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

Specious Claiming in Multi-District Litigation

May 2nd, 2019

In a recent article in an American Bar Association newsletter, Paul Rheingold notes with some concern that, in the last two years or so, there has been a rash of dismissals of entire multi-district litigations (MDLs) based upon plaintiffs’ failure to produce expert witnesses who can survive Rule 702 gatekeeping.[1]  Paul D. Rheingold, “Multidistrict Litigation Mass Terminations for Failure to Prove Causation,” A.B.A. Mass Tort Litig. Newsletter (April 24, 2019) [cited as Rheingold]. According to Rheingold, judges historically involved in the MDL processing of products liability cases did not grant summary judgments across the board. In other words, federal judges felt that if plaintiffs’ lawyers aggregated a sufficient number of cases, then their judicial responsibility was to push settlements or to remand the cases to the transferor courts for trial.

Missing from Rheingold’s account is the prevalent judicial view, in the early going of MDL of products cases, which held that judges lacked the authority to consider Rule 702 motions for all cases in the MDL. Gatekeeping motions were considered extreme and best avoided by pushing them off to the transferor courts upon remand. In MDL 926, involving silicone gel breast implants, the late Judge Sam Pointer, who was a member of the Rules Advisory Committee, expressed the view that Rule 702 gatekeeping was a trial court function, for the trial judge who received the case on remand from the MDL.[2] Judge Pointer’s view was a commonplace in the 1990s. As mass tort litigation moved into MDL “camps,” judges more frequently adopted a managerial rather than a judicial role, and exerted great pressure on the parties, and the defense in particular, to settle cases. These judges frequently expressed their view that the two sides so stridently disagreed on causation that the truth must be somewhere in between, and even with “a little causation,” the defendants should offer a little compensation. These litigation managers thus eschewed dispositive motion practice, or gave it short shrift.

Rheingold cites five recent MDL terminations based upon “Daubert failure,” and he acknowledges other MDLs collapsed because of federal pre-emption issues (Eliquis, Incretins, and possibly Fosamax), and that other fatally weak causal MDL claims settled for nominal compensation (NuvaRing). He omits other MDLs, such as In re Silica, in which an entire MDL collapsed because of prevalent fraud in the screening and diagnosing of silicosis claimants by plaintiffs’ counsel and their expert witnesses.[3] Also absent from his reckoning is the collapse of MDL cases against Celebrex[4] and Viagra[5].

Rheingold does concede that the recent across-the-board dismissals of MDLs were due to very weak causal claims.[6] He softens his judgment by suggesting that the weaknesses were apparent “at least in retrospect,” but the weaknesses were clearly discernible before litigation by the refusal of regulatory agencies, such as the FDA, to accept the litigation-driven causal claims. Rheingold also tries to assuage fellow plaintiffs’ counsel by suggesting that plaintiffs’ lawyers somehow fell prey to the pressure to file cases because of internet advertising and the encouragement of records collection and analysis firms. This attribution of naiveté to Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (PSC) members does not ring true given the wealth and resources of lawyers on PSCs. Furthermore, the suggestion that PSC member may be newcomers to the MDL playing fields does not hold water given that most of the lawyers involved are “repeat players,” with substantial experience and financial incentives to sort out invalid expert witness opinions.[7]

Rheingold offers the wise counsel that plaintiffs’ lawyers “should take [their] time and investigate for [themselves] the potential proof available for causation and adequacy of labeling.” If history is any guide, his advice will not be followed.

[1] Rheingold cites five MDLs that were “Daubert failures” in the recent times: (1) In re Lipitor (Atorvastatin Calcium) Marketing, Sales Practices & Prods. Liab.  Litig. (MDL 2502), 892 F.3d 624 (4th Cir. 2018) (affirming Rule 702 dismissal of claims that atorvastatin use caused diabetes); (2) In re Mirena IUD Products Liab. Litig. (Mirena II, MDL 2767), 713 F. App’x 11 (2d Cir. 2017) (excluding expert witnesses’ opinion testimony that the intrauterine device caused embedment and perforation); (3) In re Mirena Ius Levonorgestrel-Related Prods. Liab. Litig., (Mirena II), 341 F. Supp. 3d 213 (S.D.N.Y. 2018) (affirming Rule 702 dismissal of claims that product caused pseudotumor cerebri); (4) In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., 858 F.3d 787 (3d Cir. 2017) (affirming MDL trial court’s Rule 702 exclusions of opinions that Zoloft is teratogenic); (5) Jones v. SmithKline Beecham, 652 F. App’x 848 (11th Cir. 2016) (affirming MDL court’s Rule 702 exclusions of expert witness opinions that denture adhesive creams caused metal deficiencies).

