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

Legal Remedies for Suspect Medical Science in Products Cases – Part Three

June 5th, 2020

 Legislative Initiatives – The Asbestos Fairness in Compensation Act

Over the years, Congress has considered various possible solutions to the problem of asbestos liability. One proposed reform bill, which bore the title “Asbestos Fairness in Compensation Act,” was specifically motivated by a concern about the quality of the expert opinions that fueled the asbestos litigation tsunami.[1] The Report by the Senate Judiciary Committee for this bill commented on its view of medical testimony in asbestos cases:

“Defendants’ rights are further compromised when courts lack the resources to monitor the medical evidence submitted by plaintiffs.  A study by neutral academics showed that forty-one (41 %) percent of audited claims of alleged asbestosis or pleural disease were found by trust physicians to have either no disease or a less severe disease than alleged by the plaintiffs’ experts (for example, pleural disease rather than asbestosis).”[2]

A key part of the bill sought to establish a process to ensure that claims would be based upon sound medical science.  As the Senate Report explained the legislative goal:

4. Diagnostic and latency criteria

Asbestos claimants must meet diagnostic and latency criteria to be compensated by the Fund.  The diagnostic criteria should reflect the typical components of a true medical diagnosis by a claimant’s doctor, including an in-person physical examination (or pathology in the case where the injured person is deceased) and a review of the claimant’s medical, smoking and exposure history by the doctor diagnosing an asbestos-related disease.  These requirements ensure that the claimant will be given a meaningful diagnosis related to the claimant’s condition.  The diagnosis must also include consideration of other more likely causes of the condition to ensure that asbestos exposure was the cause of any claimed nonmalignant disease (as opposed to other industrial dust exposure) or a substantial contributing factor in causing a malignant disease….”[3]

A number of the bill’s specific provisions sought to limit payments to only claimants who could qualify under properly validated medical criteria. This bill, like all those before it, died on the Hill.

The Health Care Quality Improvement Act of 1986

In 1986, Congress passed the Health Care Quality Improvement Act (“HCQIA”)[4], which was prompted by concerns that fear of litigation would deter hospitals, physicians and others from carrying out peer review of unprofessional conduct and from providing candid assessments to peer review bodies.  The Act gave all participants in a qualifying “professional review action” immunity from being held liable in damages “under any law of the United States or of any State (or political subdivision thereof) with respect to the action.”[5]  One of the immunized entities is a “professional review body,” a term defined by HCQIA to mean “a health care entity and the governing body or any committee of a health care entity which conducts professional review activity, and includes any committee of the medical staff of such an entity when assisting the governing body in a professional review activity.”[6]  Moreover, another provision of the Act[7] provides immunity from damages to any person “providing information to a professional review body regarding the competence or professional conduct of a physician. . . .unless such information is false and the person providing it knew such information was false.”

The HCQIA has given rise to litigation over whether it protects professional review bodies from defamation cases involving litigation opinions. If medico-legal opinions are within the scope of the practice of medicine, then a potentially important method for curbing unscrupulous expert witnesses and false or exaggerated opinion testimony might consist of peer review actions through professional associations or state medical boards.

In Florida litigation, an intermediate appellate court held that the Florida Medical Association did not have immunity under the HCQIA for having provided procedures for pressing complaints against medical expert witnesses for unprofessional conduct.[8] The state law that might be invoked to curb meretricious testimony by licensed physicians, through professional associations or medical licensing boards, remains a hodge-podge.[9]

The American Bar Association’s Resolution Condemning Screenings and Calling For Impairment Criteria in Asbestos Litigation

Part of the impetus for federal legislative reform of asbestos litigation and its diagnostic gamesmanship came from an American Bar Association (ABA) recommendation of enacting impairment requirements for asbestos non-malignant personal injury cases.[10]  Acting upon concerns of court dockets backlogged by unimpaired and false-positive and bogus asbestosis cases, many of which arose out of mass screenings, the ABA urged that limitations rules be relaxed so as not to require the filing of unimpaired cases and that compensation be limited to cases that have demonstrable objective evidence of physical impairment due to asbestosis.  The ABA Report helped to instigate asbestos tort reform efforts in Congress, as well as several successful state legislative efforts.

State Tort Reform Acts for Reliable Diagnostic and Impairment Criteria in Asbestos and Silica Cases

While Congress floundered on litigation reform of the asbestos racket, several states enacted meaningful procedural and substantive changes to address some of the more abusive medical screening practices in asbestos and silica cases.  Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Ohio have enacted remedial legislation that requires a demonstration of objective pulmonary impairment.  In some instances, the tort reform measures specify that the diagnosing physician have a patient-physician relationship with the claimant.  This requirement was aimed at chilling the efforts of itinerant, out-of-state screening physicians, whose conduct came under scrutiny in In re Silica.[11]

Daubert, Its Progeny, and Amended Rule of Evidence 702

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Daubert was not only a watershed in the analysis of expert evidence generally but also reflected specific concerns about expert testimony in the area of product liability litigation. Daubert itself was a pharmaceutical product liability case, as were Joiner and Kumho Tire.  Medical causation is one of the key issues in every product liability case, and the pressure to produce an opinion, whether inculpatory or exculpatory, will occasionally distort a fragile epistemic foundation that will not support a conclusion with any certainty.  In In re Silica, the prospect of creating a mass tort out of whole cloth seems to have had just such a distorting influence.[12]

As noted by Judge Jack, in making the reliability inquiry, the trial judge has the responsibility “to make certain that an expert … employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.”[13] Typically, this requirement of “intellectual rigor” means that physicians proffering a diagnosis for litigation purposes must employ the same standards and practices in reaching that diagnosis that they would use in their regular, non-litigation practice of medicine.

