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

Echeverria Talc Trial – Crossexamination on Alleged Expert Witness Misconduct

October 21st, 2017

In a post-trial end-zone victory dance in Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson, plaintiffs’ lawyer, Allen Smith proffered three explanations for the jury’s stunning $417 million verdict in his talc ovarian cancer case.1 One of the explanations asserted was Smith’s boast that he had adduced evidence that Johnson & Johnson’s expert witness on epidemiology, Douglas Weed, a former National Cancer Institute epidemiologist and physician, had been sanctioned in another, non-talc case in North Carolina, for lying under oath about whether he had notes to his expert report in that other case.2 Having now viewed Dr. Weed’s testimony3, through the Courtroom Video Network, I can evaluate Smith’s claim.

Weed’s allegedly perjurious testimony took place in Carter v. Fiber Composites LLC, 11 CVS 1355, N.C. Super. Ct., where he served as a party expert witness. In April 2014, Weed gave deposition testimony in the discovery phase of the Carter case. Although not served personally with a lawful subpoena, defense counsel had agreed to accept a subpoena for their expert witness to appear and produce documents, as was the local custom. In deposition, plaintiffs’ counsel asked Dr. Weed to produce any notes he created in the process of researching and writing his expert witness report. Dr. Weed testified that he had no notes. 

The parties disputed whether Dr. Weed had complied with a subpoena served upon defense counsel. The discovery dispute escalated and Dr. Weed obtained legal counsel, and submitted a sworn affidavit that denied the existence of notes. Plaintiffs’ counsel pressed on Dr. Weed’s understanding that he had no “notes.” In an Order, dated May 6, 2014, the trial court directed Dr. Weed to produce everything in his possession. In response to the order, Weed produced his calendar and a thumb drive with “small fragments of notes,” “inserts,” and “miscellaneous items.”

The North Carolina court did not take kindly to Dr. Weed’s confusion about whether his report “segments” and “inserts” were notes, or not. Dr. Weed viewed the segments and inserts to have been parts of his report, and later included within his report without any substantial change. The court concluded, however, that although Dr. Weed did not violate any court order, his assertion, in deposition, in an affidavit, and through legal counsel, was unreasonable, and directly related to his credibility in the Carter case. See Order Concerning Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions Against Defendants and Non-Party Witness for Defendants (June 22, 2015) (Forrest D. Bridges, J.).

The upshot was that Dr. Weed and his counsel had provided false information to the court, on the court’s understanding of what had been requested in discovery. In the court’s view, Dr. Weed’s misunderstanding may have been understandable as a non-lawyer, but it was not reasonable for him to persist and have his counsel argue that there were no notes. The trial court specifically did not find that Dr. Weed had lied, as asserted by Allen Smith, but found that Weed’s conduct was undertaken intentionally or with reckless disregard of the truth, and that his testimony was an unacceptable violation of the oath to tell the whole truth. The trial court concluded that it could not sanction Dr. Weed personally, but its order specified that as a sanction, the plaintiffs’ counsel would be permitted to cross-examine Dr. Weed with the court’s findings and conclusions in the Carter case. Id. Not surprisingly, defense counsel withdrew Dr. Weed as an expert witness.

In the Echeverria case, the defense counsel did not object to the cross-examination; the video proceedings did not inform the viewers whether there had been a prior motion in limine concerning this examination. Allen Smith’s assertion about the North Carolina court’s findings was thus almost true. A cynic might say he too had not told the whole truth, but he did march Dr. Weed through Judge Bridges’ order of June 2015, which was displayed to the jury.

Douglas Weed handled the cross-examination about as well as possible. He explained on cross, and later on redirect, that he did not regard segments of his report, which were later incorporated into his report as served, to be notes. He pointed out that there was no information in the segments, which differed from the final report, or which was not included in the report. Smith’s cross-examination, however, had raised questions not so much about credibility (despite Judge Bridges’ findings), but about whether Dr. Weed was a “quibbler,” who would hide behind idiosyncratic understandings of important words such as “consistency.” Given how harmless the belatedly produced report fragments and segments were, we are left to wonder why Dr. Weed persisted in not volunteering them.

Smith’s confrontation of Dr. Weed with the order from the Carter case came at the conclusion of a generally unsuccessful cross-examination. Unlike the Slemp case, in which Smith appeared to be able to ask unfounded questions without restraint from the bench, in Echeverria, Smith drew repeated objections, which were frequently sustained. His response often was to ask almost the same question again, drawing the same objection and the same ruling. He sounded stymied and defeated.

Courtroom Video Network, of course, does not film the jurors, and so watching the streaming video of the trial offers no insights into how the jurors reacted in real time to Smith’s cross-examination. If Weed’s testimony was ignored or discredited by Smith’s cross-examination on the Carter order, then the Escheverria case cannot be considered a useful test of the plaintiffs’ causal claim. Dr. Weed had offered important testimony on methodological issues for conducting and interpreting studies, as well as inferring causation.

