TORTINI

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

Every Time a Bell Rings

July 1st, 2017

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
Zuzu Bailey

And every time a court issues a non-citable opinion, a judge breaks fundamental law. Whether it wants to or not, a common law court, in deciding a case, creates precedent, and an expectation and a right that other, similarly situated litigants will be treated similarly. Deciding a case and prohibiting its citation deprives future litigants of due process and equal protection of the law. If that makes for more citable opinions, more work for judges and litigants, so be it; that is what our constitution requires.

Back in 2015, Judge Bernstein issued a ruling in a birth defects case in which the mother had claimed to have taken sertraline during pregnancy and this medication use caused her child to be born with congenital malformations. Applying what Pennsylvania courts insist is a Frye standard, Judge Bernstein excluded the proffered expert witness testimony that attempted to draw a causal connection between the plaintiff’s birth defect and the mother’s medication use. Porter v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., No. 03275, 2015 WL 5970639 (Phila. Cty. Pennsylvania, Ct. C.P. October 5, 2015) (Mark I. Bernstein, J.) Judge Bernstein has since left the bench, but he was and is a respected commentator on Pennsylvania evidence1, even if he was generally known for his pro-plaintiff views on many legal issues. Bernstein’s opinion in Porter was a capable demonstration of how Pennsylvania’s Frye rule can be interpreted to reach essentially the same outcome that is required by Federal Rule of Evidence 702. SeeDemonstration of Frye Gatekeeping in Pennsylvania Birth Defects Case” (Oct. 6, 2015); In re Zoloft Prod. Liab. Litig., No. 16-2247 , __ F.3d __, 2017 WL 2385279 , 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9832 (3d Cir. June 2, 2017) (affirming exclusion of dodgy statistical analyses and opinions, and the trial court’s entry of summary judgment on claims that sertraline causes birth defects).

In May of this year, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed Judge Bernstein’s judgment, and essentially approved and adopted his reasoning. Porter v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., No. 3516 EDA 2015,2017 WL 1902905 (Pa. Super. May 8, 2017). What the Superior Court purport to giveth, the Superior Court taketh away. The Porter decision is franked as a “Non-Precedential Decision – See Superior Court I.O.P. 65.37.”

What is this Internal Operating Procedure that makes the Superior Court think that it can act and decide cases without creating precedent? Here is the relevant text from the Pennsylvania Code:

  1. An unpublished memorandum decision shall not be relied upon or cited by a Court or a party in any other action or proceeding, except that such a memorandum decision may be relied upon or cited
  1. when it is relevant under the doctrine of law of the case, res judicata, or collateral estoppel, and
  1. when the memorandum is relevant to a criminal action or proceeding because it recites issues raised and reasons for a decision affecting the same defendant in a prior action or proceeding.

210 Pa. Code § 65.37. Unpublished Memoranda Decisions. So, in other words, it is secret law.

No citation and no precedent rules are deeply problematic, and have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention2. And still, courts engage in this problematic practice. Prohibiting citation of Superior Court decisions in Pennsylvania is especially problematic in a state in which the highest court hears relatively few cases, and where the Justices involve themselves in internecine disputes. As other commentators have noted, prohibiting citation to prior decisions admitting or excluding expert witness testimony stunts the development of an area of evidence law, in which judges and litigants are often confused and in need of guidance. William E. Padgett, “‘Non-Precedential’ Unpublished Decisions in Daubert and Frye Cases, Often Silenced,” Nat’l L. Rev. (2017). The abuses of judge-made secret law from uncitable decisions has been abolished in the federal appeals courts for over a decade3. It is time for the state courts to follow suit.


1 See, e.g., Mark I. Bernstein, Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence (2017).

See Erica Weisgerber, “Unpublished Opinions: A Convenient Means to an Unconstitutional End,” 97 Georgetown L.J. 621 (2009);  Rafi Moghadam, “Judge Nullification: A Perception of Unpublished Opinions,” 62 Hastings L.J. 1397 (2011);  Norman R. Williams, “The failings of Originalism:  The Federal Courts and the Power of Precedent,” 37 U.C.. Davis L. Rev.761 (2004);  Dione C. Greene, “The Federal Courts of Appeals, Unpublished Decisions, and the ‘No-Citation Rule,” 81 Indiana L.J. 1503 (2006);  Vincent M. Cox, “Freeing Unpublished Opinions from Exile: Going Beyond the Citation Permitted by Proposed Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32.1,” 44 Washburn L.J. 105 (2004);  Sarah E. Ricks, “The Perils of Unpublished Non-Precedential Federal Appellate Opinions: A Case Study of The Substantive Due Process State-Created Danger Doctrine in One Circuit,” 81 Wash. L.Rev. 217 (2006);  Michael J. Woodruff, “State Supreme Court Opinion Publication in the Context of Ideology and Electoral Incentives.” New York University Department of Politics (March 2011);  Michael B. W. Sinclair, “Anastasoff versus Hart: The Constitutionality and Wisdom of Denying Precedential Authority to Circuit Court Decisions”; Thomas Healy, “Stare Decisis as a Constitutional Requirement,” 104 W. Va. L. Rev. 43 (2001); David R. Cleveland & William D. Bader, “Precedent and Justice,” 49 Duq. L. Rev. 35 (2011); Johanna S. Schiavoni, “Who’s Afraid of Precedent,” 49 UCLA L. Rev. 1859 (2002); Salem M. Katsh and Alex V. Chachkes, “Constitutionality of ‘No-Citation’ Rules,” 3 J. App. Prac. & Process 287 (2001); David R. Cleveland, “Appellate Court Rules Governing Publication, Citation, and Precedent of Opinions: An Update,” 16 J. App. Prac. & Process 257 (2015). See generally The Committee for the Rule of Law (website) (collecting scholarship and news on the issue of unpublished and supposedly non-precedential opinions). The problem even has its own Wikipedia page. SeeNon-publication of legal opinions in the United States.”

