TORTINI

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

Quackers & Cheese – Trump Picks Kennedy to Study Vaccine Safety

January 11th, 2017

Science necessarily involves a willingness to follow evidence to whatever conclusions are warranted, if conclusions properly can be had. When it comes to vaccination conspiracies, Democrats have it in their political DNA to distrust pharmaceutical companies that research, develop, and manufacture vaccines. The current Republican party, which has been commandeered by theocrats and populists, see vaccination as federal government aggrandizement, and resist vaccination policy as contrary to God’s will. Science is often the loser in the cross-fire.

And so we now have the public spectacle of watching the left and the right join in similar scientific apostasies. Consider how both McCain and Obama both suggested that vaccines and autism were related in the 2008 election. (Although both candidates were to some extent slippery in their suggestions, which might have been appropriate given how little they knew about the controversies.) And consider Michelle Bachmann was converted to a similar view about the HPV vaccine on the basis of a woman’s anecdote about her child. And then on the far left, you have the uplifting story of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and his brief on how thimerosal supposedly causes autism.

So it should be no surprise that Donald Trump, a Birther, a Mirther, a mid-night Twitterer, should embrace the anti-vaccination movement. Trump has made it clear that he rejects evidence-based policy, and so no one should expect him to embrace a scientific policy that is driven by high-quality scientific evidence. According to Kennedy, Trump wants Kennedy to head up a “commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Michael D. Shear, Maggie Haberman & Pam Belluckjan, “Anti-Vaccine Activist Says Trump Wants Him to Lead Panel on Immunization Safety,” N.Y. Times (Jan. 10, 2017); Domenico Montanaro, “Despite The Facts, Trump Once Again Embraces Vaccine Skeptics,” National Public Radio (Jan. 10, 2017).

Who needs the National Academy of Medicine when you can put a yutzball lawyer in charge of a “commission”?

Some of the media refer to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a vaccine skeptic, but their terminology is grossly inaccurate and misleading. Kennedy is a vaccine denier; he has engaged in a vitriolic campaign against the safety and efficacy of vaccines. He has aligned himself with the most extreme deniers of science, medicine, and public safety, including the likes of Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Kennedy has not merely engaged hyperbolic rhetoric against vaccines, he has used his radio show on the lawsuit industry’s Ring of Fire, to advance his campaign against public health as well as to shill for the lawsuit industry on other issues. SeeRFK, Jr.: Science Shows That Autism — Mercury Link Exists – PT. ½,” Ring of Fire (Mar 8, 2011).

Kennedy should not be characterized as a skeptic, when he is a shrill ideologue, for whom science has no method that he is bound to respect. Back in July 2005, Kennedy published an article, “Deadly Immunity,” in both Rolling Stone and on Slate’s website. The article was a hateful screed against Big Pharma and government health agencies for an alleged conspiracy to hide the autism risks of thimerosal preservatives in vaccines. Several years later, on January 16, 2011, Salon retracted the article. Seehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deadly_Immunity” entry in Wikipedia. See also Phil Plait, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Anti-Vaxxer,” Slate (June 5 2013) (describing Kennedy as a full-blown anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist); Rahul K. Parikh, M.D., “Inside the vaccine-and-autism scare: A pediatrician traces the rise of the anti-vaccine movement that falsely linked thimerosal with autism and turned parents away from the most lifesaving medicine in history,” Salon (Sept. 22, 2008); Keith Kloor,Is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Anti-Science?” Discover Magazine (June 1, 2013); Steven Novella, “RFK Jr.s Autism Conspiracy Theory,” (Jun 20 2007).

Back in 2008, President Obama apparently considered Robert Kennedy for a cabinet-level position, but on sober reflection, thought better of it. See Steven Novella, “Politics and Science – The RFK Jr. Test,” (Nov. 07 2008). The Wall Street Journal, joined by many others, are now urging Trump to think harder and better about the issue, perhaps with some evidence as well. See Alex Berezow & Hank Campbell, “Ignore Anti-Vaccine Hysteria, Mr. Trump: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s conspiracy theories have no place in the White House,” Wall Street J. (Jan. 10, 2017).