Judge Jack was not writing on a completely blank slate in finding the silicosis diagnoses to be bogus in the MDL cases. A few years earlier, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the exclusion of a physician expert witness who insisted upon a “hands-on” examination in his medical practice, but who did not bother to examine the plaintiff personally in a case involving a failed spinal fusion.[14] Standing alone, the physician expert witness’s failure to conduct a physical examination might not have required exclusion, but the deviation from his own established, non-litigation practice provided a persuasive showing that the expert witness “did not employ in the courtroom the same methods that he employs in his own practice,” which required exclusion.[15]

A similar example of gatekeeping occurred in Ingram v. Solkatronic Chemical, Inc.,[16] where the trial judge excluded the testimony of a medical expert witness who opined that plaintiff had been injured by exposure to arsine gas.  At his deposition, the expert witness “outlined his standard diagnostic protocol when called upon to evaluate a cause of a given physical ailment.”[17]  The witness’s own protocol included taking a medical history, performing a physical examination, and determining what tests were required.  This protocol starkly contrasted with the expert witness’s anemic litigation approach to diagnosis, which failed to include physical examinations or review of complete medical or occupational histories.  Finding that the expert’s procedures “depart[ed] from his own established diagnostic standards,” the court excluded his testimony.[18]

[1]  S. 852, 109th Congress, 1st Session, and Senate Judiciary Comm. Report (June 30, 2005).

[2]  Id. at 21.

[3]  Id. at 34.

[4]  42 U.S.C. §§ 11101, et seq.

[5]  42 U.S.C. § 11111(a)(1).

[6]  42 U.S.C. § 11151(11).

[7]  42 U.S.C. § 11111(a)(2)/

[8]  Fullerton v. The Florida Med. Ass’n, 938 So.2d 587 (Fla. D. Ct. App. 2006). See also Adam Liptak, “Doctor’s Testimony Leads To a Complex Legal Fight,” N.Y. Times (June 20, 2004).

[9]  See, e.g., Sandeep K. Narang & Stephan R. Paul, “Expert Witness Participation in Civil and Criminal Proceedings,” 139 Pediatrics e1 (2017); Robert A. Bitterman, “Halting inappropriate expert witness testimony – Part I: Professional associations’ efforts to police ‘experts’,” Relias Media (Jan. 1, 2007); Robert A. Bitterman, “Halting Inappropriate Expert Witness Testimony — Part II: Efforts of State Medical Boards and State Medical Societies to Police ‘Experts’,” Relias Media (Feb. 1, 2007); Robert A. Bitterman, “Halting inappropriate expert witness testimony ? Part III: Tort reform to prevent not-so-expert opinions,” Relias Media (Mar. 1, 2007).

[10]  See ABA Commission on Asbestos Litigation, Report to the House of Delegates (Report No. 302) (February 2003).

[11]  For discussion of some of the state legislative reform, see Mark A. Behrens, “What’s New in Asbestos Litigation?” 28 Rev. Litig. 501 (2009); Jeb Barnes, “Rethinking the Landscape of Tort Reform: Legislative Inertia and Court-Base Tort Reform in the Case of Asbestos,” 28 The Justice System J. 157 (2007); Jeb Barnes, Dust-Up: Asbestos Litigation and the Failure of Commonsense Policy Reform (2011).

[12]  In re Silica Prods. Liab. Litig., 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D. Tex. 2005).

[13]  Id. at 621, quoting Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999). 

[14]  Cooper v. Smith & Nephew, Inc., 259 F.3d 194, 203 (4th Cir. 2001).

[15]  Id.

[16]  2005 WL 3544244 (N.D. Okla., Dec. 28, 2005),

[17]  Id. at *13.

[18]  Id. at *14.  See also Goebel v. Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Co., 346 F.3d 987, 998 (10th Cir. 2003) (upholding admissibility of opinion of medical expert witness who “followed ‘standard medical procedure in evaluating and diagnosing’ [plaintiff]”) (internal quotations omitted); Fitzgerald v. Smith & Nephew Richards, Inc., 1999 WL 1489199 (D. Md., Dec. 30, 1999), aff’d, 11 Fed. Appx. 335, 339 (4th Cir. 2001) (excluding opinion of medical expert who testified that clinical judgment requires personal contact with patient, but who failed to examine the plaintiff or review her complete medical history; finding that the expert “did not undertake his medical review and formulate his opinions with ‘intellectual rigor’”); Wooley v. Smith & Nephew Richards, Inc., 67 F. Supp. 2d 703, 709 (S.D. Tex. 1999) (excluding testimony of medical expert witness who had not examined plaintiff, and who relied on his review of medical records selected by  plaintiff’s counsel; concluding that “no expert orthopedic surgeon would attempt to make an accurate and complete diagnosis as to the probable cause of postoperative spinal injury without interviewing or examining the patient or considering the entirety of a patient’s records”).