3 See Fed. R. App. Proc. 32.1 (prohibiting federal courts from barring or limiting citation to unpublished federal court opinions, effective after Jan. 1, 2007).

New York Rejects the Asbestos Substantial Factor Ruse (Juni Case)

March 2nd, 2017

I recall encountering Dr. Joseph Sokolowski in one of my first asbestos personal injury cases, 32 years ago. Dr. Sokolowki was a pulmonary specialist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and he showed up for plaintiffs in cases in south Jersey as well as in Philadelphia. Plaintiffs’ counsel sought him out for his calm and unflappable demeanor, stentorious voice, and propensity for over-interpreting chest radiographs. (Dr. Sokolowski failed the NIOSH B-Reader examination.)

At the end of his direct examination, the plaintiff’s lawyer asked Dr. Sokolowski the derigueur “substantial factor” question, which in 1985 had already become a customary feature of such testimonies. And Dr. Sokolowski delivered his well-rehearsed answer: “Each and every exposure to asbestos was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s disease.”

My cross-examination picked at the cliché. Some asbestos inhaled was then exhaled. Yes. Some asbestos inhaled was brought up and swallowed. Yes. Asbestos that was inhaled and retained near the hilum did not participate in causing disease at the periphery of the lung. Yes. And so on, and so forth. I finished with my rhetorical question, always a dangerous move, “So you have no way to say that each and every exposure to asbestos actually participated in causing the plaintiff’s disease?” Dr. Sokolowski was imperceptibly thrown off his game, but he confessed error by claiming the necessity to cover up the gap in the evidence. “Well, we have no way to distinguish among the exposures so we have to say all were involved.”

Huh? What did he say? Move to strike the witness’s testimony as irrational, and incoherent. How can a litigant affirmatively support a claim by asserting his ignorance of the necessary foundational facts? The trial judge overruled my motion with alacrity, and the parties continued with the passion play called asbestos litigation. The judge was perhaps simply eager to get on with his docket of thousands of asbestos cases, but at least Dr. Sokolowski and I recognized that the “substantial factor” testimony was empty rhetoric, with no scientific or medical basis.

Sadly, the “substantial factor” falsehood was already well ensconced in 1985, in Pennsylvania law, as well as the law of most other states. Now, 32 years later, with ever increasingly more peripheral defendants, each involving less significant, if any, asbestos exposure, the “substantial factor” ruse is beginning to unravel.1

Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co.

Arthur Juni was a truck and car car mechanic, who worked on the clutches, brakes, and manifold gaskets of Ford trucks. Juni claimed to have sustained asbestos exposure in this work, as well as in other aspects of his work career. In 2012, Juni was diagnosed with mesothelioma; he died in 2014. Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co., at *1,No. 190315/12 2458 2457, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 01523 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t, Feb. 28, 2017).

Juni sued multiple defendants in New York Supreme Court, for New York County. Most of the defendants settled, but Ford Corporation tried the case against the plaintiff’s widow. Both sides called multiple expert witnesses, whose testimony disputed whether the chrysotile asbestos in Ford’s brakes and clutches could cause mesothelioma. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, but the trial court granted judgment nothwithstanding the verdict, on the ground that the evidence failed to support the causation verdict. Id. At *1; see Juni v. A. 0. Smith Water Prod., 48 Misc. 3d 460, 11 N.Y.S.3d 415 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015).

Earlier this week, the first department of the New York Appellate Division affirmed the judgment for Ford. 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 01523. The Appellate Division refused to approve plaintiffs’ theory of cumulative exposure to show causation. The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Drs. Jacqueline Moline and Stephen Markowitz, both asserted that even a single asbestos exposure was a “substantial contributing” cause. The New York appellate court, like the trial court before, saw through the ruse, and declared that both expert witnesses had failed to support their assertions.