[2]  Not only was Judge Pointer a member of the Rules committee, he was the principal author of the 1993 Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as the editor-in-chief of the Federal Judicial Center’s Manual for Complex. At an ALI-ABA conference in 1997, Judge Pointer complained about the burden of gatekeeping. 3 Federal Discovery News 1 (Aug. 1997). He further opined that, under Rule 104(a), he could “look to decisions from the Southern District of New York and Eastern District of New York, where the same expert’s opinion has been offered and ruled upon by those judges. Their rulings are hearsay, but hearsay is acceptable. So I may use their rulings as a basis for my decision on whether to allow it or not.” Id. at 4. Even after Judge Jack Weinstein excluded plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ causal opinions in the silicone litigation, however, Judge Pointer avoided having to make an MDL-wide decision with the scope of one of the leading judges from the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. See In re Breast Implant Cases, 942 F. Supp. 958 (E. & S.D.N.Y. 1996). Judge Pointer repeated his anti-Daubert views three years later at a symposium on expert witness opinion testimony. See Sam C. Pointer, Jr., “Response to Edward J. Imwinkelried, the Taxonomy of Testimony Post-Kumho: Refocusing on the Bottom Lines of Reliability and Necessity,” 30 Cumberland L. Rev. 235 (2000).

[3]  In re Silica Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1553, 398 F. Supp. 2d 563 (S.D. Tex. 2005).

[4]  In re Bextra & Celebrex Marketing Sales Practices & Prod. Liab. Litig., 524 F. Supp. 2d 1166 (N.D. Calif. 2007) (excluding virtually all relevant expert witness testimony proffered to support claims that ordinary dosages of these COX-2 inhibitors caused cardiovascular events).

[5]  In re Viagra Products Liab. Litig., 572 F. Supp. 2d 1071 (D. Minn. 2008) (addressing claims that sildenafil causes vision loss from non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION)).

[6]  Rheingold (“Examining these five mass terminations, at least in retrospect[,] it is apparent that they were very weak on causation.”)

[7] See Elizabeth Chamblee Burch & Margaret S. Williams, “Repeat Players in Multidistrict Litigation: The Social Network,” 102 Cornell L. Rev. 1445 (2017); Margaret S. Williams, Emery G. Lee III & Catherine R. Borden, “Repeat Players in Federal Multidistrict Litigation,” 5 J. Tort L. 141, 149–60 (2014).

Has the American Statistical Association Gone Post-Modern?

March 24th, 2019

Last week, the American Statistical Association (ASA) released a special issue of its journal, The American Statistician, with 43 articles addressing the issue of “statistical significance.” If you are on the ASA’s mailing list, you received an email announcing that

the lead editorial calls for abandoning the use of ‘statistically significant’, and offers much (not just one thing) to replace it. Written by Ron Wasserstein, Allen Schirm, and Nicole Lazar, the co-editors of the special issue, ‘Moving to a World Beyond ‘p < 0.05’ summarizes the content of the issue’s 43 articles.”

In 2016, the ASA issued its “consensus” statement on statistical significance, in which it articulated six principles for interpreting p-values, and for avoiding erroneous interpretations. Ronald L. Wasserstein & Nicole A. Lazar, “The ASA’s Statement on p-Values: Context, Process, and Purpose,” 70 The American Statistician 129 (2016) [ASA Statement] In the final analysis, that ASA Statement really did not change very much, and could be read fairly only to state that statistical significance was not sufficient for causal inference.1 Aside from overzealous, over-claiming lawyers and their expert witnesses, few scientists or statisticians had ever maintained that statistical significance was sufficient to support causal inference. Still, many “health effect claims” involve alleged causation that is really a modification of a base rate of a disease or disorder that happens without the allegedly harmful exposure, and which does not invariably happen even with the exposure. It is hard to imagine drawing an inference of such causation without ruling out random error, as well as bias and confounding.