Legal Remedies for Suspect Medical Science in Products Cases – Part Two

June 3rd, 2020

The Federal Multi-District Silicosis Proceedings Before Judge Janis Jack

One of the most significant developments in the role of scientific and medical evidence gatekeeping under Rule 702, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert,[1] was the 2005 opinion of Judge Janis Graham Jack in the multi-district silicosis litigation.[2] Judge Jack’s lengthy opinion addresses a variety of procedural issues, including subject matter jurisdiction over some of the cases, but Her Honor’s focus was “whether the doctors who diagnosed Plaintiffs with silicosis employed a sufficiently reliable methodology for their testimony to be admissible” and “whether Plaintiffs’ counsel should be sanctioned for submitting unreliable diagnoses and failing to fully comply with discovery orders.”  Judge Jack held that thousands of diagnoses of silicosis were radically flawed and could not be treated as proper science or medicine, and she imposed sanctions against plaintiffs’ lawyers in the cases over which she had subject matter jurisdiction.

In summary, Judge Jack held that to pass the minimum reliability analysis under Daubert, a diagnosis of silicosis requires:

“(1) an adequate exposure to silica dust with an appropriate latency period,

(2) radiographic evidence of silicosis, and

(3) the absence of any good reason to believe that the radiographic findings are the result of some other condition (i.e., a differential diagnosis).

* * * * *

As discussed above, these three criteria are universally accepted, as demonstrated by learned treatises and experts in the field.  It is the implementation of these criteria in these cases which ranged from questionable to abysmal.”[3]

With respect to the first criterion, evidence of “adequate exposure to silica dust with an appropriate latency period,” the court concluded that “[t]he ‘exposure histories’ (or ‘work histories’) were virtually always taken by people with no medical training, who had significant financial incentives to find someone positive for exposure to silica (or asbestos, depending on which type of suit the employing law firm was seeking to file).”[4]  The court went on to state that:

“[t]hese ‘histories’ were devoid of meaningful details, such as the duration and intensity of exposure, which are critical to determining whether someone has sufficient exposure, dosage and latency to support a reliable diagnosis.”[5]

Judge Jack, who had been a registered nurse before going to law school and becoming a lawyer, was clearly concerned that the medical “histories were taken by receptionists [at medical screening companies allied with plaintiffs’ counsel] with no medical training.”[6]  The head of one of the screening companies “testified that the doctors who worked for his screening company simply relied upon the abbreviated work histories that [the screening company] supplied them.”[7]  As a former nurse, Judge Jack was probably more than a little put off by the screening company executive’s explanation that “to ask the doctor to take a work history in our field would be like asking [the defense attorney questioning him] to wash my car.  I mean it’s . . . very beneath him.”[8]  Judge Jack rejected this approach entirely, and found that legitimate doctors would find it necessary to take the occupational history themselves:

“This type of thorough, detailed, physician-guided work/exposure history is the kind of history that experts in the field of occupational medicine insist upon when diagnosing silicosis.  It is therefore the type of history required by the Federal Rules for these diagnoses to be admissible.  Cf. Allen v. Pennsylvania Eng’g Corp., 102 F.3d 194, 198 (5th Cir. 1996)… .”[9]

The second required predicate for an admissible diagnosis of silicosis was an appropriate radiographic finding – a so-called “B-read,” which is simply the interpretation of a physician, who has passed a certifying proficiency examination given by the National Institute of Occupational Health, for evaluating chest films for pneumoconiosis, using a standardized scale and notations.  Judge Jack discerned, contrary to the approach taken by some of the plaintiffs’ lawyers and certain doctors, that a positive B-read was not “a talisman that would dispel any doubts about the diagnoses as a whole.”[10]  A positive B-read simply is not sufficient alone to support a silicosis diagnosis.

Judge Jack noted that a consensus report of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine rejected the use of a B-read alone as sufficient to support a diagnosis of pneumoconiosis, and emphasized the views of one testifying physician that the “ILO guidelines, by their express terms, [were] ‘not supposed to be used for designation of disease or determining compensation.’ ”[11] But even apart from rejecting the concept that a positive B-read was by itself a sufficient basis for a diagnosis of silicosis, Judge Jack fundamentally criticized the manner in which the X-rays at issue were conducted.

The B-reader system was not originally established for use in litigation, but as part of a coal workers’ surveillance program to determine whether a worker should be transferred to a low-dust environment.  And under this surveillance program, the worker is not transferred until at least two B-readers agree on a positive read.  But in most of these MDL cases, a single positive B-read was deemed sufficient by plaintiffs’ hired witnesses to establish a diagnosis of silicosis.[12]

Judge Jack also stressed that the methodology followed by the B-readers did “not correspond to the ILO’s recommended methodology for applying the ILO classification system, because according to ILO guidelines:

“When classifying radiographs for epidemiological purposes it is essential that the reader does not consider any information about the individuals concerned other than the radiographs themselves.  Awareness of supplementary details specific to the individuals themselves can introduce bias into the results.”[13]

In the cases before her, Judge Jack found that it was obvious that the so-called B-reader was “acutely aware of the precise disease he is supposed to be finding on the X-rays.  In these cases, the doctors repeatedly testified that they were told to look for silicosis, and the doctors did as they were told.”[14] Business pressures had obviously corrupted the diagnostic process, and resulted in improbable consistency in finding silicosis in whomever plaintiffs’ lawyers signed up for litigation.