The “Asbestos Exception” Rejected

Although New York has never enacted a codified set of evidence rules, and has never expressly adopted the rule of Daubert v. Merrill Richardson, the New York Court of Appeals has held that there are limits to the admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony. Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., 7 N.Y.3d 434 (2006), and Cornell v. 360 W. 51st St. Realty, LLC, 22 NY3d 762 (2014); Sean Reeps. v BMW of North Am., LLC, 26 N.Y.3d 801 (2016). In Juni, the Appellate Division, First Department, firmly rejected any suggestion that plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in asbestos cases are privileged against challenge over admissibility or sufficiency because the challenges occur in an asbestos case. The plaintiff’s special pleading that asbestos causation of mesothelioma is too difficult was invalidated by the success of other plaintiffs, in other cases, in showing that a specific occupational exposure was sufficient to cause mesothelioma.

The Appellate Division also rejected the plaintiff’s claim, echoed in the dissenting opinion of one lone judge, that there exists a “consensus from the medical and scientific communities that even low doses of asbestos exposure, above that in the ambient environment, are sufficient to cause mesothelioma.” The Court held that this supposed consensus is not material to the claims of a particular plaintiff against a particular defendant, especially when the particular exposure circumstance is not associated with mesothelioma in most of the relevant studies. In Juni, the defense had presented many studies that failed to show any association between occupational brake work and mesothelioma. The court might also have added that a characterization of low exposure is extremely amiguous, depending upon the implicit comparison that is being made with other exposures. It is impossible to fit a particular plaintiff’s exposure into the scale of low, medium, and high without some further context.

Single Exposure Sufficiency Rejected

The evidence that chrysotile itself causes mesothelioma remains weak, but the outcome of Juni turned not on the broad general causation question, but on the question whether even suggestive evidence of chrysotile causation had been established for the exposure circumstances of an automobile mechanic, such as Mr. Juni. Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses maintained that Juni’s cumulative asbestos exposures caused his mesothelioma, but they had no meaningful quantification or even reasonable estimate of his exposure.

Citing the Court of Appeals decision in Reeps, the Appellate Division held that plaintiff’s expert witnesses’ causation opinions must be supported by reasonable quantification of the plaintiff’s exposure, or some some scientific method, such as mathematical modeling based upon actual work history, or by comparison of plaintiff’s claimed exposure with the exposure of workers in reported studies that establish a relevant risk from those workers’ exposure. In the Juni case, however, there were no exposure measurements or scientific models, and the comparison with workers doing similar tasks failed to show a causal relationship between the asbestos exposure in those tasks and mesothelioma.

Expert Witness Admissibility and Sufficiency Requires Evaluation of Both Direct and Cross-examination Testimony and Relied Upon Studies

The Juni decision teaches another important lesson for challenging expert witness testimony in New York: glib generalizations delivered on direct examination must be considered in the light of admissions and concessions made on cross-examination, and the entire record. In Juni, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Jacqueline Moline and Stephen Markowitz, asserted that asbestos in Ford’s friction products was a cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma. Cross-examination, however, revealed that these assertions were lacking in factual support.

Cumulative Exposure

On cross-examination, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ statements about exposure levels proved meaningless. Moline attempted to equate visible dust with sufficient asbestos exposure to cause disease, but she conceded on cross-examination that studies had shown that 99% of brake lining debris was not asbestos. Most of the dust observed from brake drums is composed of resins used to manufacture brake linings and pads. The heat and pressure of the brake drum causes much of the remaining chrysotile to transform into a non-fibrous mineral, fosterite.

Similarly, Markowitz had to acknowledge that chrysotile has a “serpentine” structure, with individual fibers curling in a way that makes deeper penetration into the lungs more difficult. Furthermore, chrysotile, a hydrated magnesium silicate, melts in the lungs, not in the hands. The human lung can clear particulates, and so there is no certainty that remaining chrysotile fibers from brake lining exposures ever reach the periphery of the lung, where they could interact with the pleura, the tissue in which mesothelioma arises.

Increased Risk, “Linking,” and Association Are Not Causation – Exculpatory Epidemiologic Studies

When pressed, plaintiffs’ expert witnesses lapsed into characterizing the epidemiologic studies of brake and automobile mechanics as showing increased risk or association, not causation. Causation, not association, however, was the issue. Witnesses’ invocation of weasel words, such as “increased risk,” “linkage,” and “association” are insufficient in themselves to show the requisite causation in long-latency toxic exposure cases. For automobile mechanics, even the claimed association was weak at best, with plaintiffs’ expert witnesses having to acknowledge that 21 of 22 epidemiologic studies failed to show an association between automobile mechanics’ asbestos exposure and risk of mesothelioma.

