TORTINI

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

Litigation Science – In re Zambelli-Weiner

April 8th, 2019

Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the silicone gel breast implant litigation, I participated in a Federal Judicial Center (FJC) television production of “Science in the Courtroom, program 6” (2001). Program six was a round-table discussion among the directors (past, present, and future) of the FJC, all of whom were sitting federal judges, with two lawyers in private practice, Elizabeth Cabraser and me.1 One of the more exasperating moments in our conversation came when Ms. Cabraser, who represented plaintiffs in the silicone litigation, complained that Daubert was unfair because corporate defendants were able to order up supporting scientific studies, whereas poor plaintiffs counsel did not have the means to gin up studies that confirmed what they knew to be true.2 Refraining from talking over her required all the self-restraint I could muster, but I did eventually respond by denying her glib generalization and offering the silicone litigation as one in which plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ counsel, and plaintiffs’ support groups were all involved in funding and directing some of the sketchiest studies, most of which managed to find homes in so-called peer-reviewed journals of some sort, even if not the best.

The litigation connections of the plaintiff-sponsored studies in the silicone litigation were not apparent on the face of the published articles. The partisan funding and provenance of the studies were mostly undisclosed and required persistent discovery and subpoenas. Cabraser’s propaganda reinforced the recognition of what so-called mass tort litigation had taught me about all scientific studies: “trust but verify.” Verification is especially important for studies that are sponsored by litigation-industry actors who have no reputation at stake in the world of healthcare.

Verification is not a straightforward task, however. Peer-review publication usually provides some basic information about “methods and materials,” but rarely if ever do published articles provide sufficient data and detail about methodology to replicate the reported analysis. In legal proceedings, verification of studies conducted and relied upon by testifying expert witnesses is facilitated by the rules of expert witness discovery. In federal court, expert witnesses must specify all opinions and all bases for their opinions. When such witnesses rely upon their own studies, and thus have had privileged access to the complete data and all analyses, courts have generally permitted full inquiry into the underlying materials of relied-upon studies. On the other, when the author of a relied-upon study is a “stranger to the litigation,” neither a party nor a retained expert witness, courts have permitted generally more limited discovery of the study’s full data set and analyses. Regardless of the author’s status, the question remains how litigants are to challenge an adversary’s expert witness’s trusted reliance upon a study, which cannot be “verified.”

Most lawyers would prefer, of course, to call an expert witness who has actually conducted studies pertinent to the issues in the case. The price, however, of allowing the other side to discover the underlying data and materials of the author expert witness’s studies may be too high. The relied-upon studies may well end up discredited, as well as the professional reputation of the expert witness. The litigation industry has adapted to these rules of discovery by avoiding, in most instances, calling testifying expert witnesses who have published studies that might be vulnerable.3

One work-around to the discovery rules lies in the use of “consulting, non-testifying expert witnesses.” The law permits the use of such expert witnesses to some extent to facilitate candid consultations with expert witnesses, usually without concerns that communications will be shared with the adversary party and witnesses. The hope is that such candid communications will permit realistic assessment of partisan positions, as well as allowing scientists and scholars to participate in an advisory capacity without the burden of depositions, formal report writing, and appearances at judicial hearings and trials. The confidentiality of consulting expert witnesses is open to abuse by counsel who would engage the consultants to conduct and publish studies, which can then be relied upon by the testifying expert witnesses. The upshot is that legal counsel can manipulate the published literature in a favorable way, without having to disclose their financial sponsorship or influence of the published studies used by their testifying expert witnesses.

This game of hiding study data and sponsorship through the litigation industry’s use of confidential consulting expert witnesses pervades so-called mass tort litigation, which provides ample financial incentives for study sponsorship and control. Defendants will almost always be unable to play the game, without detection. A simple interrogatory or other discovery request about funding of studies will reveal the attempt to pass off a party-sponsored study as having been conducted by disinterested scientists. Furthermore, most scientists will feel obligated to reveal corporate funding as a potential conflict of interest, in their submission of manuscripts for publication.

Revealing litigation-industry (plaintiffs’) funding of studies is more complicated. First, the funding may be through one firm, which is not the legal counsel in the case for which discovery is being conducted. In such instances, the plaintiff’s lawyers can truthfully declare that they lack personal knowledge of any financial support for studies relied upon by their testifying expert witnesses. Second, the plaintiffs’ lawyer firm is not a party is not itself subject to discovery. Even if the plaintiffs’ lawyers funded a study, they can claim, with plausible deniability, that they funded the study in connection with another client’s case, not the client who is plaintiff in the case in which discovery is sought. Third, the plaintiffs’ firm may take the position, however dubious it might be, that the funding of the relied-upon study was simply a confidential consultation with the authors of that study, and not subject to discovery.