One of the peculiarities of the Slemp case was that the defense offered no epidemiologist in the face of two epidemiologists offered by the plaintiff. In Escheverria, the defense addressed this gap and went further to have its epidemiologist address the glaring problem of how any specific causal inference can be drawn from a risk ratio of 1.3. Dr. Weed explained attributable risk and probability of causation, and this testimony and many other important points went without cross-examination or contradiction. And yet, after finding general causation on a weak record, the jury somehow leaped over an insurmountable epistemic barrier on specific causation.

1 Amanda Bronstad, “New Evidence Seen as Key in LA Jury’s $417M Talc Verdict,” (Aug. 22, 2017).

3 The cross-examination at issue arose about one hour, nine minutes into Smith’s cross-examination, on Aug. 15, 2017.

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).movie Her trailer

[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).

Whether to Conduct Depositions of Expert Witnesses

June 23rd, 2016

In a Litigation magazine article, Gregory Joseph sets out some strong reasons to consider for not conducting depositions of expert witnesses under the revised 2010 Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). See Gregory P. Joseph, “The Temptation to Depose Every Expert,” 40 Litigation 35 (Winter 2014) [cited below as Joseph]. Joseph points out that FRCP 26(a)(2)(B) requires parties to disclose, for all retained expert witnesses, “all opinions” and the “full factual basis” of all their opinions, among other things. The rule is exacting. All opinions includes “a complete statement of all opinions the witness will express and the basis and reasons for them.” FRCP 26(a)(2)(B)(i). And a full factual basis includes “the facts or data considered by the witness in forming” all of the opinions disclosed in the report. FRCP 26(a)(2)(B)(ii) (emphasis added).

Joseph argues that the breadth of the required disclosure, combined with sanctions for retained expert witnesses’s attempting to testify beyond the four corners of their reports, should give lawyers sufficient assurances in many instances to forego conducting depositions of expert witnesses.

Joseph notes that the FRCP creates a presumptive mandatory sanction of exclusion for undisclosed expert testimony. FRCP 37(c)(1).[1]  Joseph offers other arguments beyond the supposed comfort given by the “four corners” rule set out in the FRCP. Joseph at 36-37. First, the deposition may “reopen” discovery by giving expert witnesses opportunities to expand upon the four corners of their reports. Although some courts will limit what expert witnesses can throw over the transom at depositions, a supervising magistrate or district judge may not regard the expansion upon the disclosures in the report as “sandbagging,” and thus fail exclude the arguably new opinions or bases. Joseph cites a few cases in which courts condemned the sandbagging of counsel by the offering of new opinions in depositions, but points out that exclusion is this circumstance is highly discretionary. The court is not required to exclude, and it may permit the new material, or allow the new material with an inadequate amount of additional time in deposition. So taking the deposition has risks.

Joseph argues also that depositions may educate expert witnesses about intended trial cross-examination, and help adversary counsel better prepare direct examination and anticipatory rebuttal. Furthermore, the new protections afforded expert witnesses from discovery into drafts of reports and most communications with retaining counsel take away one of the previous reasons to conduct depositions.

To be sure, some additional areas of discovery may be covered by interrogatories, Rule 34 document requests, or Rule 45 subpoenas directly to the expert witnesses. These non-deposition methods of discovery, however, will not reach valuable topics of discovery such as oral communications between retained expert witnesses and professional colleagues, consulting expert witnesses, the retaining lawyers’ clients, and other persons. The suggested alternative discovery methods also suffer in that they will provoke canned answers, written by counsel, and not the ingenuous, unrehearsed responses of expert witnesses required to give answers directly and without resort to  “privileged” consultation with retaining counsel.

The revised FRCP carve out important areas of inquiry from the new protections against discovery into draft reports and with counsel. Counsel still are permitted to inquire into compensation, the retaining attorneys’ provision of “facts or data” considered by the witnesses, and retaining attorneys’ identification of assumptions “relied” upon by the witnesses. Invoices can, of course, be subpoenaed, but often oral examination is required to discover whether the invoices have been paid, whether they are contingent, or whether payment flows to the personal benefit of the expert witnesses. Inquiring into what “facts or data” were provided by retaining counsel can be attempted by written discovery, but the written responses will likely be hedged and unclear, and the responses will not distinguish which lawyer-provided “facts or data” were actually relied upon.

The FRCP clearly allow discovery into retaining attorneys’ provision of assumptions relied upon by expert witnesses, but clear, unrehearsed answers to questions about what was assumed and relied upon, as opposed to merely considered, are not likely to be forthcoming in written discovery. Furthermore, if there will be any fair opportunity to explore the significance of relying upon counsel’s assumptions, only a deposition will likely allow for the extemporaneous, first-person expression of expert witnesses’ opinions. Questions into expert witnesses’ opinions based upon hypothetical questions that contradict the assumptions given, or into opinions about the level of confidence or knowledge witnesses have about the correctness of the assumptions, are likely to be effective only in face-to-face encounters.