The Juni case was readily distinguishable from other cases in which the Markowitz was able to identify epidemiologic studies that showed that visible dust from a specific product contained sufficient respirable asbestos to cause mesothelioma. Id. (citing Caruolo v John Crane, Inc., 226 F.3d 46 (2d Cir. 2000). As the Appellate Division put the matter, there was no “no valid line of reasoning or permissible inference which could have led the jury to reach its result.” Asbestos plaintiffs must satisfy the standards set out in the New York Court of Appeals decisions, Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., 7 NY3d 434 2006), and Cornell v. 360 W. 51st St. Realty, LLC, 22 N.Y.3d 762 (2014), for exposure evidence and causal inferences, as well.

New York now joins other discerning courts in rejecting regulatory rationales of “no safe exposure,” and default “linear no threshold” exposure-response models as substitutes for inferring specific causation.2 A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but in jurisprudence, consistency is often the bedrock for the rule of law.


1 The ruse of passing off “no known safe exposure” as evidence that even the lowest exposure was unsafe has been going on for a long time, but not all judges are snookered by this rhetorical sleight of hand. See, e.g., Bostic v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 439 S.W.3d 332, 358 (Tex. 2014) (“the failure of science to isolate a safe level of exposure does not prove specific causation”).

2 See, e.g. Bostic v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 439 S.W.3d 332, 358 (Tex. 2014) (failing to identify safe levels of exposure does not suffice to show specific causation); Henricksen v. ConocoPhillips Co., 605 F. Supp. 2d 1142, 1165-66 (E.D. Wash. 2009) (rejecting a “no threshold” model of exposure-response as unfalsifiable and unvalidated, and immaterial to the causation claims); Pluck v. BP Oil Pipeline Co., 640 F.3d 671, 679 (6th Cir. 2011) (rejecting claim that plaintiff’s exposure to benzene “above background level,” but below EPA’s maximum permissible contaminant level, caused her cancer); Newkirk v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 727 F. Supp. 2d 10006, 1015 (E.D. Wash. 2010) (rejecting Dr. David Egilman’s proffered testimony on specific causation based upon his assertion that there was no known safe level of diacetyl exposure).

Omalu and Science — A Bad Weld

October 22nd, 2016

Bennet Omalu is a star of the silver screen and in the minds of conspiratorial thinkers everywhere. Actually Will Smith[1] stood in for Omalu in the movie Concussion (2015), but Smith’s skills as an actor bring out the imaginary best in Omalu’s persona.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is the name that Bennet Omalu, a pathologist, gave to the traumatic brain injuries resulting from repeated concussions experienced by football players.[2]  The concept is not particularly new; the condition of dementia pugilistica had been described previously in boxers. What was new with Omalu was his fervid imagination and his conspiratorial view of the world.[3] The movie Concussion  actually gives an intimation of some of the problems in Omalu’s scientific work.  See, e.g., Daniel Engber, “Concussion Lies: The film about the NFL’s apparent CTE epidemic feeds the pervasive national myths about head trauma,” Slate (Dec. 21 2015); Bob Hohler, “BU rescinds award to ‘Concussion’ trailblazer,” Boston Globe (June 16, 2016).

Omalu has more dubious claims to fame. He has not cabined his unique, stylized approach to science to the subject of head trauma. Although Omalu is a pathologist, not a clinician, Omalu recently he weighed in with observations that Hillary Clinton was definitely unwell. Indeed, Bennet Omalu has now made a public nuisance of himself by floating conspiratorial theories that Hilary Clinton has been poisoned. Cindy Boren, “The man who discovered CTE thinks Hillary Clinton may have been poisoned,” Wash. Post (Sept. 12, 2016); Christine Rushton, “‘Concussion’ doctor suggests without evidence that poison a factor in Clinton’s illness,” Los Angeles Times. (Sept. 13, 2016).

In the courtroom, in civil cases, Omalu has a poor track record for scientific rigor. The United States Court of Appeals, for the Third Circuit, which can be tough and skeptical of Rule 702 expert witness exclusions, readily affirmed an exclusion of Omalu’s testimony in 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). In Pritchard, Omalu was caught misrepresenting the statistical data from published studies in a so-called toxic tort case. Fortunately, robust gatekeeping was able to detoxify the proffered testimony.[4]

More recently, Omalu was at it again in a case in which a welder claimed that exposure to welding and solvent fumes caused him to develop Parkinson’s disease. Brian v. Association of Independent Oil Distributors, No. 2011-3413, Westmoreland Cty. Ct. Common Pleas, Order of July 18, 2016. [cited here as Order].

James G. Brian developed Parkinson disease (PD), after 30 years of claimed exposure to welding and solvent fumes. It is America, so Brian sued Lincoln Electric and various chemical companies on his theory that his PD was caused by his welding and solvent exposures, either alone or together. Now although manganese in very high exposures can cause a distinctive movement disorder, manganism, manganese in welding fume does not cause PD in humans.[5] Omalu was undeterred, however, and proceeded by conjecturing that welding fume interacted with solvent fumes to cause Brian’s PD.

