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

The Amicus Curious Brief

January 4th, 2018

Friends – Are They Boxers or Briefers*

Amicus briefs help appellate courts by bringing important views to bear on the facts and the law in disputes. Amicus briefs ameliorate the problem of the common law system, in which litigation takes place between specific parties, with many interested parties looking on, without the ability to participate in the discussion or shape the outcome.

There are dangers, however, of hidden advocacy in the amicus brief. Even the most unsophisticated court is not likely to be misled by the interests and potential conflicts of interest of groups such as the American Association for Justice or the Defense Research Institute. If the description of the group is not as fully forthcoming as one might like, a quick trip to its website will quickly clarify the group’s mission on Earth. No one is fooled, and the amicus briefs can be judged on their merits.

What happens when the amici are identified only by their individual names and institutional affiliations? A court might be misled into thinking that the signatories are merely disinterested academics, who believe that important information or argument is missing from the appellate discussion.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has offered itself up as an example of a court snookered by “58 physicians and scientists.”1 Rost v. Ford Motor Co., 151 A.3d 1032, 1052 (Pa. 2016). Without paying any attention to the provenance of the amicus brief or the authors’ deep ties with the lawsuit industry, the court cited the brief’s description of:

“the fundamental notion that each exposure to asbestos contributes to the total dose and increases the person’s probability of developing mesothelioma or other cancers as an ‘irrefutable scientific fact’. According to these physicians and scientists, cumulative exposure is merely an extension of the ancient concept of dose-response, which is the ‘oldest maxim in the field’.”

Id. (citing amicus brief at 2).

Well, irrefutable in the minds of the 58 amici curious perhaps, who failed to tell the court that not every exposure contributes materially to cumulative exposure such that it must be considered a “substantial contributing factor.” These would-be friends also failed to tell the court that the human body has defense mechanisms to carcinogenic exposures, which gives rise to a limit on, and qualification of, the concept of dose-response in the form of biological thresholds, below which exposures do not translate into causative doses. Even if these putative “friends” believed there was no evidence for a threshold, they certainly presented no evidence against one. Nonetheless, a confused and misguided Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the judgment below in favor of the plaintiffs.

The 58 amici also misled the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on several other issues. By their failure to disclose important information about themselves, and holding themselves out (falsely but successfully) as “disinterested” physicians and scientists, these so-called friends misled the court by failing to disclose the following facts:

1. Some of them were personal friends, colleagues, and fellow-party expert witnesses of the expert witness (Arthur Frank), whose opinion was challenged in the lower courts;

2. Some of the amici had no reasonable claim to expertise on the issues addressed in the brief;

3. Some of the amici have earned substantial fees in other asbestos cases, involving the same issues raised in the Rost case;

4. Some of the amici have been excluded from testifying in similar cases, to the detriment of their financial balance sheets;

5. Some of the amici are zealous advocates, who not only have testified for plaintiffs, but have participated in highly politicized advocacy groups such as the Collegium Ramazzini.

Two of the amici are historians (Rosner and Markowitz), who have never conducted scientific research on asbestos-related disease. Their work as labor historians added no support to the scientific concepts that were put over the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Both of these historians have testified in multiple asbestos cases, and one of them (Markowitz) has been excluded in a state court case, under a Daubert-like standard. They have never been qualified to give expert witness testimony on medical causation issues. Margaret Keith, an adjunct assistant professor of sociology, appears never to have written about medical causation between asbestos and cancer, but she at least is married to another amicus, James Brophy, who has.

Barry Castleman,2 David F. Goldsmith, John M. Dement, Richard A. Lemen, and David Ozonoff have all testified in asbestos or other alleged dust-induced disease cases, with Castleman having the distinction of having made virtually his entire livelihood in connection with plaintiffs-side asbestos litigation testifying and consulting. Castleman, Goldsmith, and Ozonoff have all been excluded from, or severely limited in, testifying for plaintiffs in chemical exposure cases.

(Rabbi) Daniel Thau Teitelbaum has the distinction of having been excluded in case that went to the United States Supreme Court (Joiner), but Shira Kramer,3 Richard Clapp, and Peter F. Infante probably make up for the lack of distinction with the number of testimonial adventures and misadventures. L. Christine Oliver and Colin L. Soskolne have also testified for the lawsuit industry, in the United States, and for Soskolne, in Canada, as well.