According to the lead editorial for the special issue:

The ASA Statement on P-Values and Statistical Significance stopped just short of recommending that declarations of ‘statistical significance’ be abandoned. We take that step here. We conclude, based on our review of the articles in this special issue and the broader literature, that it is time to stop using the term ‘statistically significant’ entirely. Nor should variants such as ‘significantly different’, ‘p < 0.05’, and ‘nonsignificant’ survive, whether expressed in words, by asterisks in a table, or in some other way.”2

The ASA (through Wasserstein and colleagues) appear to be condemning dichotomizing p-values, which are a continuum between zero and one. Presumably saying that a p-value is less than 5% is tantamount to dichotomizing, but providing the actual value of the p-value would cause no offense, as long as it was not labeled “significant.”

So although the ASA appears to have gone “whole hog,” the Wasserstein editorial does not appear to condemn assessing random error, or evaluating the extent of random error as part of assessing a study’s support for an association. Reporting p < 0.05 as opposed to p = a real number between zero and one is largely an artifact of statistical tables in the pre-computer era.

So what is the ASA affirmatively recommending? “Much, not just one thing?” Or too much of nothing, which we know makes a man feel ill at ease. Wasserstein’s editorial earnestly admits that there is no replacement for:

the outsized role that statistical significance has come to play. The statistical community has not yet converged on a simple paradigm for the use of statistical inference in scientific research—and in fact it may never do so.”3

The 42 other articles in the special issue certainly do not converge on any unified, coherent response to the perceived crisis. Indeed, a cursory review of the abstracts alone suggests deep disagreements over an appropriate approach to statistical inference. The ASA may claim to be agnostic in the face of the contradictory recommendations, but there is one thing we know for sure: over-reaching litigants and their expert witnesses will exploit the real or apparent chaos in the ASA’s approach. The lack of coherent, consistent guidance will launch a thousand litigation ships, with no epistemic compass.4

2 Ronald L. Wasserstein, Allen L. Schirm, and Nicole A. Lazar, “Editorial: Moving to a World Beyond ‘p < 0.05’,” 73 Am. Statistician S1, S2 (2019).

3 Id. at S2.

4 See, e.g., John P. A. Ioannidis, “Retiring statistical significance would give bias a free pass,” 567 Nature 461 (2019); Valen E. Johnson, “Raise the Bar Rather than Retire Significance,” 567 Nature 461 (2019).

Expert Witnesses Who Don’t Mean What They Say

March 24th, 2019

’Then you should say what you mean’, the March Hare went on.
‘I do’, Alice hastily replied; ‘at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know’.
‘Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. ‘You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see!”’

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter VII (1865)

Anick Bérard is an epidemiologist at the Université de Montréal. Most of her publications involve birth outcomes and maternal medication use, but Dr. Bérard’s advocacy also involves social media (Facebook, YouTube) and expert witnessing in litigation against the pharmaceutical industry.

When the FDA issued its alert about cardiac malformations in children born to women who took Paxil (paroxetine) in their first trimesters of pregnancy, the agency characterized its assessment of the “early results of new studies for Paxil” as “suggesting that the drug increases the risk for birth defects, particularly heart defects, when women take it during the first three months of pregnancy.”1 The agency also disclaimed any conclusion of “class effect” among the other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Zoloft (sertraline), Celexa (citalopram), and Prozac (fluoxetine). Indeed, the FDA requested the manufacturer of paroxetine to undertake additional research to look at teratogenicity of paroxetine, as well as the possibility of class effects. That research never showed an SSRI teratogenicity class effect.

A “suggestion” from the FDA of an adverse effect is sufficient to launch a thousand litigation complaints, which were duly filed against GlaxoSmithKline. The plaintiffs’ counsel recruited Dr. Bérard to serve as an expert witness in support of a wide array of birth defects in Paxil cases. In her hands, the agency’s “suggestion” of causation became a conclusion. The defense challenged Bérard’s opinions, but the federal court motion to exclude her causal opinions were taken under advisement, without decision. Hayes v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 2009 WL 4912178 (N.D. Okla. Dec. 14, 2009). One case in state court went to trial, with a verdict for plaintiffs.