This corrupt consistency, and obediency to retaining plaintiffs’ counsel, which led to Judge Jack’s approval of the testimony from the hearings that advanced the notion that some degree of blinding is needed to assure the integrity of the diagnostic process. When the radiographic films come from a mass screening, the readers should be confronted with films known to be negative through multiple, independent evaluations.

The third criterion given by Judge Jack for an admissible diagnosis of silicosis, was a proper “differential diagnosis,” which consisted of a showing of “the absence of any good reason to believe that the positive radiographic findings are the result of some other condition.”[15]

One of the physicians whose diagnoses were challenged claimed that this ruling out of other explanations for a radiographic pattern was not required for diagnosing silicosis, but Judge Jack found that this self-serving opinion was contradicted by the major textbooks in the field, by the physicians who showed up to testify in the hearings, and even by the plaintiffs’ own briefs. Judge Jack adverted to the language of Daubert to note that one factor to be considered in the “reliability” of an expert witness’s opinion was its general acceptance in the relevant scientific community.[16] The self-validating views of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses simply were not generally accepted in any legitimate segment of the medical profession. And thus Judge Jack found that, in the MDL cases, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ failure to exclude other alternative causes of the radiographic findings clearly was not generally accepted in the field of occupational medicine, and that their opinions did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 702.[17] A proper differential diagnosis required what was lacking across the board in the cases, namely “a thorough occupational/exposure history and medical history,” as well as a social history that included travel destinations.[18]

In addition to Judge Jack’s carefully reasoned conclusions about the diagnostic “process” used by the challenged expert witnesses, Her Honor was presented with additional evidence of the egregious infirmity of the challenged diagnoses:

– The willingness of one doctor to render opinions on 1,239 plaintiffs in the MDL when he was admittedly not a qualified B-reader, not an expert in silicosis treatment, not qualified to read X-rays or CT scans, did no physical examinations, simply took whatever histories had been given to him by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, and spent a negligible amount of time reviewing each of the plaintiffs’ files.  The doctor testified that his practice consists almost entirely of litigation consulting and that he charges $600 per hour for that work.

– Another doctor’s abandonment of about 3,700 diagnoses under the scrutiny generated by the hearings before Judge Jack.

– The fact that 1,587 claimants who had previously been listed as having asbestosis, with no reference to silica disease, had their diagnoses changed to silicosis, with no reference to asbestos disease.  These diagnoses were produced rapidly and in large groups.

– The fact that a purported epidemic of silicosis apparently began abruptly in early 2001, when plaintiffs’ lawyers turned their attention to this alternative to asbestos litigation, and the fact that many of the silicosis claimants were recycled asbestosis clients of the plaintiffs’ firms.

The specific facts before Judge Jack may seem extreme, but the same or similar abuses have been commonplace in asbestos litigation for a long time before they were outed in the silicosis MDL.  The crucial holdings of In re Silica go beyond the serious depravity of the expert witnesses involved.

Raymark v. Stempel

In 1990, one now defunct asbestos product manufacturer, Raymark Industries, Inc. (“Raymark”), deluged with dubious lawsuits, brought RICO and other claims against medical professionals, lawyers, and claimants.[19]  Raymark based its allegations on deceptions that led it to settle an asbestos personal injury class action.

In ruling upon defendants’ motions to dismiss, the district court found that defendant medical screeners had disregarded standards set by the American Thoracic Society and reported that workers had asbestos-related “injuries” even thought the radiographic interpretations had no clinical significance.  The court stated that the screening program had produced a “steady flow of faulty claims” and was a “fraud on the court.”[20]  The court thus refused to dismiss Raymark’s claims based on common law fraud and RICO violations.[21]

Owens Corning Fiberglass Bankruptcy Proceedings

The efforts to curtail frivolous asbestos claims also include the motion by Credit Suisse in the Owens Corning bankruptcy for leave to file an adversary complaint against certain physicians who reported chest radiographs as positive for asbestos-related diseases.  This motion was granted conditionally on the agreement of Credit Suisse to indemnify Owens Corning for any potential ensuing liability, but then was withdrawn when Credit Suisse declined to provide such assurance.

[1]  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).

[2]  In re Silica Products Liab.Litig., 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D.Tex. 2005) (“In re Silica”).

[3]  In re Silica. at 622 (internal citations and footnote omitted).

[4]  In re Silica, at 622 -23.

[5]  Id.

[6]  Id.

[7]  Id.

[8]  Id.

[9]  In re Silica, at 623-34.

[10]  In re Silica, at 625 – 26.

[11]  Id. at 626 – 27 (internal quotes omitted).

[12]  Id. at 626.

[13]  Id.

[14]  Id. at 627.

[15]  Id. at 629.

[16]  Id. at 629 – 30 (citing Daubert, 509 U.S. at 593-94; Pipitone v. Biomatrix, Inc., 288 F.3d 239, 246 (5th Cir. 2002) (upholding admissibility under Rule 702 when a physician’s “elimination of various alternative causes. . . .were [sic] based on generally accepted diagnostic principles related to these conditions”).

[17]  Id. at 629 – 30.

[18]  Id. at 630 – 32 (coccidioidomycosis is endemic to some parts of the United States and resembles silicosis radiographically).

