then replicate this finding in a second large scale massive online open course. Nearly every scientific study, regardless of the study design, includes explanation for observed effects. Our results suggest that these explanations may be misleading to the audience of these data analyses.”

Leslie Myint, Jeffrey T. Leek, and Leah R. Jager, “Explanation implies causation?” (Nov. 2017) (on line manuscript).

Invoking the principle of charity, these authors suggest that most researchers are not deliberately claiming causal results. Indeed, the language of biomedical science itself is biased in favor of causal interpretation. The term “statistical significance” suggests causality to naive readers, as does stats talk about “effect size,” and “fixed effect models,” for data sets that come no where near establishing causality.

Common epidemiologic publication practice tolerates if not encourages authors to state that their study shows (finds, demonstrates, etc.) that exposure to X “increases the risk” of Y in the studies’ samples. This language is deliberately causal, even if the study cannot support a causal conclusion alone or even with other studies. After all, a risk is the antecedent of a cause, and in the stochastic model of causation involved in much of biomedical research, causation will manifest in a change of a base rate to a higher or lower post-exposure rate. Given that mechanism is often unknown and not required, then showing an increased risk is the whole point. Eliminating chance, bias, confounding, and study design often is lost in the irrational exuberance of declaring the “increased risk.”

Tighter editorial control might have researchers qualify their findings by explaining that they found a higher rate in association with exposure, under the circumstances of the study, followed by an explanation that much more is needed to establish causation. But where is the fun and profit in that?

Journalists, lawyers, and advocacy scientists often use the word “link,” to avoid having to endorse associations that they know, or should know, have not been shown to be causal.2 Using “link” as a noun or a verb clearly implies a causal chain metaphor, which probably is often deliberately implied. Perhaps publishers would defend the use of “link” by noting that it is so much shorter than “association,” and thus saves typesetting costs.

More attention is needed to word choice, even and especially when statisticians and scientists are using their technical terms and jargon.3 If, for the sake of argument, we accept the sincerity of scientists who work as expert witnesses in litigation in which causal claims are overstated, we can see that poor word choices confuse scientists as well as lay people. Or you can just read the materials and methods and the results of published study papers; skip the introduction and discussion sections, as well as the newspaper headlines.


1 Dalmeet Singh Chawla, “Mind your language,” Significance 6 (Feb. 2018).

2 See, e.g., Perri Klass, M.D., “https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/well/family/does-an-adhd-link-mean-tylenol-is-unsafe-in-pregnancy.html,” N.Y. Times (Dec. 4, 2017); Nicholas Bakalar, “Body Chemistry: Lower Testosterone Linked to Higher Death Risk,” N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2006).

3 Fang Xuelan & Graeme Kennedy, “Expressing Causation in Written English,” 23 RELC J. 62 (1992); Bengt Altenberg, “Causal Linking in Spoken and Written English,” 38 Studia Linguistica 20 (1984).

Ninth Circuit Quashes Harkonen’s Last Chance

January 8th, 2018

With the benefit of hindsight, even the biggest whopper can be characterized as a strategic choice for trial counsel. As are result of this sort of thinking, the convicted have a very difficult time in pressing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. After the fact, a reviewing or an appellate court can always imagine a strategic reason for trial counsel’s decisions, even if they contributed to the client’s conviction.

In the Harkonen case, a pharmaceutical executive was indicted and tried for wire fraud and misbranding. His crime was to send out a fax with a preliminary assessment of a recently unblinded clinical trial. In his fax, Dr Harkonen described the trial’s results as “demonstrating” a survival benefit in study participants with mild and moderate disease. Survival (or mortality) was not a primary outcome of the trial, but it was a secondary outcome, and arguably the most important one of all. The subgroup of “mild and moderate” was not pre-specified, but it was highly plausible.

Clearly, Harkonen’s post hoc analysis would not be sufficient normally to persuade the FDA to approve a medication, but Harkonen did not assert or predict that the company would obtain FDA approval. He simply claimed that the trial “demonstrated” a benefit. A charitable interpretation of his statement, which was several pages long, would include the prior successful clinical trial, as important context for Harkonen’s statement.