Despite Dr. Bérard;s zealous advocacy for a causal association between Paxil and birth defects, she declined to assert any association between maternal use of the other, non-paroxetine SSRIs and birth defects. Here is an excerpt from her Rule 26 report in a paroxetine case:

Taken together, the available scientific evidence makes it clear that Paxil use during the first trimester of pregnancy is an independent risk factor that at least doubles the risk of cardiovascular malformations in newborns at all commonly used doses. This risk has been consistent and was further reinforced by repeated observational study findings as well as meta-analyses results. No such associations were found with other types of SSRI exposures during gestation.”2

In her sworn testimony, Dr. Bérard made clear that she really meant what she had written in her report, about exculpating the non-paroxetine SSRIs of any association with birth defects:

Q. Is it fair to say that you will not be offering an opinion that SSRIs as a class, or individual SSRIs other than Paxil increased the risk of cardiovascular malformations in newborns?

A. This is not what I was asked to do.

Q. But in fact you actually write in your report that you don’t believe there’s sufficient data to reach any conclusion about other SSRIs, true?

A. Correct.”3

In 2010, Dr. Bérard, along with two professional colleagues, published what they called a systematic review of antidepressant use in pregnancy and birth outcomes.4 In this review, Bérard specifically advised that paroxetine should be avoided by women of childbearing age, but she and her colleagaues affirmatively encouraged use of other SSRIs, such as fluoxetine, sertraline, and citalopram:

Clinical Approach: A Brief Overview

For women planning a pregnancy or when a treatment initiation during pregnancy is deemed necessary, the decision should rely not only on drug safety data but also on other factors such as the patient’s condition, previous response to other antidepressants, comorbidities, expected adverse effects and potential interactions with other current pharmacological treatments. Since there is a more extensive clinical experience with SSRIs such as fluoxetine, sertraline, and citalopram, these agents should be used as first-line therapies. Whenever possible, one should refrain from prescribing paroxetine to women of childbearing potential or planning a pregnancy. However, antenatal screening such as fetal echocardiography should be considered in a woman exposed prior to finding out about her pregnancy.5

When Bérard wrote and published her systematic review, she was still actively involved as an expert witness for plaintiffs in lawsuits against the manufacturers of paroxetine. In her 2010 review, Dr. Bérard gave no acknowledgment of monies earned in her capacity as an expert witness, and her disclosure of potential conflicts of interest was limited to noting that she was “a consultant for a plaintiff in the litigation involving Paxil.”6 In fact, Bérard had submitted multiple reports, testified at deposition, and had been listed as a testifying expert witness in many cases involving Paxil or paroxetine.

Not long after the 2010 review article, Glaxo settled most of the pending paroxetine birth defect cases, and the plaintiffs’ bar pivoted to recast their expert witnesses’ opinions as causal teratogenic conclusions about the entire class of SSRIs. In 2012, the federal courts established a “multi-district litigation,” MDL 2342, for birth defect cases involving Zoloft (sertraline), in the Philadelphia courtroom of Judge Cynthia Rufe, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Notwithstanding her 2010 clinical advice that pregnant women with depression should use fluoxetine, sertraline, or citalopram, Dr. Bérard became actively involved in the new litigation against the other, non-Paxil SSRI manufacturers. By 2013, Dr. Bérard was on record as a party expert witness for plaintiffs, opining that setraline causes virtually every major congenital malformation.7

In the same year, 2013, Dr. Bérard published another review article on teratogens, but now she gave a more equivocal view of the other SSRIs, claiming that they were “known carcinogens,” but acknowledging in a footnote that teratogenicity of the SSRIs was “controversial.”8 Incredibly, this review article states that “Anick Bérard and Sonia Chaabane have no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.”9

Ultimately, Dr. Bérard could not straddle her own contradictory statements and remain upright, which encouraged the MDL court to examine her opinions closely for methodological shortcomings and failures. Although Bérard had evolved to claim a teratogenic “class effect” for all the SSRIs, the scientific support for her claim was somewhere between weak to absent.10 Perhaps even more distressing, many of the pending claims involving the other SSRIs arose from pregnancies and births that predated Bérard’s epiphany about class effect. Finding ample evidence of specious claiming, the federal court charged with oversight of the sertraline birth defect claims excluded Dr. Bérard’s causal opinions for failing to meet the requirements of Federal Rule of Evidence 702.11

Plaintiffs sought to substitute Nicholas Jewell for Dr. Bérard, but Dr. Jewell fared no better, and was excluded for other methodological shenanigans.12 Ultimately, a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals, for the Third Circuit, upheld the expert witness exclusions.13

1 See “FDA Advising of Risk of Birth Defects with Paxil; Agency Requiring Updated Product Labeling,” P05-97 (Dec. 8, 2005) (emphasis added).

