TORTINI

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

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 Frye, however, was an outdated rule that was rarely applied outside the context of devices.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”).

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).