The United States government, however, was not interested in the principle of charity, the context, or even its own pronouncements on the issue of statistical significance. Instead, the United States Attorney pushed for draconian sentences under the Wire Fraud Act, and the misbranding sections of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. A jury acquitted on the misbranding charge, but convicted on wire fraud. The government’s request for an extreme prison term and fines was rebuffed by the trial court, which imposed a term of six months of house arrest, and a small fine.1 The conviction, however, effectively keeps Dr Harkonen from working again in the pharmaceutical industry.

In post-verdict challenges to the conviction, Harkonen’s lawyers were able to marshal support from several well-renown statisticians and epidemiologists, but the trial court was reluctant to consider these post-verdict opinions when the defense called no expert witness at trial. The trial situation, however, was complicated and confused by the government’s pre-trial position that it would not call expert witnesses on the statistical and clinical trial interpretative issues. Contrary to these representations, the government called Dr Thomas Fleming, as statistician, who testified at some length, and without objection, to strict criteria for assessing statistical significance and causation in clinical trials.

Having read Fleming’s testimony, I can say that the government got away with introducing a great deal of expert witness opinion testimony, without effective contradiction or impeachment. With the benefit of hindsight, the defense decision not to call an expert witness looks like a serious deviation from the standard of care. Fleming’s “facts” about how the FDA would evaluate the success or failure of the clinical trial were not relevant to whether Harkonen’s claim of a demonstrated benefit were true or false. More importantly, Harkonen’s claim involved an inference, which is not a fact, but an opinion. Fleming’s contrary opinion really did not turn Harkonen’s claim into a falsehood. A contrary rule would have many expert witnesses in civil and in criminal litigation behind bars on similar charges of wire or mail fraud.

After Harkonen exhausted his direct appeals,2 he petitioned for a writ of coram nobis. The trial court denied the petition,3 and in a non-precedential opinion [sic], the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of coram nobis.4 United States v. Harkonen, slip op., No. 15-16844 (9th Cir., Dec. 4, 2017) [cited below as Harkonen].

The Circuit rejected Harkonen’s contention that the Supreme Court had announced a new rule with respect to statistical significance, in Matrixx Initiatives, Inc. v. Siracusano, 563 U.S. 27 (2011), which change in law required that his conviction be vacated. Harkonen’s lawyer, like much of the plaintiffs’ tort bar, oversold the Supreme Court’s comments about statistical significance, which were at best dicta, and not very well considered or supported dicta, at that. Still, there was an obvious tension, and duplicity, between positions that the government, through the Solicitor General’s office, had taken in Siracusano, and positions the government took in the Harkonen case.5 Given the government’s opportunistic double-faced arguments about statistical significance, the Ninth Circuit held that Harkonen’s proffered evidence was “compelling, especially in light of Matrixx,” but the panel concluded that his conviction was not the result of a “manifest injustice” that requires the issuance of the writ of coram nobis. Harkonen at 2 (emphasis added). Apparently, Harkonen had suffered an injustice of a less obvious and blatant variety, which did not rise to the level of manifest injustice.

The Ninth Circuit gave similarly short shrift to Harkonen’s challenge to the competency of his counsel. His trial lawyers had averred that they thought that they were doing well enough not to risk putting on an expert witness, especially given that the defense’s view of the evidence came out in the testimony of the government’s witnesses. The Circuit thus acquiesced in the view that both sides had chosen to forgo expert witness testimony, and overlooked the defense’s competency issue for not having objected to Fleming’s opinion trial testimony. Harkonen at 2-4. Remarkably, the appellate court did not look at how Fleming was allowed to testify on statistical issues, without being challenged on cross-examination.


2 United States v. Harkonen, 510 F. App’x 633, 638 (9th Cir. 2013), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 824 (2013).

4 Dave Simpson, “9th Circuit Refuses To Rethink Ex-InterMune CEO’s Conviction,” Law360 (Dec. 5, 2017).