2 Bérard Report in Hayes v. SmithKline Beecham Corp, 2009 WL 3072955, at *4 (N.D. Okla. Feb. 4, 2009) (emphasis added).

3 Deposition Testimony of Anick Bérard, in Hayes v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., at 120:16-25 (N.D. Okla. April 2009).

4 Marieve Simoncelli, Brigitte-Zoe Martin & Anick Bérard, “Antidepressant Use During Pregnancy: A Critical Systematic Review of the Literature,” 5 Current Drug Safety 153 (2010).

5 Id. at 168b.

6 Id. at 169 (emphasis added).

7 See Anick Bérard, “Expert Report” (June 19, 2013).

8 Sonia Chaabanen & Anick Bérard, “Epidemiology of Major Congenital Malformations with Specific Focus on Teratogens,” 8 Current Drug Safety 128, 136 (2013).

9 Id. at 137b.

10 See, e.g., Nicholas Myles, Hannah Newall, Harvey Ward, and Matthew Large, “Systematic meta-analysis of individual selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications and congenital malformations,” 47 Australian & New Zealand J. Psychiatry 1002 (2013).

11 See In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 2342; 26 F.Supp. 3d 449 (E.D.Pa. 2014) (Rufe, J.). Plaintiffs, through their Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee, moved for reconsideration, but Judge Rufe reaffirmed her exclusion of Dr. Bérard. In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 2342; 12-md-2342, 2015 WL 314149 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2015) (Rufe, J.) (denying PSC’s motion for reconsideration). See Zoloft MDL Relieves Matrixx Depression” (Jan. 30, 2015).

12 See In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 12–md–2342, 2015 WL 7776911 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 2, 2015) (excluding Jewell’s opinions as scientifically unwarranted and methodologically flawed); In re Zoloft Prod. Liab. Litig., MDL NO. 2342, 12-MD-2342, 2016 WL 1320799 (E.D. Pa. April 5, 2016) (granting summary judgment after excluding Dr. Jewell). See alsoThe Education of Judge Rufe – The Zoloft MDL” (April 9, 2016).

The Contrivance Standard for Gatekeeping

March 23rd, 2019

According to Google ngram, the phrase “junk science” made its debut circa 1975, lagging junk food by about five years. SeeThe Rise and Rise of Junk Science” (Mar. 8, 2014). I have never much like the phrase “junk science” because it suggests that courts need only be wary of the absurd and ridiculous in their gatekeeping function. Some expert witness opinions are, in fact, serious scientific contributions, just not worthy of being advanced as scientific conclusions. Perhaps better than “junk” would be patho-epistemologic opinions, or maybe even wissenschmutz, but even these terms might obscure that the opinion that needs to be excluded derives from serious scientific, only it is not ready to be held forth as a scientific conclusion that can be colorably called knowledge.

Another formulation of my term, patho-epistemology, is the Eleventh Circuit’s lovely “Contrivance Standard.” Rink v. Cheminova, Inc., 400 F.3d 1286, 1293 & n.7 (11th Cir. 2005). In Rink, the appellate court held that the district court had acted within its discretion to exclude expert witness testimony because it had properly confined its focus to the challenged expert witness’s methodology, not his credibility:

“In evaluating the reliability of an expert’s method, however, a district court may properly consider whether the expert’s methodology has been contrived to reach a particular result. See Joiner, 522 U.S. at 146, 118 S.Ct. at 519 (affirming exclusion of testimony where the methodology was called into question because an “analytical gap” existed “between the data and the opinion proffered”); see also Elcock v. Kmart Corp., 233 F.3d 734, 748 (3d Cir. 2000) (questioning the methodology of an expert because his “novel synthesis” of two accepted methodologies allowed the expert to ”offer a subjective judgment … in the guise of a reliable expert opinion”).”

Note the resistance, however, to the Supreme Court’s mandate of gatekeeping. District courts must apply the statutes, Rule of Evidence 702 and 703. There is no legal authority for the suggestion that a district court “may properly consider wither the expert’s methodology has been contrived.” Rink, 400 F.3d at 1293 n.7 (emphasis added).