Art Historian Expert Testimony

August 15th, 2016

Art appraisal and authentication is sometimes held out as a non-technical and non-scientific area of expertise, and as such, not subject to rigorous testing.[1] But to what extent is this simply excuse mongering for an immature field of study? The law has seen way too much of this sort of rationalization in criminal forensic studies.[2] If an entire field of learning suffers from unreliability because of its reliance upon subjective methodologies, lack of rigor, inability or unwillingness to use measurements, failure to eliminate biases through blinding, and the like, then do expert witnesses in this field receive a “pass” under Rule 702, simply because they are doing reasonably well compared with their professional colleagues?

In the movie Who the Fuck is Jackson Pollack, the late Thomas Hoving was interviewed about the authenticity of a painting claimed to have been “painted” by Jackson Pollack. Hoving “authoritatively,” and with his typical flamboyance, averred that the disputed painting was not a Pollack because the work “did not sing to me like a Pollack.” Hoving did not, however, attempt to record the notes he heard; nor did Hoving speak to what key Pollack usually painted in.

In a recent case of defamation and tortious interference with prospective business benefit, a plaintiff sued over the disparagement of a painting’s authenticity and provenance. As a result of the defendants’ statements that the painting at issue was not created by Peter M. Doig, auction houses refused to sell the painting held by plaintiff. In litigation, the plaintiff proffered an expert witness who opined that the painting was, in fact, created by Doig. The defendants challenged plaintiff’s expert witness as not reliable or relevant under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. Fletcher v. Doig, 13 C 3270, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95081 (N.D. Ill. July 21, 2016).

Peter Bartlow, the plaintiff’s expert witness on authenticity, was short on academic credentials. He had gone to college, and finished only one year of graduate study in art history. Bartlow did, however, have 40 years in experience in appraisal and authentication. Fletcher, at *3-4. Beyond qualifications, the defendants complained that Bartlow’s method was

(1) invented for the case,

(2) was too “generic” to establish authenticity, and

(3) failed to show that any claimed generic feature was unique to the work of the artist in question, Peter M. Doig.

The trial court rebuffed this challenge by noting that Peter Bartlow did not have to be an expert specifically in Doig’s work. Fletcher at *7. Similarly, the trial court rejected the defendants’ suggestion that the disputed work must exhibit “unique” features of Doig’s ouevre. Bartlow had made a legally sufficient case for his opinions based upon a qualitative analysis of 45 acknowledged works, using specific qualitative features of 11 known works. Id. At *10. Specifically, Bartlow compared types of paint, similarities in styles, shapes and positioning, and “repeated lineatures” by superimposing lines from known paintings to the questioned ones. Id. With respect to the last of these approaches, the trial court found that Bartlow’s explanation that the approach of superimposing lines to show similarity was simply a refinement of methods commonly used by art appraisers.

By comparison with Thomas Hoving’s subjective auditory methodology, as explained in Who the Fuck, Bartlow’s approach was positively brilliant, even if the challenged methodologies left much to be desired. For instance, Bartlow compared one disputed painting with 45 or so paintings of accepted provenance. No one tested Bartlow’s ability, blinded to provenance, to identify true and false positives of Doig paintings. SeeThe Eleventh Circuit Confuses Adversarial and Methodological Bias, Manifestly Erroneously” (June 6, 2015); see generally Christopher Robertson & Aaron Kesselheim, Blinding as a Solution to Bias: Strengthening Biomedical Science, Forensic Science, and Law (2016).