Lennart Hardell has testified in cellular telephone brain cancer cases,4 for plaintiffs of course, which qualified as an expert for the IARC on electromagnetic frequency and carcinogenesis.5

Celeste Monforton has earned credentials serving with fellow skapper David Michaels in the notorious Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) organization.6 Laura S. Welch, like Monforton, another George Washington lecturer, has served the lawsuit industry in asbestos personal injury and other cases.

Exhibit A to the Amicus brief lists the institutional affiliations of each amicus. Although some of the amici described themselves as “consultants,” only one amicus (Massimiliano Bugiani) listed his consultancy as specifically litigation related, with an identification of the party that engaged him: “Consultant of the Plaintiff in the Turin and Milan Courts.” Despite Bugiani’s honorable example, none of the other amici followed suit.

* * * * * * * *

Although many judges and lawyers agree that amicus briefs often bring important factual expertise to appellate courts, there are clearly some abuses. I, for one, am proud to have been associated with a few amicus briefs in various courts. One law professor, Allison Orr Larsen, in a trenchant law review article, has identified some problems and has suggested some reforms.7 Regardless of what readers think of Larsen’s proposed reforms, briefs should not be submitted by testifying and consulting expert witnesses for one side in a particular category of litigation, without disclosing fully and accurately their involvement in the underlying cases, and their financial enrichment from perpetuating the litigation in question.

* Thanks to Ramses Delafontaine for having alerted me to other aspects of the lack of transparency in connection with amicus briefs filed by professional historian organizations.

1 Brief of Muge Akpinar-Elci, Xaver Bauer, Carlos Bedrossian, Eula Bingham, Yv Bonnier-Viger, James Brophy, Massimiliano Buggiani, Barry Castleman, Richard Clapp, Dario Consonni, Emilie Counil, Mohamed Aquiel Dalvie, John M. Dement, Tony Fletcher, Bice Fubini, Thomas H. Gassert, David F. Goldsmith, Michael Gochfeld, Lennart Hadell [sic, Hardell], James Huff, Peter F. Infante, Moham F. Jeebhay, T. K. Joshi, Margaret Keith, John R. Keyserlingk, Kapil Khatter, Shira Kramer, Philip J. Landrigan, Bruce Lanphear, Richard A. Lemen, Charles Levenstein, Abby Lippman, Gerald Markowitz, Dario Mirabelli, Sigurd Mikkelsen, Celeste Monforton, Rama C. Nair, L. Christine Oliver, David Ozonoff, Domyung Paek, Smita Pakhale, Rolf Petersen, Beth Rosenberg, Kenneth Rosenman, David Rosner, Craig Slatin, Michael Silverstein, Colin L. Soskolne, Leslie Thomas Stayner, Ken Takahashi, Daniel Thau Teitelbaum, Benedetto Terracini, Annie Thebaud-Mony, Fernand Turcotte, Andrew Watterson, David H. Wegman, Laura S. Welch, Hans-Joachim Woitowitz as Amici Curiae in Support of Appellee, 2015 WL 3385332, filed in Rost v. Ford Motor Co., 151 A.3d 1032 (Pa. 2016).

2 SeeThe Selikoff – Castleman Conspiracy” (Mar. 13, 2011).

4 Newman v. Motorola, Inc., 218 F. Supp. 2d 769 (D. Md. 2002) (excluding Hardell’s proposed testimony), aff’d, 78 Fed. Appx. 292 (4th Cir. 2003) (affirming exclusion of Hardell).

6 See, e.g., SKAPP A LOT” (April 30, 2010); Manufacturing Certainty” (Oct. 25, 2011); “David Michaels’ Public Relations Problem” (Dec. 2, 2011); “Conflicted Public Interest Groups” (Nov. 3, 2013).

7 See Allison Orr Larsen, “The Trouble with Amicus Facts,” 100 Virginia L. Rev. 1757 (2014). See also Caitlin E. Borgmann, “Appellate Review of Social Facts in Constitutional Rights Cases,” 101 Calif. L. Rev. 1185, 1216 (2013) (“Amicus briefs, in particular, are often submitted by advocates and may be replete with dubious factual assertions that would never be admitted at trial.”).