The now pending litigation against ondansetron (Zofran) provides the most recent example of the dubious use of consulting expert witnesses to hide party sponsorship of an epidemiologic study. The plaintiffs, who are claiming that Zofran causes birth defects in this multi-district litigation assigned to Judge F. Dennis Saylor, have designated Dr. Carol Luik as their sole testifying expert witness on epidemiology. Dr. Luik, in turn, has relied substantially upon a study conducted by Dr. April Zambelli-Weiner.4

According to motion papers filed by defendants,5 the plaintiffs’ counsel initially claimed that they had no knowledge of any financial support or conflicts for Dr Zambelli-Weiner. The conflict-of-interest disclosure in Zambelli-Weiner’s paper was, to say the least, suspicious:

The authors declare that there was no outside involvement in study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript; and in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication.”

As an organization TTi reports receiving funds from plaintiff law firms involved in ondansetron litigation and a manufacturer of ondansetron.”

According to its website, TTi

is an economically disadvantaged woman-owned small business headquartered in Westminster, Maryland. We are focused on the development, evaluation, and implementation of technologies and solutions that advance the transformation of data into actionable knowledge. TTi serves a diverse clientele, including all stakeholders in the health space (governments, payors, providers, pharmaceutical and device companies, and foundations) who have a vested interest in advancing research to improve patient outcomes, population health, and access to care while reducing costs and eliminating health disparities.”

According to defendants’ briefing, and contrary to plaintiffs’ initial claims and Zambelli-Weiner’s anemic conflicts disclosure, plaintiffs’ counsel eventually admitted that “Plaintiffs’ Leadership Attorneys paid $210,000 as financial support relating to” Zambelli-Weiner’s epidemiologic study. The women at TTi are apparently less economically disadvantaged than advertised.

The Zofran defendants served subpoenas duces tecum and ad testificandum on two of the study authors, Drs. April Zambelli-Weiner and Russell Kirby. Curiously, the plaintiffs (who would seem to have no interest in defending the third-party subpoenas) sought a protective order by arguing that defendants were harassing “third-party scientists.” Their motion for protection conveniently and disingenuously omitted, that Zambelli-Weiner had been a paid consultant to the Zofran plaintiffs.

Judge Saylor refused to quash the subpoenas, and Zambelli-Weiner appeared herself, through counsel, to seek a protective order. Her supporting affidavit averred that she had not been retained as an expert witness, and that she had no documents “concerning any data analyses or results that were not reported in the [published study].” Zambelli-Weiner’s attempt to evade discovery was embarrassed by her having presented a “Zofran Litigation Update” with Plaintiffs’ counsel Robert Jenner and Elizabeth Graham at a national conference for plaintiffs’ attorneys. Judge Saylor was not persuaded, and the MDL court refused Dr. Zambelli-Weiner’s motion. The law and the public has a right to every man’s, and every woman’s, (even if economically disadvantaged) evidence.6

Tellingly, in the aftermath of the motions to quash, Zambelli-Weiner’s counsel, Scott Marder, abandoned his client by filing an emergency motion to withdraw, because “certain of the factual assertions in Dr. Zambelli-Weiner’s Motion for Protective Order and Affidavit were inaccurate.” Mr. Marder also honorably notified defense counsel that he could no longer represent that Zambelli-Weiner’s document production was complete.

Early this year, on January 29, 2019, Zambelli-Weiner submitted, through new counsel, a “Supplemental Affidavit,” wherein she admitted she had been a “consulting expert” witness for the law firm of Grant & Eisenhofer on the claimed teratogenicity of Zofran.7 Zambelli-Weiner also produced a few extensively redacted documents. On February 1, 2019, Zambelli-Weiner testified at deposition that the moneys she received from Grant & Eisenhofer were not to fund her Zofran study, but for other, “unrelated work.” Her testimony was at odds with the plaintiffs’ counsel’s confession that the $210,000 related to her Zofran study.

Zambelli-Weiner’s etiolated document production was confounded by the several hundred of pages of documents produced by fellow author, Dr. Russell Kirby. When confronted with documents from Kirby’s production, Zambelli-Weiner’s lawyer unilaterally suspended the deposition.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Federal courts have seen the Zambelli maneuver before. In litigation over claimed welding fume health effects, plaintiffs’ counsel Richard (Dickie) Scruggs and colleagues funded some neurological researchers to travel to Alabama and Mississippi to “screen” plaintiffs and potential plaintiffs in litigation for over claims of neurological injury and disease from welding fume exposure, with a novel videotaping methodology. The plaintiffs’ lawyers rounded up the research subjects (a.k.a. clients and potential clients), talked to them before the medical evaluations, and administered the study questionnaires. The study subjects were clearly aware of Mr. Scruggs’ “research” hypothesis, and had already promised him 40% of any recovery.8

After their sojourn, at Scruggs’ expense to Alabama and Mississippi, the researchers wrote up their results, with little or no detail of the circumstances of how they had acquired their research “participants,” or those participants’ motives to give accurate or inaccurate medical and employment history information.9

Defense counsel served subpoenas upon both Dr. Racette and his institution, Washington University St. Louis, for the study protocol, underlying data, data codes, and all statistical analyses. Racette and Washington University resisted sharing their data and materials with every page in the Directory of Non-Transparent Research. They claimed that the subpoenas sought production of testimony, information and documents in violation of:

(1) the Federal Regulations set forth in the Department of Health and Human Services Policy for Protection of Human Research Subjects,

(2) the Federal regulations set forth in the HIPPA Regulations,

(3) the physician/patient privilege,

(4) the research scholar’s privilege,

(5) the trade secret/confidential research privilege and

(6) the scope of discovery as codified by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Missouri Rules of Civil Procedure.”