At the outset of the case, Brian intended to present testimony of expert witnesses, Bennet Omalu, Richard A. Parent, a toxicologist, and Jordan Loyal Holtzman, a pharmacologist.  Parent commenced giving a deposition, but became so uncomfortable with his own opinion that he put up a white flag at the deposition, and withdrew from the case.  On sober reflection, Holtzman also withdrew from the case.

Omalu was left alone, to make the case on general and specific causation. Defendant Lincoln Electric and others moved to exclude Omalu, under Pennsylvania’s standard for admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony, which is based upon a patch-work version of Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013 (D. C. Cir. 1923).

Invoking a quirky differential diagnosis, and an idiosyncratic reading of Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s work, Omalu defended his general and specific causation opinions. After briefing and a viva voce hearing, President Judge Richard E. McCormick ruled that Omalu had misapplied both methodologies in reaching his singular opinion. Order at 8.

Omalu did not make the matter easy for Judge McCormick. There was no question that Brian had PD.  Every clinician who had examined him made the diagnosis. Knowing that PD is generally regarded as idiopathic, with no known cause, Omalu thought up a new diagnosis: chronic toxic encephalopathy.

When confronted with the other clincians’ diagnoses, Omalu did not dispute the diagnosis of PD. Instead, he attempted to evade the logical implications of the diagnosis of idiopathic PD by continually trying to change the terminology to suit his goals. Judge McCormick saw through Omalu’s semantic evasions, which bolstered the case for excluding him at trial.

Madness to His Method

In scrutinizing Omalu’s opinions, Judge McCormick found more madness than method. Omalu claimed that he randomly selected studies to rely upon, and he failed to explain the strengths and weaknesses of the cited studies when he formed his opinion.

Despite his claim to have randomly selected studies, Omalu remarkably managed to ignore epidemiologic studies that were contrary to his causal conclusions. Order at 9.  Indeed, Omalu missed more than half the published studies on welding and PD.  Not surprisingly, Omalu did not record his literature search; nor could explain, in deposition or at the court hearing, his inclusionary or exclusionary criteria for pertinent studies. Id. at 10. When confronted about his “interaction” opinions concerning welding and solvent fumes, Omalu cited several studies, none of which measured or assessed combined exposures.  Some of the papers flatly contradicted Omalu’s naked assertions. Id. at 9.

Judge McCormick rejected Omalu’s distorted invocation of the Bradford Hill factors to support a causal association when no association had yet been found. The court quoted from the explanation provided by Prof. James A. Mortimer, the defense neuroepidemiologist, at the Frye hearing:

“First, the Bradford Hill criteria should not be applied until you have ruled out a chance association, which [Omalu] did not do. In fact, as I will point out, carefully done epidemiologic studies will show there is no increased risk of Parkinson’s disease with exposure to welding fume and/or solvents, therefore the application of these criteria is inappropriate.”

Order at 11, citing to and quoting from Frye Hearing at 318 (Oct. 14, 2015).

When cornered, Omalu asserted that he never claimed that Mr. Brian’s PD was caused by welding or solvents; rather his contention was simply that occupational exposures had created a “substantial increased risk” of PD. Id. at 14. Risk creation, however, is not causation; and Omalu had not even shown unquantified evidence of increased risk before Brian developed PD. The court found that Omalu had not used any appropriate methodology with respect to general causation. Id. at 14.

Specific Causation

Undaunted, Omalu further compromised his credibility by claiming that Bradford Hill’s factors allowed him to establish specific causation, even in the absence of general causation. Id. at 12. Omalu suggested that he had performed a differential diagnosis, even though he is not a clinician, and as a pathologist had not evaluated any brain tissue. Id. at 10. The court deftly saw through these ruses. Id. at 11.

Judge McCormick’s conclusion should be a precautionary lesson to future courts that must gatekeep Omalu’s opinions, or Omalu-like opinions:

“In conclusion, we agree with the Defendants that while Dr. Omalu’s stated methodology in this case is generally accepted in the medical and scientific community, Dr. Omalu failed to properly apply it. He misused and demonstrated a lack of understanding of the Bradford Hill criteria and the Schaumburg criteria when he attempted to employ these methodologies to conduct a differential diagnosis or differential etiology analysis.”

Id. at 16. Gatekeeping is sometimes viewed as more difficult in Frye jurisdictions, but the exclusion of Omalu shows that it can be achieved when expert witnesses deviate materially from scientifically standard methodology.


[1] For other performances by Will Smith in this vein, see Six Degrees of Separation (1993); Focus (2015).

[2] See Bennet I. Omalu, Steven DeKosky, Ryan Minster, M. Ilyas Kamboh, Ronald Hamilton, Cyril H. Wecht, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player, Part I,” 57 Neurosurgery 128 (2005); Bennet I. Omalu, Steven DeKosky, Ronald Hamilton, Ryan Minster, M. Ilyas Kamboh, Abdulrezak Shakir, and Cyril H. Wecht, “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player, Part II,” 59 Neurosurgery 1086 (2006).

