TORTINI

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

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).

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,” Law.com (Aug. 22, 2017).

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