[19]  Raymark Indus., Inc. v. Stemple, 1990 WL 72588 (D. Kan., May 30, 1990).

[20]  1990 WL 72588 at *2, *8, *18, *22.

[21] See Nathan Schachtman, “Medico-Legal Issues in Occupational Lung Disease Litigation,” 27 Sem. Roentgenology 140 (1992) (discussing Semple in greater detail). It is unclear how Stemple was ultimately resolved.  The court’s docket does not indicate whether this case was dismissed, voluntarily, involuntarily, as a result of settlement, or otherwise.  The clerk of the court reported that this case was sealed under court order.

Judicial Dodgers – Rule 702 Tie Does Not Go to Proponent

June 2nd, 2020

The Advisory Committee notes to the year 2000 amendment to Federal Rule of Evidence 702 included a comment:

“A review of the case law after Daubert shows that the rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule. Daubert did not work a ‘seachange over federal evidence law’, and ‘the trial court’s role as gatekeeper is not intended to serve as a replacement for the adversary system’.”[internal citation omitted]

In stating its review of the caselaw, perhaps the Committee was attempting to allay the anxiety of technophobic judges. But was the Committee also attempting to derive an “ought” from an “is”?  Before the Supreme Court decided Daubert in 1993, virtually every admissibility challenge to expert witness opinion testimony failed. The trial courts were slow to adapt and to adopt the reframed admissibility standard. As the Joiner case illustrated, some Circuits were even slower to permit trial judges the discretion to assess the validity vel non of expert witnesses’ opinions.

The Committee’s observation about the “exceptional” nature of exclusions was thus unexceptional as a description of the case law before and shortly after Daubert was decided. And even if the Committee were describing a normative view, it is not at all clear how that view should translate into a ruling in a given case, without a very close analysis of the opinions at issue, under the Rule 702 criteria. In baseball, most hitters are thrown out at first base, but that fact does not help an umpire one whit in calling a specific runner “safe” or “out.”  Nonetheless, courts have repeatedly offered the observation about the exceptional nature of exclusion as both an explanation and a justification of their opinions to admit testimony.[1] The Advisory Committee note has thus mutated into a mandate to err on the side of admissibility, as though deliberately committing error was a good thing for any judge to do.[2] First rule: courts shall not err, not intentionally, recklessly, or negligently.

Close Calls and Resolving Doubts

Another mutant offspring of the “exception, not the rule” mantra is that “[a]ny doubts regarding the admissibility of an expert’s testimony should be resolved in favor of admissibility.”[3] Why not resolve the doubts and rule in accordance with the law? Or, if doubts remain, then charge them against the proponent who has the burden of showing admissibility? Unlike baseball, in which a tie goes to the runner, in expert witness law, a tie goes to the challenger because the defender of the motion has failed to show a preponderance in favor of admissibility. A better mantra: “exclusion when it is the Rule.”

Some courts re-imagine the Advisory Committee’s about exceptional exclusions as a recommendation for admitting Rule 702 expert witness opinion testimony as a preferred outcome. Again, that interpretation reverses the burden of proof and makes a mockery of equal justice and scientific due process.

Yet another similar judicial mutation is the notion that courts should refuse Rule 702 motions when they are “close calls.”[4] Telling the litigants that the call was close might help assuage the loser and temper the litigation enthusiasms of the winner, but it does not answer the key question: Did the proponent carry the burden of showing admissibility? Residual doubts would seem to weigh against the proponent.

Not all is lost. In one case, decided by a trial court within the Ninth Circuit, the trial judge explicitly pointed to the proponent’s failure to identify his findings and methodology as part of the basis for exclusion, not admission, of the challenged witness’s opinion testimony.[5] Difficulty in resolving whether the Rule 702 predicates were satisfied worked against, not for, the proponent, whose burden it was to show those predicates.

In another case, Judge David G. Campbell, of the District of Arizona, who has participated in the Rules Committee’s deliberations, showed the way by clearly stating that the exclusion of opinion testimony was required when the Rule 702 conditions were not met:

“Plaintiffs have not shown by a preponderance of the evidence that [the expert witness’s] causation opinions are based on sufficient facts or data to which reliable principles and methods have been applied reliably… .”[6]

Exclusion followed because the absent showings were “conditions for admissibility,” and not “mere” credibility considerations.

Trust Me, I’m a Liberal

One of the reasons that the Daubert Court rejected incorporating the Frye standard into Rule 702 was its view that a rigid “general acceptance” standard “would be at odds with the ‘liberal thrust’ of the Federal Rules.”[7] Some courts have cited this “liberal thrust” as though it explained or justified a particular decision to admit expert witness opinion testimony.[8]

The word “liberal” does not appear in the Federal Rules of Evidence.  Instead, the Rules contain an explicit statement of how judges must construe and apply the evidentiary provisions:

“These rules shall be construed to secure fairness in administration, elimination of unjustifiable expense and delay, and promotion of growth and development of the law of evidence to the end that the truth may be ascertained and proceedings justly determined.”[9]

A “liberal” approach, construed as a “let it all in” approach would be ill-designed to secure fairness, eliminate unjustifiable expense and time of trial, or lead to just and correct outcomes.  The “liberal” approach of letting in opinion testimony and let the jury guess at questions of scientific validiy would be a most illiberal result.  The truth will not be readily ascertained if expert witnesses are permitted to pass off hypotheses and ill-founded conclusions as scientific knowledge.