Interestingly, the Rule 702 challenges in Fletcher were in a case slated to be tried by the bench. The trial court thus toasted the chestnut that trial courts have even greater latitude in admitting expert witness opinion testimony in bench trials, in which “the usual concerns of [Rule 702] – keeping unreliable testimony from the jury – are not present.” Fletcher at *3 (citing Metavante Corp. v. Emigrants Savings Bank, 619 F.3d 648, 670 (7th Cir. 2010)). Citing Seventh Circuit precedent, the trial court, in Fletcher, asserted that the need to rule on admissibility before trial was lessened in a bench trial. Id. (citing In re Salem, 465 F.3d 767, 777 (7th Cir. 2006)). The courts that have taken this position have generally failed to explain why the standard for granting or denying a Rule 702 challenge should be different in a bench trial. Clearly, a bench trial can be just as much a waste of time, money, and energy as a jury trial. Even more clearly, judges can be, and are, snookered by misleading expert witness opinions, and they are also susceptible to their own cognitive biases and the false allure of unreliable opinion testimony, built upon invalid inferences. Men and women do not necessarily see more clearly when wearing black robes, but they can achieve some measure of objectivity by explaining and justifying their gatekeeping opinions in writing, subject to public review, comment, and criticism.


[1] See, e.g. Lees v. Carthage College, 714 F.3d 516, 525 (7th Cir. 2013) (holding that an expert witness’s testimony on premises security involved non-scientific expertise and knowledge that did “not easily admit of rigorous testing and replication”).

[2] See, e.g., National Academies of Science, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward (2009).

The LoGiudice Inquisitiorial Subpoena & Its Antecedents in N.Y. Law

July 14th, 2016

The plaintiffs’ bar’s inquisition into funding has been a recurring theme in the asbestos and other litigations.[1] It is thus interesting to compare the friendly reception Justice Moulton gave plaintiffs’ subpoena in LoGiudice[2] with the New York courts’ relatively recent hostility toward a defendant’s subpoena to Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

A few years ago, Justice Sherry Heitler quashed a defendant’s attempt to subpoena information from the archives of a deceased, former faculty member of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine (“Mt. Sinai”), in Reyniak v. Barnstead Internat’l, No. 102688-08, 2010 NY Slip Op 50689, 2010 WL 1568424 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Apr. 6, 2010). In a cursory opinion, Justice Heitler cited institutional expense, chilling of research, and scholars’ fears that their unpublished notes, ideas, and observations would become public as a result of litigation. Heitler relied upon and followed an earlier New York state court’s decision that adopted a rather lopsided “balancing” analysis, which permitted the New York courts to ignore the legitimate needs of defendants for access to underlying data.[3]

Remarkably, Justice Heitler failed to cite a federal appellate court’s subsequent decision, which upheld the tobacco companies’ subpoena to Mount Sinai.[4] Her opinion also ignored the important context of the asbestos litigation, in which Selikoff, long since deceased, played a crucial role in fomenting and perpetuating litigation, with tendentious publications and pronouncements. Some might say, “manufacturing certainty.” Perpetuating the Litigation Industry’s Selikoff mythology, Justice Heitler described Selikoff as a ground breaking asbestos researcher, but she either ignored, or was ignorant of, his testimonial adventures, his attempts to influence litigation with ex parte meetings with presiding judges, and his other questionable litigation-related conduct.

Selikoff’s participation in litigation was not always above board.  His supposedly ground-breaking work was funded by the insulator’s union, which also sought him out as a testifying expert witness. Among his many testimonial adventures,[5] Selikoff testified as early as 1966 that asbestos causes colorectal cancer, and that it caused a specific claimant’s colorectal cancer. See “Health Hazard Progress Notes: Compensation Advance Made in New York State,” 16(5) Asbestos Worker 13 (May 1966) (thanking Selikoff for his having given testimony to support an insulator’s claim that asbestos caused his colorectal cancer). To be sure, Selikoff made his litigation claims in the scientific literature as well, but without any acknowledgement of his involving in litigation involving this very issue, and his funding by the asbestos union.[6]