[3] See Jeanne Marie Laskas, “The Doctor the NFL Tried to Silence,” Wall St. J. (Nov. 24, 2015).

[4] SeePritchard v. Dow Agro – Gatekeeping Exemplified” (Aug. 25, 2014).

[5] See, e.g., Marianne van der Mark, Roel Vermeulen, Peter C.G. Nijssen, Wim M. Mulleners, Antonetta M.G. Sas, Teus van Laar, Anke Huss, and Hans Kromhout, “Occupational exposure to solvents, metals and welding fumes and risk of Parkinson’s disease,” 21 Parkinsonism Relat Disord. 635 (2015); James Mortimer, Amy Borenstein & Laurene Nelson, Associations of Welding and Manganese Exposure with Parkinson’s Disease: Review and Meta-Analysis, 79 Neurology 1174 (2012); Joseph Jankovic, “Searching for a relationship between manganese and welding and Parkinson’s disease,” 64 Neurology 2012 (2005).

Judge Bernstein’s Criticism of Rule 703 of the Federal Rules of Evidence

August 30th, 2016

Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 703 addresses the bases of expert witness opinions, and it is a mess. The drafting of this Rule is particularly sloppy. The Rule tells us, among other things, that:

“[i]f experts in the particular field would reasonably rely on those kinds of facts or data in forming an opinion on the subject, they need not be admissible for the opinion to be admitted.”

This sentence of the Rule has a simple grammatical and logical structure:

If A, then B;

where A contains the concept of reasonable reliance, and B tells us the consequence that the relied upon material need not be itself admissible for the opinion to be admissible.

But what happens if the expert witness has not reasonably relied upon certain facts or data; i.e., ~A?  The conditional statement as given does not describe the outcome in this situation. We are not told what happens when an expert witness’s reliance in the particular field is unreasonable.  ~A does not necessarily imply ~B. Perhaps the drafters meant to write:

B if and only if A.

But the drafters did not give us the above rule, and they have left judges and lawyers to make sense of their poor grammar and bad logic.

And what happens when the reliance material is independently admissible, say as a business record, government report, and first-person observation?  May an expert witness rely upon admissible facts or data, even when a reasonable expert would not do so? Again, it seems that the drafters were trying to limit expert witness reliance to some rule of reason, but by tying reliance to the admissibility of the reliance material, they managed to conflate two separate notions.

And why is reliance judged by the expert witness’s particular field?  Fields of study and areas of science and technology overlap. In some fields, it is common place for putative experts to rely upon materials that would not be given the time of day in other fields. Should we judge the reasonableness of homeopathic healthcare providers’ reliance by the standards of reasonableness in homeopathy, such as it is, or should we judge it by the standards of medical science? The answer to this rhetorical question seems obvious, but the drafters of Rule 703 introduced a Balkanized concept of science and technology by introducing the notion of the expert witness’s “particular field.” The standard of Rule 702 is “knowledge” and “helpfulness,” both of which concepts are not constrained by “particular fields.”

And then Rule 703 leaves us in the dark about how to handle an expert witness’s reliance upon inadmissible facts or data. According to the Rule, “the proponent of the opinion may disclose [the inadmissible facts or data] to the jury only if their probative value in helping the jury evaluate the opinion substantially outweighs their prejudicial effect. And yet, disclosing inadmissible facts or data would always be highly prejudicial because they represent facts and data that the jury is forbidden to consider in reaching its verdict.  Nonetheless, trial judges routinely tell juries that an expert witness’s opinion is no better than the facts and data on which the opinion is based.  If the facts and data are inadmissible, the jury must disregard them in its fact finding; and if an expert witness’s opinion is based upon facts and data that are to be disregarded, then the expert witness’s opinion must be disregarded as well. Or so common sense and respect for the trial’s truth-finding function would suggest.

The drafters of Rule 703 do not shoulder all the blame for the illogic and bad results of the rule. The judicial interpretation of Rule 703 has been sloppy, as well. The Rule’s “plain language” tells us that “[a]n expert may base an opinion on facts or data in the case that the expert has been made aware of or personally observed.”  So expert witnesses should be arriving at their opinions through reliance upon facts and data, but many expert witnesses rely upon others’ opinions, and most courts seem to be fine with such reliance.  And the reliance is often blind, as when medical clinicians rely upon epidemiologic opinions, which in turn are based upon data from studies that the clinicians themselves are incompetent to interpret and critique.

The problem of reliance, as contained within Rule 703, is deep and pervasive in modern civil and criminal trials. In the trial of health effect claims, expert witnesses rely upon epidemiologic and toxicologic studies that contain multiple layers of hearsay, often with little or no validation of the trustworthiness of many of those factual layers. The inferential methodologies are often obscure, even to the expert witnesses, and trial counsel are frequently untrained and ill prepared to expose the ignorance and mistakes of the expert witnesses.