After a long discovery fight, the MDL court largely enforced the subpoenas.10 The welding MDL court ordered Racette to produce

a ‘limited data set’ which links the specific categories requested by defendants: diagnosis, occupation, and age. This information may be produced as a ‘deidentified’ data set, such that the categories would be linked to each particular patient, without using any individual patient identifiers. This data set should: (1) allow matching of each study participant’s occupational status and age with his or her neurological condition, as diagnosed by the study’s researchers; and (2) to the greatest extent possible (except for necessary de-identification), show original coding and any code-keys.”

After the defense had the opportunity to obtain and analyze the underlying data in the Scruggs-Racette study, the welding plaintiffs retreated from their epidemiologic case. Various defense expert witnesses analyzed the underlying data produced by Racette, and prepared devastating rebuttal reports. These reports were served upon plaintiffs’ counsel, whose expert witnesses never attempted any response. Reliance upon Racette’s study was withdrawn or abandoned. After the underlying data were shared with the parties to MDL 1535, no scientist appeared to defend the results in the published papers.11 The Racette Alabama study faded into the background of the subsequent welding-fume cases and trials.

The motion battle in the welding MDL revealed interesting contradictions, similar to those seen in the Zambelli-Weiner affair. For example, Racette claimed he had no relationship whatsoever with plaintiffs’ counsel, other than showing up by happenstance in Alabama at places where Scruggs’ clients also just happened to show up. Racette claimed that the men and women he screened were his patients, but he had no license to practice in Alabama, where the screenings took place. Plaintiffs’ counsel disclaimed that Racette was a treating physician, which acknowledgment would have made the individual’s screening results discoverable in their individual cases. And more interestingly, plaintiffs’ counsel claimed that both Dr. Racette and Washington University were “non-testifying, consulting experts utilized to advise and assist Plaintiffs’ counsel with respect to evaluating and assessing each of their client’s potential lawsuit or claim (or not).”12

Over the last decade or so, best practices and codes of conduct for the relationship between pharmacoepidemiologists and study funders have been published.13 These standards apply with equal force to public agencies, private industry, and regulatory authories. Perhaps it is time for them to specify that the apply to the litigation industry as well.


1 See Smith v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs. Co., 278 F. Supp. 2d 684, 710 & n. 56 (W.D.N.C. 2003).

2 Ironically, Ms. Cabraser has published her opinion that failure to disclose conflicts of interest and study funding should result in evidentiary exclusions, a view which would have simplified and greatly shortened the silicone gel breast implant litigation. See Elizabeth J. Cabraser, Fabrice Vincent & Alexandra Foote, “Ethics and Admissibility: Failure to Disclose Conflicts of Interest in and/or Funding of Scientific Studies and/or Data May Warrant Evidentiary Exclusions,” Mealey’s Emerging Drugs Reporter (Dec. 2002).

3 Litigation concerning Viagra is one notable example where plaintiffs’ counsel called an expert witness who was the author of the very study that supposedly supported their causal claim. It did not go well for the plaintiffs or the expert witness. See Lori B. Leskin & Bert L. Slonim, “A Primer on Challenging Peer-Reviewed Scientific Literature in Mass Tort and Product Liability Actions,” 25 Toxics L. Rptr. 651 (Jul. 1, 2010).

4 April Zambelli‐Weiner, Christina Via, Matt Yuen, Daniel Weiner, and Russell S. Kirby, “First Trimester Pregnancy Exposure to Ondansetron and Risk of Structural Birth Defects,” 83 Reproductive Toxicology 14 (2019).

5 Nate Raymond, “GSK accuses Zofran plaintiffs’ law firms of funding academic study,” Reuters (Mar. 5, 2019).

6 See Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 674 (1972).

7 Affidavit of April Zambelli-Weiner, dated January 9, 2019 (Doc. No. 1272).

8 The plaintiffs’ lawyers’ motive and opportunity to poison the study by coaching their “clients” was palpable. See David B. Resnik & David J. McCann, “Deception by Research Participants,” 373 New Engl. J. Med. 1192 (2015).

9 See Brad A. Racette, S.D. Tabbal, D. Jennings, L. Good, J.S. Perlmutter, and Brad Evanoff, “Prevalence of parkinsonism and relationship to exposure in a large sample of Alabama welders,” 64 Neurology 230 (2005); Brad A. Racette, et al., “A rapid method for mass screening for parkinsonism,” 27 Neurotoxicology 357 (2006) (a largely duplicative report of the Alabama welders study).