There are important additional reasons for taking expert witness depositions, not addressed in Joseph’s article. Litigation-savvy expert witnesses will often glibly assert that they have “considered” all the relevant studies, data, and facts. If written discovery is propounded to inquire whether a study omitted from the “consideration” list in the FRCP report was not considered, the study, if meaningful, will be added to the list in the written response with a feeble excuse that it was inadvertently omitted from the list. And the omission will likely be judged harmless because the party seeking discovery obviously knew about the omitted study already. Written discovery into what studies, data, or facts were considered but not relied upon will also yield highly rehearsed answers, and interrogatories will not permit inquiries into the fine details of key studies.

The pertinent sections of the FRCP do not require expert witness reports to distinguish what the witnesses have considered from what they have actually relied upon. Written discovery could be propounded, but again, it will not likely yield clear answers such as might be had with follow up inquiry into what was considered but not relied upon, and why was reliance rejected. The deposition upon oral examination has the benefit of permitting follow up questions into why some studies were relied upon for some parts but not others, or were considered but completely excluded from actual reliance. The opportunity to field incoherent, inconsistent rationales for inclusions and exclusions that establish expert witness cherry picking will be lost without the face-to-face encounter allowed by oral examination.

With some courts engaged in retrograde refusal to apply Rule 702 as enacted, some expert witnesses have been encouraged to employ vague, invalid, and unreliable methodologies, such as the so-called “weight of the evidence” approach. Oral examination will be necessary to establish expert witnesses’ weighting considerations, their inclusion and exclusion criteria, and to test their consistency in applying these considerations and criteria, across the entire evidentiary base for conclusions.

Concessions to Be Obtained

Written discovery is not well suited to inquire into general principles of interpreting data and studies, data integrity and validity, and validity of inference.  Interrogatories are too difficult to draft in sufficient detail to permit setting up an examination that will lead to the disqualification of the expert witness under Rule 702.  Obtaining concise, clear concessions about basic methodological principles is crucial to structuring persuasive cross-examinations.  Of course, if the deponent balks at accepting generally accepted principles, then this testimony is filed under Rule 702 motion, rather than trial cross-examination.

Furthermore, written discovery is poorly suited to identify whether expert witnesses have subject-matter weaknesses.  Interrogatories are the wrong discovery tool to conduct pop-quizzes on arcane statistical and scientific methodologies. Lawyers rightfully do not want to get into show-game style quizzes to test expert witnesses’ understanding of the esoteric, but important, methodologies used in the studies relied upon, in front of a jury. Rule 26 reports rarely announce that witnesses have had no meaningful training in statistics and that they have no idea what assumptions were made in various statistical analyses or tests in the studies that they have embraced and relied upon for their opinions.

Expert witnesses have social and professional connections not always apparent from their curriculum vitae, their Rule 26 reports, or their websites. Expert witnesses are not likely, for instance, to disclose that they are Marxists, who believe that corporations are evil and mercenary, and cannot be trusted to tell the truth in litigation.[2]

As noted, the FRCP requires disclosure of facts or data considered, which disclosure is usually inadequate to permit distinguishing what was actually relied upon in forming opinions. But what about opinions considered or relied upon? FRCP does not address reliance upon opinions; nor does Rule 703. Expert witnesses may contend that their opinions are not “based upon” others’ opinions, but that their opinions are strengthened and corroborated by the opinions of others. The FRCP do not specifically call for disclosure of opinions relied upon by retained expert witnesses, and adversary counsel can be trusted to argue that there were no obligations to disclose opinions or the identity of “authoritative” treatises and publications. If there is no entitlement to disclosure, there can be no surprise and prejudice.

Interpreting the scope of the report may not be as clear as Joseph suggests.  Rule 26 reports usually contain some opinions with sufficient breadth and generality that foregoing depositions becomes a game of Russian roulette.  Trial judges may not look kindly upon “scope of the report” objections, made at trial, when the objecting counsel had the opportunity to conduct an examination, and the report language is sufficiently broad to intimate the witness’s opinion at trial. Judges seem to have great hindsight vision, and they may well distrust counsel’s objections as a different sort of sandbagging. An entire strategy of restraint may be sunk by a quick, discretionary ruling on “scope of the report,” which often will favor the proponent of the witness.

Joseph is correct that many depositions fail to accomplish much, but such failures are not the result of how wonderful the revised FRCP are.  Failed depositions are more likely to result from the lack of preparation, creativity and knowledge of counsel in carrying out coherent, effective depositions.

[1] See Primus v. United States, 389 F.3d 231, 234 (1st Cir. 2004); Vaughn v. City of Lebanon, 18 F.App’x 252, 263 (6th Cir. 2001); Musser v. Gentiva Health Services, 356 F.3d 751, 758 (7th Cir. 2004). See also Design Strategy, Inc. v. Davis, 469 F.3d 284, 296 (2d Cir. 2006) (characterizing exclusion as discretionary, but upholding district court’s exclusion).

[2] Such as may be seen with expert witnesses who belong to the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, a branch of the Communist Party USA, formed in 1992, after the demise of the Soviet Union.