Given the dubious provenance of many of Selikoff’s opinions,[7] the disparate treatment of the subpoenas in LoGuidice and Reyniak is irreconcilable. The inflated prestige of Selikoff and Mount Sinai blinded the New York state trial courts to Selikoff’s role in litigation and his biased assessments in science. The judicial hypocrisy may well be the consequence of how the academic community has promoted Selikoff’s reputation, while working assiduously to undermine the reputations of anyone who has been connected with the defense of occupational disease claims. Consider, for instance, how Labor (Marxist) historians have railed against the role that Dr. Anthony Lanza played in personal injury litigation following the Gauley Bridge tunnel construction.  See Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale, “Anthony J. Lanza, Silicosis and the Gauley Bridge ‘Nine’,” 27 Social History of Medicine 86 (2013). While these historians deplore Lanza, however, they laud Selikoff. SeeBritish Labor Historians Belaboring American Labor History – Gauley Bridge” (Oct. 14, 2013). Politics and occupational disease litigation are like that.


[1] See In re All Litigation filed by Maune, Raichle, Hartley, French & Mudd LLC v. 3M Co., No. 5-15-0235, Ill. App., 5th Dist.; 2016 Ill. App. Unpub. LEXIS 1392 (June 30, 2016); “Engineers for Automakers Must Unredact Agendas in Madison County Asbestos Litigation,” Madison County Record (July 2016); Lynn A. Lenhart, “Meeting Agendas Between Non-Party Consultant and Counsel for Asbestos Friction Clients Not Privileged” (July 5, 2016).  See also Weitz & Luxenberg P.C. v. Georgia-Pacific LLC, 2013 WL 2435565, 2013 NY Slip Op 04127 (June 6, 2013), aff’d, 2013 WL 2435565 (N.Y. App. Div., 1st Dep’t June 6, 2013); “A Cautionary Tale on How Not to Sponsor a Scientific Study for Litigation” (June 21, 2013).

[2] LoGiudice v. American Talc Co., No. 190253/2014, 2016 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 2360, (N.Y. Sup., N.Y. Cty., June 20, 2016).

[3] See In re R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., 136 Misc 2d 282, 285, 518 N.Y.S.2d 729 (Sup. Ct., N.Y. Cty. 1987); see also In re New York County Data Entry Worker Prod. Liab.Litig., No. 14003/92, 1994 WL 87529 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. Jan 31, 1994) (denying discovery because “special circumstances,” vaguely defined were absent).

[4] Mount Sinai School of Medicine v. The American Tobacco Co., 866 F.2d 552 (2d Cir. 1889).

[5]Selikoff and the Mystery of the Disappearing Testimony” (Dec. 3, 2010).

[6] See, e.g., Irving J. Selikoff, “Epidemiology of gastrointestinal cancer,” 9 Envt’l Health Persp. 299 (1974) (arguing for his causal conclusion between asbestos and all gastrointestinal cancers).

[7] See generally Scientific Prestige, Reputation, Authority & The Creation of Scientific Dogmas” (Oct. 4, 2014); “Historians Should Verify Not Vilify or Abilify – The Difficult Case of Irving Selikoff” (Jan. 4, 2014).

Mens Rea Defense – Good Heart (?) and Empty Head

July 11th, 2016

Extreme Carelessness Versus Gross Negligence

The case of Hilary Clinton offers an interesting fact set for exploring jurisprudential questions about the differences among intentional, reckless, and negligent misconduct. Of course, Clinton’s malfeasance, regardless of the attributed mens rea, has received a good deal of publicity, and ultimately, there should be an exemplary factual record, which can be used to explore the different culpable states of mind.

In her column yesterday, Maureen Dowd captured how many rational United States voters must feel about the irrationality of our national politics, and the Clinton email scandal.[1]  James Comey, Director of the FBI, detailed the facts that would probably require President Obama to fire Hilary Clinton if she were still Secretary of State in his administration.  Instead, the President is endorsing Clinton to be his successor. Of course, Obama could put the nation at ease, however, by revealing that he never allowed Clinton to have access to REALLY confidential information because he just did not trust her. Perhaps that might improve public perception of his judgment while exculpating her.