10 See, e.g., In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL 1535, 2005 WL 5417815 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 18, 2005) (upholding defendants’ subpoena for protocol, data, data codes, statistical analyses, and other things from Dr. Racette’s Alabama study on welding and parkinsonism).

11 Racette sought and obtained a protective order for the data produced, and thus I still cannot share the materials he provided asking that any reviewer sign the court-mandated protective order. Revealingly, Racette was concerned about who had seen his underlying data, and he obtained a requirement in the court’s non-disclosure affidavit that any one who reviews the underlying data will not sit on peer review of his publications or his grant applications. See Motion to Compel List of Defendants’ Reviewers of Data Produced by Brad A. Racette, M.D., and Washington University Pursuant to Protective Order, in In re Welding Fume Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1535, Case 1:03-cv-17000-KMO, Document 1642-1 (N.D. Ohio Feb. 14, 2006). Curiously, Racette never moved to compel a list of Plaintiffs’ Reviewers!

12 Plaintiffs’ Motion for Protective Order, Motion to Reconsider Order Requiring Disclovery from Dr. Racette, and Request for In Camera Inspection as to Any Responses or Information Provided by Dr. Racette, filed in Solis v. Lincoln Elec. Co., case No. 1:03-CV-17000, MDL 1535 (N.D. Ohio May 8, 2006).

13 See, e.g., Xavier Kurz, Susana Perez‐Gutthann, and the ENCePP Steering Group, “Strengthening standards, transparency, and collaboration to support medicine evaluation: Ten years of the European Network of Centres for Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacovigilance (ENCePP),” 27 Pharmacoepidem. & Drug Safety 245 (2018).

Castleman-Selikoff – Can Their Civil Conspiracy Survive Death?

December 4th, 2018

Several, years ago, I wrote about Barry Castleman’s 1979 memorandum to Irving Selikoff, in which Castleman implored Selikoff to refuse to cooperate with lawful discovery from defense counsel in asbestos personal injury cases. The Selikoff – Castleman Conspiracy(Mar. 13, 2011). The document, titled Defense Attorneys’ Efforts to Use Background Files of Selikoff-Hammond Studies to Avert Liability,” was dated November 5, 1979. Coming from The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco, created by litigation industry’s tobacco subsidiary, the document is clearly authentic. Barry Castleman, however, has testified that he cannot remember the 35+ year old memorandum, which failure of recall is not probative of anything.1  He refuses to renounce his role as a co-conspirator.

Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale have both made careers of attacking any manufacturing and mining industry with connections to asbestos, while supporting the litigation industry that thrives on asbestos. Sadly, Jock McCulloch died of mesothelioma, earlier this year, on January 18, 2018, in Australia. McCulloch attributed his disease to his exposure to crocidolite when he researched one of his books on blue asbestos in South Africa.2 Although I found his scholarship biased and exaggerated, I admired his tenacious zeal in pressing his claims. His candor about the cause of his last illness was exemplary compared with Selikoff’s failure to acknowledge the extent to which amosite and crocidolite were used in the United States.

In 2007, Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale wrote an article in which they attacked those who dared to say anything negative about Irving Selikoff.3 Of course, in claiming that the asbestos industry was “shooting the messenger,” these authors were, well, shooting the messenger, too. In 2008, McCulloch and Tweedale wrote a much more interesting, hagiographic article about Selikoff.4 From the legal perpective, perhaps the most interesting revelation in this article was that the authors had drawn “upon unprecedented access to the Selikoff archive at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.”

Several years later, defense counsel in the United States attempted to visit the Selikoff archives at Mt. Sinai Hospital. After an unseemly delay, the inquisitive counsel were met with unprecedented obstruction and denial of access:

From: [ARCHIVIST]
To: [DEFENSE COUNSEL]
Subject: Request for appointment with Archivist
Date: Wed, 3 Sep 2014 16:18:53 +0000

I realize that this must seem out of the blue, but we have recently realized that the stub email address we have – msarchives – has not been forwarding email the way it was intended to do. I apologize for not responding to you previously, and for what it is worth, here is the answer to your question.

Some Selikoff material in the Mount Sinai Archives, although I believe some of his research material is still with our Dept. of Preventive Medicine. Our collection is currently closed to researchers, as per the request of Mount Sinai’s Legal Department in 2009. Here is their statement concerning these records:

It was agreed that Dr. Selikoff’s correspondence and archives that are kept within the auspices of the MSSM library under the direction of the MSSM archivist, Barbara Niss, would be kept confidential for at least an additional 25 years to protect Dr. Selikoff’s research endeavors and the privacy of all the individuals, particularly the research subjects, who he studied and with whom he communicated. It is anticipated that twenty-five years from now, these individuals will no longer be alive and their concerns about keeping these matters private will have become moot. However, if we determine that this is not the case, we will reserve the option to continue to keep these documents confidential. We are also taking this action to preserve the academic freedom of our researchers so they can pursue their research, communicate with colleagues and comment on these important environmental/scientific issues, without concerns that they will be subpoenaed as non-party witnesses in these massive tort litigations.