Avoiding the rigidity of the Frye standard, which was so rigid that it was virtually never applied, certainly seems like a worthwhile judicial goal. But how do courts go from the Justice Blackmun’s “liberal thrust” to infer a libertine “anything goes”? And why does liberal not connote seeking of the truth, free of superstitions? Can it be liberal to permit opinions that are based upon fallacious or flawed inferences, invalid studies, or cherry-picked data sets?

In reviewing the many judicial dodges that are used to avoid engaging in meaningful Rule 702 gatekeeping, I am mindful of Reporter Daniel Capra’s caveat that the ill-advised locutions used by judges do not necessarily mean that their decisions might not be completely justifiable on a carefully worded and reasoned opinion that showed that Rule 702 and all its subparts were met. Of course, we could infer that the conditions for admissibility were met whenever an expert witness’s opinions were admitted, and ditch the whole process of having judges offer reasoned explanations. Due process, however, requires more. Judges need to specify why they denied Rule 702 challenges in terms of the statutory requirements for admissibility so that other courts and the Bar can develop a principled jurisprudence of expert witness opinion testimony.

[1]  See, e.g., In re Scrap Metal Antitrust Litig., 527 F.3d 517, 530 (6th Cir. 2008) (“‘[R]ejection of expert testimony is the exception, rather than the rule,’ and we will generally permit testimony based on allegedly erroneous facts when there is some support for those facts in the record.”) (quoting Advisory Committee Note to 2000 Amendments to Rule 702); Citizens State Bank v. Leslie, No. 6-18-CV-00237-ADA, 2020 WL 1065723, at *4 (W.D. Tex. Mar. 5, 2020) (rejecting challenge to expert witness opinion “not based on sufficient facts”; excusing failure to assess factual basis with statement that “the rejection of expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule.”); In re E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. C-8 Pers. Injury Litig., No. 2:18-CV-00136, 2019 WL 6894069, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 18, 2019) (committing naturalistic fallacy; “[A] review of the case law … shows that rejection of the expert testimony is the exception rather than the rule.”): Frankenmuth Mutual Insur. Co. v. Ohio Edison Co., No. 5:17CV2013, 2018 WL 9870044, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 9, 2018) (quoting Advisory Committee Note “exception”); Wright v. Stern, 450 F. Supp. 2d 335, 359–60 (S.D.N.Y. 2006)(“Rejection of expert testimony, however, is still ‘the exception rather than the rule,’ Fed.R.Evid. 702 advisory committee’s note (2000 Amendments)[.] . . . Thus, in a close case the testimony should be allowed for the jury’s consideration.”) (internal quotation omitted).

[2]  Lombardo v. Saint Louis, No. 4:16-CV-01637-NCC, 2019 WL 414773, at *12 (E.D. Mo. Feb. 1, 2019) (“[T]he Court will err on the side of admissibility.”).

[3]  Mason v. CVS Health, 384 F. Supp. 3d 882, 891 (S.D. Ohio 2019).

[4]  Frankenmuth Mutual Insur. Co. v. Ohio Edison Co., No. 5:17CV2013, 2018 WL 9870044, at *2 (N.D. Ohio Oct. 9, 2018) (concluding “[a]lthough it is a very close call, the Court declines to exclude Churchwell’s expert opinions under Rule 702.”); In re E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. C-8 Pers. Injury Litig., No. 2:18-CV-00136, 2019 WL 6894069, at *2 (S.D. Ohio Dec. 18, 2019) (suggesting doubts should be resolved in favor of admissibility).

[5]  Rovid v. Graco Children’s Prod. Inc., No. 17-CV-01506-PJH, 2018 WL 5906075, at *13 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 9, 2018), app. dism’d, No. 19-15033, 2019 WL 1522786 (9th Cir. Mar. 7, 2019).

[6]  Alsadi v. Intel Corp., No. CV-16-03738-PHX-DGC, 2019 WL 4849482, at *4 -*5 (D. Ariz. Sept. 30, 2019).

[7]  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc. 509 U.S. 579, 588 (1993).

[8]  In re ResCap Liquidating Trust Litig., No. 13-CV-3451 (SRN/HB), 2020 WL 209790, at *3 (D. Minn. Jan. 14, 2020) (“Courts generally support an attempt to liberalize the rules governing the admission of expert testimony, and favor admissibility over exclusion.”)(internal quotation omitted); Collie v. Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P., No. 1:16-CV-227, 2017 WL 2264351, at *1 (M.D. Pa. May 24, 2017) (“Rule 702 embraces a ‘liberal policy of admissibility’, under which it is preferable to admit any evidence that may assist the factfinder[.]”); In re Zyprexa Prod. Liab. Litig., 489 F. Supp. 2d 230, 282 (E.D.N.Y. 2007); Billone v. Sulzer Orthopedics, Inc., No. 99-CV-6132, 2005 WL 2044554, at *3 (W.D.N.Y. Aug. 25, 2005) (“[T]he Supreme Court has emphasized the ‘liberal thrust’ of Rule 702, favoring the admissibility of expert testimony.”).