Dowd was commenting upon Comey’s conclusion that Hillary Clinton’s use of email for State Department confidential and classified communications, over her own, private e-mail server to handle work-related communications was “extremely careless.” See James B. Comey, “Statement by FBI Director on the Investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Use of a Personal E-Mail System,” FBI Press Office, Washington, D.C. (July 05, 2016). In his press conference, however, Comey announced that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges because in his view Ms. Clinton’s conduct was not proscribed by pertinent statutes. And of course, Obama’s Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, fresh from a tête-à-tête with Ms. Clinton’s husband, who had nominated her to the position of United States Attorney back in 1999, agreed with Comey in a New York minute.

Comey framed his political indictment of extreme carelessness in a way to suggest that although Clinton might not be worthy of a security clearance, she should not be prosecuted:

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Comey acknowledged that “there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information,” but offered his judgment “that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”[2]

But why is it that no reasonable prosecute would indict? This is where the Clinton scandal raises questions about inferring mental states and becomes jurisprudentially interesting.

Comey was clear that Clinton had put confidential, classified information at risk, by using her email on foreign soil, where sophisticated, “hostile actors” could have hacked her account without her being able to certify otherwise. Cybersecurity experts were less “politic,” and more willing to go beyond “possible” to claim “probable” hacking had taken place. Clinton had no full-time cyber-security professional monitoring her email system.[3]

Comey ended his performance by claiming that only the facts mattered; opinions were irrelevant. “Just the facts, ma’am.” But his judgments about reasonable prosecutors, obstruction, and disloyalty are not facts; they are opinions, and particularly, they are opinions that involve inferences about mental states, mens rea, and motives.

Comey offered precedent, in the form of prior prosecutions, which according to Comey, all involved elements of intentional conduct, including willful mishandling of classified information, indications of disloyalty to the United States, or efforts to obstruct justice. And Comey just did not see those elements in the Hilary Clinton case.

Were the inferences to these putatively missing elements truly unwarranted? Was Comey really looking or was this a case of cognitive bias or willful blindness? After all, Comey was compelled “on the facts,” to acknowledge that there were over 100 Clinton emails with classified information turned over to the State Department, and a few additional emails found with classified information, which were not turned over to State.  Of course no one could say what was in the emails that had been spoliated by Clinton or under her supervision.

Clinton clearly had attempted to obstruct the investigation into her unlawful conduct. She repeatedly lied about her motive for eschewing State Department regulations and protocols. She destroyed evidence.  She lied about the content of the emails and their security status. Clinton’s disloyalty to the country was manifest. She adopted a private, unsecured email system not only for her own convenience, for the needs of her own future political candidacy, and so that she could provide access to confidents not in the government, such as unapproved actors, Sidney Blumenthal and William J. Clinton.

Given that the email server belonged to the Clintons, not the State Department, former President Bill Clinton, could check into his Chappaqua, New York, system to catch up on the latest diplomatic initiatives before he set off to give a six-figure speech to foreign potentates. Bill Clinton claimed he does not send emails, but that does not mean he does not read emails, on which may have been blind copied. How convenient to bcc Bill on emails sent to Barack, to get keep him “in the loop”?

Comey’s suggestion that Clinton did not meet the mens rea requirement of the pertinent criminal statute would not seem to hold up under scrutiny. The provisions of the federal criminal code define punishable conduct for “gathering, transmitting, or losing defense information.” 18 U.S. Code § 793. This provision does require intent or gross negligence, which Comey seemed to suggest were absent or not readily proven in the Clinton case. And yet, Clinton intended to gather and transmit defense information contrary to law.  Actually “losing information” is not a required element, although even there, Clinton lost information that sat on her server when she chose to destroy it rather than maintain it, as was legally required.