Again, my apologies for the very late reply. Please let me know if you have questions.

So there you have it, 35 years after Castleman implored Selikoff not to cooperate with lawyers’ proper fact discovery, the Selikoff archive is still at its obstruction and denial.


1 See The Selikoff – Castleman Conspiracy” (Mar. 13, 2011). In 2014, Castleman testifies that he has no recollection of the memorandum. The document was also available at Scribd.

2 See Laurie Kazan-Allen, “In Memory of Jock McCulloch” (Jan. 21, 2018) (quoting an email from Jock McCulloch, dated July 21, 2017: “The injury almost certainly occurred while I was researching Asbestos Blues in South Africa, which is all of twenty years ago.”); “Remembering Jock McCulloch,” Toxic Docs Blog (Jan. 28, 2018) (quoting his partner’s tribute about the cause of his death: “His exposure to blue asbestos was probably in South Africa during the mid-1990s, when he was researching a book on the history of mining.).

3 Jock McCulloch & Geoffrey Tweedale, “Shooting the Messenger: The Vilification of Irving J. Selikoff,” 37 Internat’l J. Health Services 619 (2007).

4 Jock McCulloch and Geoffrey Tweedale, “Science is not Sufficient: Irving J. Selikoff and the Asbestos Tragedy,” 17 New Solutions 293 (2008).

Statistical Deontology

March 2nd, 2018

In courtrooms across America, there has been a lot of buzzing and palavering about the American Statistical Association’s Statement on Statistical Significance Testing,1 but very little discussion of the Society’s Ethical Guidelines, which were updated and promulgated in the same year, 2016. Statisticians and statistics, like lawyers and the law, receive their fair share of calumny over their professional activities, but the statistician’s principal North American professional organization is trying to do something about members’ transgressions.

The American Statistical Society (ASA) has promulgated ethical guidelines for statisticians, as has the Royal Statistical Society,2 even if these organizations lack the means and procedures to enforce their codes. The ASA’s guidelines3 are rich with implications for statistical analyses put forward in all contexts, including in litigation and regulatory rule making. As such, the guidelines are well worth studying by lawyers.

The ASA Guidelines were prepared by the Committee on Professional Ethics, and approved by the ASA’s Board in April 2016. There are lots of “thou shall” and “thou shall nots,” but I will focus on the issues that are more likely to arise in litigation. What is remarkable about the Guidelines is that if followed, they probably are more likely to eliminate unsound statistical practices in the courtroom than the ASA State on P-values.

Defining Good Statistical Practice

Good statistical practice is fundamentally based on transparent assumptions, reproducible results, and valid interpretations.” Guidelines at 1. The Guidelines thus incorporate something akin to the Kumho Tire standard that an expert witness ‘‘employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.’’ Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999).

A statistician engaged in expert witness testimony should provide “only expert testimony, written work, and oral presentations that he/she would be willing to have peer reviewed.” Guidelines at 2. “The ethical statistician uses methodology and data that are relevant and appropriate, without favoritism or prejudice, and in a manner intended to produce valid, interpretable, and reproducible results.” Id. Similarly, the statistician, if ethical, will identify and mitigate biases, and use analyses “appropriate and valid for the specific question to be addressed, so that results extend beyond the sample to a population relevant to the objectives with minimal error under reasonable assumptions.” Id. If the Guidelines were followed, a lot of spurious analyses would drop off the litigation landscape, regardless whether they used p-values or confidence intervals, or a Bayesian approach.

Integrity of Data and Methods

The ASA’s Guidelines also have a good deal to say about data integrity and statistical methods. In particular, the Guidelines call for candor about limitations in the statistical methods or the integrity of the underlying data:

The ethical statistician is candid about any known or suspected limitations, defects, or biases in the data that may impact the integrity or reliability of the statistical analysis. Objective and valid interpretation of the results requires that the underlying analysis recognizes and acknowledges the degree of reliability and integrity of the data.”

Guidelines at 3.

The statistical analyst openly acknowledges the limits of statistical inference, the potential sources of error, as well as the statistical and substantive assumptions made in the execution and interpretation of any analysis,” including data editing and imputation. Id. The Guidelines urge analysts to address potential confounding not assessed by the study design. Id. at 3, 10. How often do we see these acknowledgments in litigation-driven analyses, or in peer-reviewed papers, for that matter?

Affirmative Actions Prescribed

In the aid of promoting data and methodological integrity, the Guidelines also urge analysts to share data when appropriate without revealing the identities of study participants. Statistical analysts should publicly correct any disseminated data and analyses in their own work, as well as working to “expose incompetent or corrupt statistical practice.” Of course, the Lawsuit Industry will call this ethical duty “attacking the messenger,” but maybe that’s a rhetorical strategy based upon an assessment of risks versus benefits to the Lawsuit Industry.