Some High-Value Targets for Sander Greenland in 2018

December 27th, 2017

A couple of years ago, Sander Greenland and I had an interesting exchange on Deborah Mayo’s website. I tweaked Sander for his practice of calling out defense expert witnesses for statistical errors, while ignoring whoopers made by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. SeeSignificance Levels Made a Whipping Boy on Climate-Change Evidence: Is p < 0.05 Too Strict?” Error Statistics (Jan. 6, 2015).1 Sander acknowledged that he received a biased sample of expert reports through his service as a plaintiffs’ expert witness, but protested that defense counsel avoided him like the plague. In an effort to be helpful, I directed Sander to an example of bad statistical analysis that had been proffered by Dr Bennett Omalu, in a Dursban case, Pritchard v. Dow Agro Sciences, 705 F. Supp. 2d 471 (W.D. Pa. 2010), aff’d, 430 F. App’x 102, 104 (3d Cir. 2011).2

Sander was unimpressed with my example of Dr. Omalu; he found the example “a bit disappointing though because [Omalu] was merely a county medical examiner, and his junk analysis was duly struck. The expert I quoted in my citations was a full professor of biostatistics at a major public university, a Fellow of the American Statistical Association, a holder of large NIH grants, and his analysis (more subtle in its transgressions) was admitted” (emphasis added). Sander expressed an interest in finding “examples involving similarly well-credentialed, professionally accomplished plaintiff experts whose testimony was likewise admitted… .”

Although it was heartening to read Sander’s concurrence in the assessment of Omalu’s analysis as “junk,” Sander’s rejection of Dr. Omalu as merely a low-value target was disappointing, given that Omalu also has a master’s degree in public health, from the University of Pittsburgh, where he claims he studied with Professor Lew Kuller. Omalu has also gained some fame and notoriety for his claim to have identified the problem of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among professional football players. After all, even Sander Greenland has not been the subject of a feature-length movie (Concussion), as has Omalu.

I lost track of our exchange in 2015, until recently I was reminded of it when reading an expert report by Professor Martin Wells. Unlike Omalu, Wells meets all the Greenland criteria for high-value targets. He is not only a full, chaired professor but also the statistics department chairman at an ivy-league school, Cornell University. Wells is a fellow of both the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society, but most important, Wells is a frequent plaintiffs’ expert witness, who is well known to Sander Greenland. Both Wells and Greenland served, side by side, as plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in the pain pump litigation.

So here is the passage in the Wells’ report that is worthy of Greenland’s attention:

If a 95% confidence interval is specified, the range encompasses the results we would expect 95% of the time if samples for new studies were repeatedly drawn from the same population.”

In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig., Declaration of Martin T. Wells, Ph.D., at 2-3 (N.D. Ill., Oct. 30, 2016). Unlike the Dursban litigation involving Bennett Omalu, where the “junk analysis” was excluded, in the litigation against AbbVie for its manufacture and selling of prescription testosterone supplementation, Wells’ opinions were not excluded or limited. In re Testosterone Replacement Therapy Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 14 C 1748, MDL No. 2545, 2017 WL 1833173 (N.D. Ill. May 8, 2017) (denying Rule 702 motions).

Now this statement by Wells surely offends the guidance provided by Greenland and colleagues.3 And it was exactly the sort of misrepresentation that led to a confabulation of the American Statistical Association, and that Association’s consensus statement on statistical significance.4

And here is another example, which occurs not in a distorting litigation forum, but on the pages of an occupational health journal, where the editor in chief, Anthony L. Kiorpes, ranted about the need for better statistical editing and writing in his own journal. See Anthony L Kiorpes, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics,” 33 Toxicol. & Indus. Health 885 (2017). Kiorpes decried he misuse of statistics:

I am not implying that it is the intent of the scientists who publish in these pages to mislead readers by their use of statistics, but I submit that the misuse of statistics, whether intentional or otherwise, creates confusion and error.”

Id. at 885. Kiorpes then proceeded to hold himself up as Exhibit A to his screed:

Remember that p values are estimates of the probability that the null hypothesis (no difference) is true.”

Id. Uggh; we seem to be back sliding after the American Statistical Association’s consensus statement.

Almost all scientists have stated (or have been tempted to state) something like ‘the mean of Group A was greater than that of Group B, but the difference was not statistically significant’. With very few exceptions (which I will mention below), this statement is nonsense.”

* * * * *

What the statistics are indicating when the p-value is greater than 0.05 is that there is ‘no difference’ between group A and group B.”

Id. at 886.

Let’s hope that this gets Sander Greenland away from his biased sampling of expert witnesses, off the backs of defense expert witnesses, and on to some of the real culprits out there, in the new year.

See also Sander Greenland on ‘The Need for Critical Appraisal of Expert Witnesses in Epidemiology and Statistics’” (Feb. 8, 2015).