Back in February 2008, I presented at an ALI-ABA conference on expert witness evidence about the problems of Rule 703.[1] I laid out a critique of Rule 703, which showed that the Rule permitted expert witnesses to rely upon “castles in the air.” A distinguished panel of law professors and judges seemed to agree; at least no one offered a defense of Rule 703.

Shortly after I presented at the ALI-ABA conference, Professor Julie E. Seaman published an insightful law review in which she framed the problems of rule 703 as constitutional issues.[2] Encouraged by Professor Seaman’s work, I wrote up my comments on Rule 703 for an ABA publication,[3] and I have updated those comments in the light of subsequent judicial opinions,[4] as well as the failure of the Third Edition of the Reference Manual of Scientific Evidence to address the problems.[5]

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Judge Mark I. Bernstein is a trial court judge for the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. I never tried a case before Judge Bernstein, who has announced his plans to leave the Philadelphia bench after 29 years of service,[6] but I had heard from some lawyers (on both sides of the bar) that he was a “pro-plaintiff” judge. Some years ago, I sat next to him on a CLE panel on trial evidence, at which he disparaged judicial gatekeeping,[7] which seemed to support his reputation. The reality seems to be more complex. Judge Bernstein has shown that he can be a critical consumer of complex scientific evidence, and an able gatekeeper under Pennsylvania’s crazy quilt-work pattern of expert witness law. For example, in a hotly contested birth defects case involving sertraline, Judge Bernstein held a pre-trial evidentiary hearing and looked carefully at the proffered testimony of Michael D. Freeman, a chiropractor and self-styled “forensic epidemiologist, and Robert Cabrera, a teratologist. Applying a robust interpretation of Pennsylvania’s Frye rule, Judge Bernstein excluded Freeman and Cabrera’s proffered testimony, and entered summary judgment for defendant Pfizer, Inc. Porter v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 2016 WL 614572 (Phila. Cty. Ct. Com. Pl.). SeeDemonstration of Frye Gatekeeping in Pennsylvania Birth Defects Case” (Oct. 6, 2015).

And Judge Bernstein has shown that he is one of the few judges who takes seriously Rule 705’s requirement that expert witnesses produce their relied upon facts and data at trial, on cross-examination. In Hansen v. Wyeth, Inc., Dr. Harris Busch, a frequent testifier for plaintiffs, glibly opined about the defendant’s negligence.  On cross-examination, he adverted to the volumes of depositions and documents he had reviewed, but when defense counsel pressed, the witness was unable to produce and show exactly what he had reviewed. After the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, Judge Bernstein set the verdict aside because of the expert witness’s failure to comply with Rule 705. Hansen v. Wyeth, Inc., 72 Pa. D. & C. 4th 225, 2005 WL 1114512, at *13, *19, (Phila. Ct. Common Pleas 2005) (granting new trial on post-trial motion), 77 Pa. D. & C. 4th 501, 2005 WL 3068256 (Phila. Ct. Common Pleas 2005) (opinion in support of affirmance after notice of appeal).

In a recent law review article, Judge Bernstein has issued a withering critique of Rule 703. See Hon. Mark I. Bernstein, “Jury Evaluation of Expert Testimony Under the Federal Rules,” 7 Drexel L. Rev. 239 (2015). Judge Bernstein is clearly dissatisfied with the current approach to expert witnesses in federal court, and he lays almost exclusive blame on Rule 703 and its permission to hide the crucial facts, data, and inferential processes from the jury. In his law review article, Judge Bernstein characterizes Rules 703 and 705 as empowering “the expert to hide personal credibility judgments, to quietly draw conclusions, to individually decide what is proper evidence, and worst of all, to offer opinions without even telling the jury the facts assumed.” Id. at 264. Judge Bernstein cautions that the subversion of the factual predicates for expert witnesses’ opinions under Rule 703 has significant, untoward consequences for the court system. Not only are lawyers allowed to hire professional advocates as expert witnesses, but the availability of such professional witnesses permits and encourages the filing of unnecessary litigation. Id. at 286. Hear hear.

Rule 703’s practical consequence of eliminating the hypothetical question has enabled the expert witness qua advocate, and has up-regulated the trial as a contest of opinions and opiners rather than as an adversarial procedure that is designed to get at the truth. Id. at 266-67. Without having access to real, admissible facts and data, the jury is forced to rely upon proxies for the truth: qualifications, demeanor, and courtroom poise, all of which fail the jury and the system in the end.