Multiplicity

The ASA Guidelines address the impropriety of substantive statistical errors, such as:

[r]unning multiple tests on the same data set at the same stage of an analysis increases the chance of obtaining at least one invalid result. Selecting the one “significant” result from a multiplicity of parallel tests poses a grave risk of an incorrect conclusion. Failure to disclose the full extent of tests and their results in such a case would be highly misleading.”

Guidelines at 9.

There are some Lawsuit Industrialists who have taken comfort in the pronouncements of Kenneth Rothman on corrections for multiple comparisons. Rothman’s views on multiple comparisons are, however, much broader and more nuanced than the Industry’s sound bites.4 Given that Rothman opposes anything like strict statistical significance testing, it follows that he is relatively unmoved for the need for adjustments to alpha or the coefficient of confidence. Rothman, however, has never deprecated the need to consider the multiplicity of testing, and the need for researchers to be forthright in disclosing the the scope of comparisons originally planned and actually done.


2 Royal Statistical Society – Code of Conduct (2014); Steven Piantadosi, Clinical Trials: A Methodologic Perspective 609 (2d ed. 2005).

3 Shelley Hurwitz & John S. Gardenier, “Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice: The First 60 Years and Beyond,” 66 Am. Statistician 99 (2012) (describing the history and evolution of the Guidelines).

4 Kenneth J. Rothman, “Six Persistent Research Misconceptions,” 29 J. Gen. Intern. Med. 1060, 1063 (2014).

Failed Gatekeeping in Ambrosini v. Labarraque (1996)

December 28th, 2017

The Ambrosini case straddled the Supreme Court’s 1993 Daubert decision. The case began before the Supreme Court clarified the federal standard for expert witness gatekeeping, and ended in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, after the high court adopted the curious notion that scientific claims should be based upon reliable evidence and valid inferences. That notion has only slowly and inconsistently trickled down to the lower courts.

Given that Ambrosini was litigated in the District of Columbia, where the docket is dominated by regulatory controversies, frequently involving dubious scientific claims, no one should be surprised that the D.C. Court of Appeals did not see that the Supreme Court had read “an exacting standard” into Federal Rule of Evidence 702. And so, we see, in Ambrosini, this Court of Appeals citing and purportedly applying its own pre-Daubert decision in Ferebee v. Chevron Chem. Co., 552 F. Supp. 1297 (D.D.C. 1982), aff’d, 736 F.2d 1529 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1984).1 In 2000, the Federal Rule of Evidence 702 was revised in a way that extinguishes the precedential value of Ambrosini and the broad dicta of Ferebee, but some courts and commentators have failed to stay abreast of the law.

Escolastica Ambrosini was using a synthetic progestin birth control, Depo-Provera, as well as an anti-nausea medication, Bendectin, when she became pregnant. The child that resulted from this pregnancy, Teresa Ambrosini, was born with malformations of her face, eyes, and ears, cleft lip and palate, and vetebral malformations. About three percent of all live births in the United States have a major malformation. Perhaps because the Divine Being has sovereign immunity, Escolastica sued the manufacturers of Bendectin and Depo-Provera, as well as the prescribing physician.

The causal claims were controversial when made, and they still are. The progestin at issue, medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), was embryotoxic in the cynomolgus monkey2, but not in the baboon3. The evidence in humans was equivocal at best, and involved mostly genital malformations4; the epidemiologic evidence for the MPA causal claim to this day remains unconvincing5.

At the close of discovery in Ambrosini, Upjohn (the manufacturer of the progestin) moved for summary judgment, with a supporting affidavit of a physician and geneticist, Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson. In his affidavit, Simpson discussed three epidemiologic studies, as well as other published papers, in support of his opinion that the progestin at issue did not cause the types of birth defects manifested by Teresa Ambrosini.

Ambrosini had disclosed two expert witnesses, Dr. Allen S. Goldman and Dr. Brian Strom. Neither Goldman nor Strom bothered to identify the papers, studies, data, or methodology used in arriving at an opinion on causation. Not surprisingly, the district judge was unimpressed with their opposition, and granted summary judgment for the defendant. Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 966 F.2d 1462, 1466 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

The plaintiffs appealed on the remarkable ground that Goldman’s and Strom’s crypto-evidence satisfied Federal Rule of Evidence 703. Even more remarkably, the Circuit, in a strikingly unscholarly opinion by Judge Mikva, opined that disclosure of relied-upon studies was not required for expert witnesses under Rules 703 and 705. Judge Mikva seemed to forget that the opinions being challenged were not given in testimony, but in (late-filed) affidavits that had to satisfy the requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26. Id. at 1468-69. At trial, an expert witness may express an opinion without identifying its bases, but of course the adverse party may compel disclosure of those bases. In discovery, the proffered expert witness must supply all opinions and evidence relied upon in reach the opinions. In any event, the Circuit remanded the case for a hearing and further proceedings, at which the two challenged expert witnesses, Goldman and Strom, would have to identify the bases of their opinions. Id. at 1471.