See alsoPritchard v. Dow Agro – Gatekeeping Exemplified” (Aug. 25, 2014); Omalu and Science — A Bad Weld” (Oct. 22, 2016); Brian v. Association of Independent Oil Distributors, No. 2011-3413, Westmoreland Cty. Ct. Common Pleas, Order of July 18, 2016 (excluding Dr. Omalu’s testimony on welding and solvents and Parkinson’s disease).

3 See, e.g., Sander Greenland, Stephen J. Senn, Kenneth J. Rothman, John B. Carlin, Charles Poole, Steven N. Goodman, and Douglas G. Altman, “Statistical tests, P values, confidence intervals, and power: a guide to misinterpretations,” 31 Eur. J. Epidem. 337 (2016).

4 Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “American Statistical Association Statement on statistical significance and p values,” 70 Am. Statistician 129 (2016)

Mississippi High Court Takes the Bite Out of Forensic Evidence

November 3rd, 2017

The Supreme Court’s 1993 decision in Daubert changed the thrust of Federal Rule of Evidence 702, which governs the admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony in both civil and criminal cases. Before Daubert, lawyers who hoped to exclude opinions lacking in evidentiary and analytical support turned to the Frye decision on “general acceptance.” Frye, however, was an outdated rule that was rarely applied outside the context of devices. Furthermore, the meaning and application of Frye were unclear. Confusion reigned on whether expert witnesses could survive Frye challenges simply by adverting to their claimed use of a generally accepted science, such as epidemiology, even though their implementation of epidemiologic science was sloppy, incoherent, and invalid.

Daubert noted that Rule 702 should be interpreted in the light of the “liberal” goals of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Some observers rejoiced at the invocation of “liberal” values, but history of the last 25 years has shown that they really yearned for libertine interpretations of the rules. Liberal, of course, never meant “anything goes.” It is unclear why “liberal” cannot mean restricting evidence not likely to advance the truth-finding function of trials.

Criminal versus Civil

Back on April 27, 2009, then President Barack Obama announced the formation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). The mission of PCAST was to advise the President and his administration on science and technology, and their policy implications. Although the PCAST was a new council, presidents have had scientific advisors and advisory committees back to Franklin Roosevelt, in 1933.

On September 20, 2016, PCAST issued an important report to President Obama, Report to the President on Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods. Few areas of forensic “science,” beyond DNA matching, escaped the Council’s withering criticism. Bite-mark evidence in particular received a thorough mastication.

The criticism was hardly new. Seven years earlier, the National Academies of Science issued an indictment that forensic scientists had largely failed to establish the validity of their techniques and conclusions, and that the judiciary had “been utterly ineffective in addressing this problem.”1

The response from Obama’s Department of Justice, led by Loretta Lynch, was underwhelming.2 The Trump response was equally disappointing.3 The Left and the Right appear to agree that science is dispensable when it becomes politically inconvenient. It is a common place in the community of evidence scholars that Rule 702 is not applied with the same enthusiasm in criminal cases, to the benefit of criminal defendants, as the rule is sometimes, sporadically and inconsistently applied in civil cases. The Daubert revolution has failed the criminal justice system perhaps because courts are unwilling to lift the veil on forensic evidence, for fear they may not like what the find.4

A Grudging Look at the Scientific Invalidity of Bite Mark Evidence

Sherwood Brown was convicted of a triple murder in large measure as a result of testimony from Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist. West, as well as another odontologist, opined that a cut on Brown’s wrist matched the shape of a victim’s mouth. DNA testing authorized after the conviction, however, rendered West’s opinions edentulous. Samples from inside the female victim’s mouth yielded male DNA, but not that of Mr. Brown.5

Did the PCAST report leave an impression upon the highest court of Mississippi? The Supreme Court of Mississippi vacated Brown’s conviction and remanded for a new trial, in an opinion that a bitemark expert might describe as reading like a bite into a lemon. Brown v. State, No. 2017 DR 00206 SCT, Slip op. (Miss. Sup. Ct. Oct. 26, 2017). The majority could not bring themselves to comment upon the Dr. West’s toothless opinions. Three justices would have kicked the can down to the trial judge by voting to grant a new hearing without vacating Brown’s convictions. The decision seems mostly predicated on the strength of the DNA evidence, rather than the invalidity of the bite mark evidence. Mr. Brown will probably be vindicated, but bite mark evidence will continue to mislead juries, with judicial imprimatur.

1 National Research Council, Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward 53 (2009).

2 See Jordan Smith, “FBI and DoJ Vow to Continue Using Junk Science Rejected by White House Report,” The Intercept (Sept. 23, 2016); Radley Balko, “When Obama wouldn’t fight for science,” Wash. Post (Jan. 4, 2017).