As for gross negligence, Comey himself made the case, although he characterized Clinton’s conduct as “extremely careless.” There does not seem to be any meaningful distinction between gross negligence and extreme carelessness. The current Wikipedia entry for gross negligence illustrates the subtle, sometimes evanescent distinctions among “negligence,” “gross negligence,” and “recklessness”:

 “Gross negligence is legally culpable carelessness that shows a conscious and voluntary disregard of the need to use reasonable care, and likely to cause foreseeable grave injury or harm. The difference between “negligence” and “gross negligence” may be subjective since it is a matter of degree. Negligence is the opposite of diligence, or being careful. The standard of ordinary negligence is what conduct deviates from the proverbial “reasonable person.” By analogy, if somebody has been grossly negligent, that means they have fallen so far below the ordinary standard of care that one can expect, to warrant the label of being “gross.” Prosser and Keeton describe gross negligence as being “the want of even slight or scant care”, and note it as having been described as a lack of care that even a careless person would use. They further note that while some jurisdictions equate the culpability of gross negligence with that of recklessness, most simply differentiate it from simple negligence in its degree.[1]

Jurisprudes struggle to define gross negligence and distinguish it from ordinarily negligence and recklessness. Consensus and precise definitions are hard to find, and some of the case law definitions appear vacuous or circular. In many analyses, the grossness of someone’s negligence may be something recognized when encountered, much like Potter Stewart’s obscenities. See Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964).

The recent litigation over the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by the oil rig, Deepwater Horizon, illustrates the struggle to define gross negligence:

“Gross negligence is a nebulous term that is defined in a multitude of ways, depending on the legal context and the jurisdiction. However, when the “cluster of ideas” surrounding “gross negligence” is considered, the prevailing notion is that gross negligence differs from ordinary negligence in terms of degree, and both are different in kind from reckless, wanton, and willful misconduct.

[…]

Gross negligence, like ordinary negligence, requires only objective, not subjective, proof. While ordinary negligence is a failure to exercise the degree of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised in the same circumstances, gross negligence is an extreme departure from the care required under the circumstances or a failure to exercise even slight care. Thus, the United States contends that gross negligence differs from ordinary negligence only in degree, not in kind.”

In re Oil Spill by Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in Gulf of Mexico, 2014 WL 4375933 (E.D. La. Sept. 4, 2014).

Some commentators have argued that reckless and careless are synonyms.[4] This argument ignores important distinctions drawn in the criminal law, and in the law of torts. Perhaps the clearest distinction between recklessness and negligence is set out in the Model Penal Code’s definitions of the kinds of culpability.  MPC  § 2.02 (2). Subsection (c) defines “recklessly” as follows:

“A person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and purpose of the actor’s conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a law-abiding person would observe in the actor’s situation.”

And Subsection (d) defines “negligently” as follows:

“A person acts negligently with respect to a material element of an offense when he should be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the actor’s failure to perceive it, considering the nature and purpose of his conduct and the circumstances known to him, involves a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.”

So both recklessness and (criminal) negligence involve “gross” deviations, but recklessness requires a greater subjective awareness, whereas negligence can be shown using an objective, “reasonable person” test.

Given Comey’s recitation of “just the facts,” and adding in his Capitol Hill testimony, it would seem that a rookie prosecutor could indict and convict Ms. Clinton of intentional or grossly negligent mishandling of confidential information, as well as a conspiracy to cover it up.

Of course, there might be good political reasons not to indict Clinton, including that it might cause the election of Donald Trump, but that would require adverting to facts beyond the Clinton case.


[1] Maureen Dowd, “The Clinton Contamination,” New York Times (July 10, 2016).

[2] See Daniel Fisher, “FBI Calls Hillary’s E-Mail Habits ‘Extremely Careless’ But Not Criminal,” Forbes (July 5, 2016).

[3] David E. Sanger, “Hillary Clinton’s Email Was Probably Hacked, Experts Say,” New York Times (July 6, 2016).

[4] See Craig Bannister, “A President Can’t Be RecklessNational Review (July 2016).