Not long after the case landed back in the district court, the Supreme Court decided Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). With an order to produce entered, plaintiffs’ counsel could no longer hide Goldman and Strom’s evidentiary bases, and their scientific inferences came under judicial scrutiny.

Upjohn moved again to exclude Goldman and Strom’s opinions. The district court upheld Upjohn’s challenges, and granted summary judgment in favor of Upjohn for the second time. The Ambrosinis appealed again, but the second case in the D.C. Circuit resulted in a split decision, with the majority holding that the exclusion of Goldman and Strom’s opinions under Rule 702 was erroneous. Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 101 F.3d 129 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

Although issued two decades ago, the majority’s opinion remains noteworthy as an example of judicial resistance to the existence and meaning of the Supreme Court’s Daubert opinion. The majority opinion uncritically cited the notorious Ferebee6 and other pre-Daubert decisions. The court embraced the Daubert dictum about gatekeeping being limited to methodologic consideration, and then proceeded to interpret methodology as superficially as necessary to sustain admissibility. If an expert witness claimed to have looked at epidemiologic studies, and epidemiology was an accepted methodology, then the opinion of the expert witness must satisfy the legal requirements of Daubert, or so it would seem from the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Despite the majority’s hand waving, a careful reader will discern that there must have been substantial gaps and omissions in the explanations and evidence cited by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. Seeing anything clearly in the Circuit’s opinion is made difficult, however, by careless and imprecise language, such as its descriptions of studies as showing, or not showing “causation,” when it could have meant only that such studies showed associations, with more or less random and systematic error.

Dr. Strom’s report addressed only general causation, and even so, he apparently did not address general causation of the specific malformations manifested by the plaintiffs’ child. Strom claimed to have relied upon the “totality of the data,” but his methodologic approach seems to have required him to dismiss studies that failed to show an association.

Dr. Strom first set forth the reasoning he employed that led him to disagree with those studies finding no causal relationship [sic] between progestins and birth defects like Teresa’s. He explained that an epidemiologist evaluates studies based on their ‘statistical power’. Statistical power, he continued, represents the ability of a study, based on its sample size, to detect a causal relationship. Conventionally, in order to be considered meaningful, negative studies, that is, those which allege the absence of a causal relationship, must have at least an 80 to 90 percent chance of detecting a causal link if such a link exists; otherwise, the studies cannot be considered conclusive. Based on sample sizes too small to be reliable, the negative studies at issue, Dr. Strom explained, lacked sufficient statistical power to be considered conclusive.”

Id. at 1367.

Putting aside the problem of suggesting that an observational study detects a “causal relationship,” as opposed to an association in need of further causal evaluation, the Court’s précis of Strom’s testimony on power is troublesome, and typical of how other courts have misunderstood and misapplied the concept of statistical power. Statistical power is a probability of observing an association of a specified size at a specified level of statistical significance. The calculation of statistical power turns indeed on sample size, the level of significance probability preselected for “statistical significance, an assumed probability distribution of the sample, and, critically, an alternative hypothesis. Without a specified alternative hypothesis, the notion of statistical power is meaningless, regardless of what probability (80% or 90% or some other percentage) is sought for finding the alternative hypothesis. Furthermore, the notion that the defense must adduce studies with “sufficient statistical power to be considered conclusive” creates an unscientific standard that can never be met, while subverting the law’s requirement that the claimant establish causation.

The suggestion that the studies that failed to find an association cannot be considered conclusive because they “lacked sufficient statistical power” is troublesome because it distorts and misapplies the very notion of statistical power. No attempt was made to describe the confidence intervals surrounding the point estimates of the null studies; nor was there any discussion whether the studies could be aggregated to increase their power to rule out meaningful associations.

The Circuit court’s scientific jurisprudence was thus seriously flawed. Without a discussion of the end points observed, the relevant point estimates of risk ratios, and the confidence intervals, the reader cannot assess the strength of the claims made by Goldman and Strom, or by defense expert Simpson, in their reports. Without identifying the study endpoints, the reader cannot evaluate whether the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses relied upon relevant outcomes in formulating their opinions. The court viewed the subject matter from 30,000 feet, passing over at 600 mph, without engagement or care. A strong dissent, however, suggested serious mischaracterizations of the plaintiffs’ evidence by the majority.

The only specific causation testimony to support plaintiff’s claims came from Goldman, in what appears to have been a “differential etiology.” Goldman purported to rule out a genetic cause, even though he had not conducted a critical family history or ordered a state-of-the-art chromosomal study. Id. at 140. Of course, nothing in a differential etiology approach would allow a physician to rule out “unknown” causes, which, for birth defects, make up the most prevalent and likely causes to explain any particular case. The majority acknowledged that these were short comings, but rhetorically characterized them as substantive, not methodologic, and therefore as issues for cross-examination, not for consideration by a judicial gatekeeping. All this is magical thinking, but it continues to infect judicial approaches to specific causation. See, e.g., Green Mountain Chrysler Plymouth Dodge Jeep v. Crombie, 508 F. Supp. 2d 295, 311 (D.Vt. 2007) (citing Ambrosini for the proposition that “the possibility of uneliminated causes goes to weight rather than admissibility, provided that the expert has considered and reasonably ruled out the most obvious”). In Ambrosini, however, Dr. Goldman had not ruled out much of anything.

Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented in a short, but pointed opinion that carefully marshaled the record evidence. Drs. Goldman and Strom had relied upon a study by Greenberg and Matsunaga, whose data failed to show a statistically significant association between MPA and cleft lip and palate, when the crucial issue of timing of exposure was taken into consideration. Ambrosini, 101 F.3d at 142.

Beyond the specific claims and evidence, Judge Henderson anticipated the subsequent Supreme Court decisions in Joiner, Kumho Tire, and Weisgram, and the year 2000 revision of Rule 702, in noting that the majority’s acceptance of glib claims to have used a “traditional methodology” would render Daubert nugatory. Id. at 143-45 (characterizing Strom and Goldman’s methodologies as “wispish”). Even more importantly, Judge Henderson refused to indulge the assumption that somehow the length of Goldman’s C.V. substituted for evidence that his methods satisfied the legal (or scientific) standard of reliability. Id.

The good news is that little or nothing in Ambrosini survives the 2000 amendment to Rule 702. The bad news is that not all federal judges seem to have noticed, and that some commentators continue to cite the case, as lovely.

Probably no commentator has promiscuously embraced Ambrosini as warmly as Carl Cranor, a philosopher, and occasional expert witness for the lawsuit industry, in several publications and presentations.8 Cranor has been particularly enthusiastic about Ambrosini’s approval of expert witness’s testimony that failed to address “the relative risk between exposed and unexposed populations of cleft lip and palate, or any other of the birth defects from which [the child] suffers,” as well as differential etiologies that exclude nothing.9 Somehow Cranor, as did the majority in Ambrosini, believes that testimony that fails to identify the magnitude of the point estimate of relative risk can “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.”10 Of course, without that magnitude given, the trier of fact could not evaluate the strength of the alleged association; nor could the trier assess the probability of individual causation to the plaintiff. Cranor also has written approvingly of lumping unrelated end points, which defeats the assessment of biological plausibility and coherence by the trier of fact. When the defense expert witness in Ambrosini adverted to the point estimates for relevant end points, the majority, with Cranor’s approval, rejected the null findings as “too small to be significant.”11 If the null studies were, in fact, too small to be useful tests of the plaintiffs’ claims, intellectual and scientific honesty required an acknowledgement that the evidentiary display was not one from which a reasonable scientist would draw a causal conclusion.


1Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 101 F.3d 129, 138-39 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (citing and applying Ferebee), cert. dismissed sub nom. Upjohn Co. v. Ambrosini, 117 S.Ct. 1572 (1997) See also David E. Bernstein, “The Misbegotten Judicial Resistance to the Daubert Revolution,” 89Notre Dame L. Rev. 27, 31 (2013).

2 S. Prahalada, E. Carroad, M. Cukierski, and A.G. Hendrickx, “Embryotoxicity of a single dose of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) and maternal serum MPA concentrations in cynomolgus monkey (Macaca fascicularis),” 32 Teratology 421 (1985).

3 S. Prahalada, E. Carroad, and A.G. Hendrick, “Embryotoxicity and maternal serum concentrations of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) in baboons (Papio cynocephalus),” 32 Contraception 497 (1985).

4 See, e.g., Z. Katz, M. Lancet, J. Skornik, J. Chemke, B.M. Mogilner, and M. Klinberg, “Teratogenicity of progestogens given during the first trimester of pregnancy,” 65 Obstet Gynecol. 775 (1985); J.L. Yovich, S.R. Turner, and R. Draper, “Medroxyprogesterone acetate therapy in early pregnancy has no apparent fetal effects,” 38 Teratology 135 (1988).

5 G. Saccone, C. Schoen, J.M. Franasiak, R.T. Scott, and V. Berghella, “Supplementation with progestogens in the first trimester of pregnancy to prevent miscarriage in women with unexplained recurrent miscarriage: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials,” 107 Fertil. Steril. 430 (2017).

6 Ferebee v. Chevron Chemical Co., 736 F.2d 1529, 1535 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1984).

7 Dr. Strom was also quoted as having provided a misleading definition of statistical significance: “whether there is a statistically significant finding at greater than 95 percent chance that it’s not due to random error.” Ambrosini at 101 F.3d at 136. Given the majority’s inadequate description of the record, the description of witness testimony may not be accurate, and error cannot properly be allocated.

8 Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 320, 327-28 (2006); see also Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 238 (2d ed. 2016).

9 Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 320 (2006).

10 Id.

11 Id. ; see also Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 238 (2d ed. 2016).