3 See Radley Balko, “Jeff Sessions wants to keep forensics in the Dark Ages,” Wash. Post (April 11, 2017); Jessica Gabel Cino, “Session’s Assault on Forensic Science Will Lead to More Unsafe Convictions,” Newsweek (April 20, 2017).

4 See, e.g., Paul C. Giannelli, “Forensic Science: Daubert’s Failure,” Case Western Reserve L. Rev. (2017) (“in press”).

Disappearing Conflicts of Interest

October 29th, 2017

As the story of who funded the opposition research into Trumski and the Russian micturaters unfolds, both sides of the political spectrum seem obsessed with who funded the research. Funny thing that both sides had coins in the fountain. Funding is, in any event, an invalid proxy for good and sufficient reason. The public should be focused on the truth or falsity of the factual claims. The same goes in science, although more and more, science is evaluated by “conflicts of interest” (COIs) rather than by the strength of evidence and validity of inferences.

No one screams louder today about COIs than the lawsuit industry and its scientist fellow travelers. Although I believe we should rid ourselves of this obsession with COIs, to the extent we must put up with it, the obsession should at least be symmetrical, complete, and non-hypocritical.

In an in-press publication, Morris Greenberg has published an historical account of the role that the U.K. Medical Research Council had in studying asbestos health effects.1 Greenberg often weighs in on occupational disease issues in synch with the litigation industry, and so no one will be entirely surprised that Greenberg suspects undue industry influence (not the lawsuit industry, but an industry that actually makes things). Greenberg may be right in his historical narrative and analysis, but my point today is different. What was interesting about Greenberg’s paper was the disclosure at its conclusion, by the “American Journal of Industrial Medicine editor of record”:

Steven B. Markowitz declares that he has no conflict of interest in the review and publication decision regarding this article.”

Markowitz’s declaration is remarkable in the era when the litigation industry and its scientific allies perpetually have their knickers knotted over perceived COIs. Well known to the asbestos bar, Markowitz has testified with some regularity for plaintiffs’ lawyers and their clients. Markowitz is also an editor in chief of the “red” journal,” the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Many of the associate editors are regular testifiers for the lawsuit industry, such as Arthur L. Frank and Richard A. Lemen.

Even more curious is that Steven Markowitz, along with fellow plaintiffs’ expert witness, Jacqueline M. Moline, recently published a case report about mesothelioma occuring in an unusual exposure situation, in the red journal. This paper appeared online in February 2017, and carried a disclosure that “[t]he authors have served as expert witnesses in cases involving asbestos tort litigation.2” A bit misleading given how both appear virtually exclusively for claimants, but still a disclosure, whereas Markowitz, qua editor of Greenberg’s article, claimed to have none.

Markowitz, as an alumnus of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, is, of course, a member of the secret handshake society of the litigation industry, the Collegium Ramazzini. At the Collegium, Markowitz proudly presents his labor union consultancies, but these union ties are not disclosed in Markowitz’s asbestos publications.

Previously, I blogged about Markowitz’s failure to make an appropriate COI disclosure in connection with an earlier asbestos paper.3 See Conflicts of Interest in Asbestos Studies – the Plaintiffs’ Double Standard” (Sept. 18, 2013). At the time, there appeared to be no disclosure of litigation work, but I was encouraged to see, upon checking today, that Markowitz’s disclosure for his 2013 paper now reveals that he has received fees for expert testimony, from “various law firms.” A bit thin to leave out plaintiffs’ law firms, considering that the paper at issue is used regularly by Markowitz and other plaintiffs’ expert witnesses to advance their positions in asbestos cases. A more complete disclosure might read something like: “Markowitz has been paid to consult and testify in asbestos personal injury by plaintiffs’ legal counsel, and to consult for labor unions. In his testimony and consultations, he relies upon this paper and other evidence to support his opinions. This study has grown out of research that was originally funded by the asbestos workers’ union.”

Or we could just evaluate the study on its merits, or lack thereof.

1 Morris Greenberg, “Experimental asbestos studies in the UK: 1912-1950,” 60 Am. J. Indus. Med. XXX (2017) (doi: 10.1002/ajim.22762).

2 Steven B. Markowitz & Jacqueline M. Moline, “Malignant Mesothelioma Due to Asbestos Exposure in Dental Tape,” 60 Am. J. Indus. Med. 437 (2017).