As a veteran trial judge, Judge Bernstein makes a persuasive case that the non-disclosure permitted under Rule 703 is not really curable under Rule 705. Id. at 288.  If the cross-examination inquiry into reliance material results in the disclosure of inadmissible facts, then judges and the lawyers must deal with the charade of a judicial instruction that the identification of the inadmissible facts is somehow “not for the truth.” Judge Bernstein argues, as have many others, that this “not for the truth” business is an untenable fiction, either not understood or ignored by jurors.

Opposing counsel, of course, may ask for an elucidation of the facts and data relied upon, but when they consider the time and difficulty involved in cross-examining highly experienced, professional witnesses, opposing counsel usually choose to traverse the adverse opinion by presenting their own expert witness’s opinion rather than getting into nettlesome details and risking looking foolish in front of the jury, or even worse, allowing the highly trained adverse expert witness to run off at the mouth.

As powerful as Judge Bernstein’s critique of Rule 703 is, his analysis misses some important points. Lawyers and judges have other motives for not wanting to elicit underlying facts and data: they do not want to “get into the weeds,” and they want to avoid technical questions of valid inference and quality of data. Yet sometimes the truth is in the weeds. Their avoidance of addressing the nature of inference, as well as facts and data, often serves to make gatekeeping a sham.

And then there is the problem that arises from the lack of time, interest, and competence among judges and jurors to understand the technical details of the facts and data, and inferences therefrom, which underlie complex factual disputes in contemporary trials. Cross examination is reduced to the attempt to elicit “sound bites” and “cheap shots,” which can be used in closing argument. This approach is common on both sides of the bar, in trials before judges and juries, and even at so-called Daubert hearings. See David E. Bernstein & Eric G. Lasker,“Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 William & Mary L. Rev. 1, 32 (2015) (“Rule 703 is frequently ignored in Daubert analyses”).

The Rule 702 and 703 pretrial hearing is an opportunity to address the highly technical validity questions, but even then, the process is doomed to failure unless trial judges make adequate time and adopt an attitude of real intellectual curiosity to permit a proper exploration of the evidentiary issues. Trial lawyers often discover that a full exploration is technical and tedious, and that it pisses off the trial judge. As much as judges dislike having to serve as gatekeepers of expert witness opinion testimony, they dislike even more having to assess the reasonableness of individual expert witness’s reliance upon facts and data, especially when this inquiry requires a deep exploration of the methods and materials of each relied upon study.

In favor of something like Rule 703, Bernstein’s critique ignores that there are some facts and data that will never be independently admissible. Epidemiologic studies, with their multiple layers of hearsay, come to mind.

Judge Bernstein, as a reformer, is wrong to suggest that the problem is solely in hiding the facts and data from the jury. Rules 702 and 703 march together, and there are problems with both that require serious attention. See David E. Bernstein & Eric G. Lasker,“Defending Daubert: It’s Time to Amend Federal Rule of Evidence 702,” 57 William & Mary L. Rev. 1 (2015); see alsoOn Amending Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence” (Oct. 17, 2015).

And we should remember that the problem is not solely with juries and their need to see the underlying facts and data. Judges try cases too, and can butcher scientific inference with any help from a lay jury. Then there is the problem of relied upon opinions, discussed above. And then there is the problem of unreasonable reliance of the sort that juries cannot discern even if they see the underlying, relied upon facts and data.


[1] Schachtman, “Rule 703 – The Problem Child of Article VII”; and “The Effective Presentation of Defense Expert Witnesses and Cross-examination of Plaintiffs’ Expert Witnesses”; at the ALI-ABA Course on Opinion and Expert Witness Testimony in State and Federal Courts (February 14-15, 2008).

[2] See Julie E. Seaman, “Triangulating Testimonial Hearsay: The Constitutional Boundaries of Expert Opinion Testimony,” 96 Georgetown L.J. 827 (2008).

[3]  Nathan A. Schachtman, “Rule of Evidence 703—Problem Child of Article VII,” 17 Proof 3 (Spring 2009).

[4]RULE OF EVIDENCE 703 — Problem Child of Article VII” (Sept. 19, 2011)

[5] SeeGiving Rule 703 the Cold Shoulder” (May 12, 2012); “New Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence Short Shrifts Rule 703,” (Oct. 16, 2011).

[6] Max Mitchell, “Bernstein Announces Plan to Step Down as Judge,” The Legal Intelligencer (July 29, 2016).

[7] See Schachtman, “Court-Appointed Expert Witnesses,” for Mealey’s Judges & Lawyers in Complex Litigation, Class Actions, Mass Torts, MDL and the Monster Case Conference, in West Palm Beach, Florida (November 8-9, 1999). I don’t recall Judge Bernstein’s exact topic, but I remember he criticized the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision in Blum v. Merrill Dow Pharmaceuticals, 534 Pa. 97, 626 A.2d 537 ( 1993), which reversed a judgment for plaintiffs, and adopted what Judge Bernstein derided as a blending of Frye and Daubert, which he called Fraubert. Judge Bernstein had presided over the Blum trial, which resulted in the verdict for plaintiffs.