[9]  Federal Rule of Evidence Rule 102 (“Purpose and Construction”) (emphasis added).

Judicial Dodgers – Weight not Admissibility

May 28th, 2020

Another vacuous response to a methodological challenge under Rule 702 is to label the challenge as “going to the weight, not the admissibility” of the challenged expert witness’s testimony. Of course, a challenge may be solely focused upon the expert witness’s credibility, such as when an expert witness testifies on many occasions only for one side in similar disputes, or for one whose political commitments render him unable to acknowledge the bona fides of any studies conducted by the adversarial parties.[1] If, however, the Rule 702 challenge stated an objection to the witness’s methodology, then the objection would count against both the opinion’s weight and its admissibility. The judicial “weight not admissibility” label conveys the denial of the challenge, but it hardly explains how and why the challenge failed under Rule 702. Applying such a label without addressing the elements of Rule 702, and how the challenged expert witness satisfied those elements, is often nothing less than a failure of judging.

The Flawed Application of a Generally Accepted Methodology

If a meretricious expert witness by pretense or ignorance invokes a standard methodology but does so in a flawed or distorted, or in an invalid way, then there will be a clear break in the chain of inferences from data to conclusion. The clear language of Rule 702 should render such an expert witness’s conclusion inadmissible. Some courts, however, retreat into a high level of generality about the method used rather than inspecting the method as applied. For example, a court might look at an expert witness’s opinion and correctly find that it relied upon epidemiology, and that epidemiology is a generally accepted discipline concerned with identifying causes. The specific detail of the challenge may have shown that the witness had relied upon a study that was thoroughly flawed,[2] or that the witness relied upon an epidemiologic study of a type that cannot support a causal inference.[3]

Rule 702 and the Supreme Court’s decision in Joiner make clear that the trial court must evaluate the expert witness’s application of methodology and whether it actually supports valid inferences leading to the witness’s claims and conclusions.[4] And yet, lower courts continue to characterize the gatekeeping process as “hands off” the application of methodology and conclusions:

“Where the court has determined that plaintiffs have met their burden of showing that the methodology is reliable, the expert’s application of the methodology and his or her conclusions are issues of credibility for the jury.”[5]

This rejection of the clear demands of a statute has infected even the intermediate appellate United States Court of Appeals. In a muddled application of Rule 702, the Third Circuit approved admitting expert witness testimony in a case, explaining “because [the objecting party / plaintiff] objected to the application rather than the legitimacy of [the expert’s] methodology, such objections were more appropriately addressed on cross-examination and no Daubert hearing was required”).[6] Such a ruling in the Third Circuit is especially jarring because it violates not only the clear language of Rule 702, but also established precedent within the Circuit that holds that “any step that renders the analysis unreliable . . . renders the expert’s testimony inadmissible. This is true whether the step completely changes a reliable methodology or merely misapplies that methodology.”[7]

The Eight Circuit seems to have set itself up stridently against the law by distinguishing between scientific methodologies and their applications, and holding that “when the application of a scientific methodology is challenged as unreliable under Daubert and the methodology itself is otherwise sufficiently reliable, outright exclusion of the evidence in question is warranted only if the methodology was so altered by a deficient application as to skew the methodology itself.”[8]

The Ninth Circuit similarly has followed this dubious distinction between methodology in the abstract and methodology as applied. In City of Pomona, the Circuit addressed the admissibility of an expert witness whose testing deviated from protocols. Relying upon pre-2000 Ninth Circuit case law, decided before the statutory language of Rule 702 was adopted, the court found that:

“expert evidence is inadmissible where the analysis is the result of a faulty methodology or theory as opposed to imperfect execution of laboratory techniques whose theoretical foundation is sufficiently accepted in the scientific community to pass muster under Daubert.”[9]

The Eleventh Circuit has similarly disregarded Rule 702 by adverting to an improvised distinction between validity of methodology and flawed application of methodology.[10]

Cherry Picking and Inadequate Bases

Most of the Circuits of the United States Court of Appeals have contributed to the mistaken belief that “[a]s a general rule, questions relating to the bases and sources of an expert’s opinion affect the weight to be assigned that opinion rather than its admissibility.”[11] Clearly, such questions can undermine the admissibility of an expert witness’s opinion under Rule 702, and courts need to say why they have found the challenged opinion to have had a “sufficient basis.” For example, in the notorious Milward case, the First Circuit, citing legally invalid pre-Daubert decisions, stated that “when the factual underpinning of an expert’s opinion is weak it is a matter affecting the weight and credibility of the testimony − a question to be resolved by the jury.”[12]

After Milward, the Eighth Circuit followed suit in a hormone replacement therapy case. An expert who ignored studies was excluded by the district court, but the Court of Appeals found an abuse of discretion, holding that the sufficiency of an expert’s basis is a question of weight and not admissibility.[13]

These rulings elevate form over substance by halting the gatekeeping inquiry at an irrelevant, high level of abstraction, and finding that the challenged expert witness was doing something “sciencey,” which is good enough for government work. The courts involved evaded their gatekeeping duties and ignored the undue selectivity in reliance materials and the inadequacy and insufficiency of the challenged expert witness’s factual predicate. The question is not whether expert witnesses relied upon “scientific studies,” but whether their causal conclusions and claims are well supported, under scientific standards, by the studies upon which they relied.

Like the covert shifting of the burden of proof, or the glib assessment that the loser can still cross-examine in front of the jury,[14] the rulings discussed represent another way that judges kick the can on Rule 702 motions. Despite the confusing verbiage, these judicial rulings are a serious deviation from the text of Rule 702, as well as the Advisory Committee Note to the 2000 Amendments, which embraced the standard articulated in In re Paoli, that

“any step that renders the analysis unreliable . . . renders the expert’s testimony inadmissible. This is true whether the step completely changes a reliable methodology or merely misapplies that methodology.”[15]

On a positive note, some courts have recognized that responding with the conclusory assessment of a challenge’s going to weight not admissibility is a delegation of the court’s gatekeeping duty to the jury.[16]

In 2018, Professor Daniel Capra, the Reporter to the Rules Committee addressed the “weight not admissibility dodge” at length in his memorandum to the Rules Committee:

“Rule 702 clearly states that these are questions of admissibility, but many courts treat them as questions of weight. The issue for the Committee is whether something/anything can be done about these wayward decisions.”[17]

The Reporter charitably noted that the problem could be in the infelicitous expression of some courts that short-circuit their analyses by saying “I see the problems, but they go to the weight of the evidence.”[18] Perhaps these courts meant to say that they had found that the proponent of the challenged expert witness testimony had shown admissibility by a preponderance, and that what non-disqualifying problems remained should be taken up on cross-examination.[19] The principle of charity, however, cannot exonerate federal judges from exercising the dodge repeatedly in the face of clear statutory language. Indeed, the Reporter reaffirmed the Rules Committee’s substantive judgment that questions of sufficient basis and reliable application of methodology are admissibility issues:[20]

“It is hard to see how expert testimony is reliable if the expert has not done sufficient investigation, or has cherry-picked the data, or has misapplied the methodology. The same ‘white lab coat’ problem − that the jury will not be able to figure out the expert’s missteps − would seem to apply equally to basis, methodology and application.”

Although the Reporter opined that some authors may have overstated judicial waywardness, he found the judicial disregard of the requirements of Rule 702(b) and (d) incontrovertible.[21]

Professor Capra restated his conclusions a year later, in 2019, when he characterized broad statements such as such as “challenges to the sufficiency of an expert’s basis raise questions of weight and not admissibility” as “misstatement[s] made by circuit courts in a disturbing number of cases… .”[22] Factual insufficiency and unreliable application of methodology are, of course, also credibility and ethical considerations, but they are the fact finders’ concern only after the proponent has shown admissibility by a preponderance of the evidence. Principled adjudication requires judges to say what they mean and mean what they say.

[1]  See also Cruz-Vazquez v. Mennonite Gen. Hosp. Inc., 613 F.3d 54 (1st Cir. 2010) (reversing exclusion of an expert witness who was biased in favor of plaintiffs in medical cases and who was generally affiliated with plaintiffs’ lawyers; such issues of personal bias are for the jury in assessing the weight of the expert witness’s testimony). Another example would be those expert witnesses whose commitment to Marxist ideology is such that they reject any evidence proffered by manufacturing industry as inherently corrupt, while embracing any evidence proffered by labor or the lawsuit industry without critical scrutiny.

[2]  In re Phenylpropanolamine (PPA) Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1407, 289 F. Supp. 2d 1230 (W.D. Wash. 2003) (Yale Hemorrhagic Stroke Project).

[3]  Cook v. Rockwell Internat’l Corp., 580 F. Supp. 2d 1071, 1098 (D. Colo. 2006) (“Defendants next claim that Dr. Clapp’s study and the conclusions he drew from it are unreliable because they failed to comply with four factors or criteria for drawing causal interferences from epidemiological studies: accounting for known confounders … .”), rev’d and remanded on other grounds, 618 F.3d 1127 (10th Cir. 2010), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 133 S.Ct. 22 (2012). For another example of a trial court refusing to see through important qualitative differences between and among epidemiologic studies, see In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., 2006 WL 4507859, *33 (N.D. Ohio 2006) (reducing all studies to one level, and treating all criticisms as though they rendered all studies invalid)

[4]  General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997).

[5]  Proctor & Gamble Co. v. Haugen, 2007 WL 709298, at *2 (D. Utah 2007); see also United States v. McCluskey, 954 F.Supp.2d 1227, 1247-48 (D.N.M. 2013) (“the trial judge decides the scientific validity of underlying principles and methodology” and “once that validity is demonstrated, other reliability issues go to the weight − not the admissibility − of the evidence”); Murphy-Sims v. Owners Ins. Co., No. 16-CV-0759-CMA-MLC, 2018 WL 8838811, at *7 (D. Colo. Feb. 27, 2018) (“Concerns surrounding the proper application of the methodology typically go to the weight and not admissibility[.]”).

[6]  Walker v. Gordon, 46 F. App’x 691, 696 (3rd Cir. 2002).

[7]  In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 745 (3d Cir. 1994).

[8]  United States v. Gipson, 383 F.3d 689, 696 (8th Cir. 2004)(relying upon pre-2000 authority for this proposition).

[9]  City of Pomona v. SQM N.Am. Corp. 750 F.3d 1036, 1047 (9th Cir. 2014).

[10]  Quiet Tech. DC-8, Inc. v. Hurel-Dubois UK Ltd., 326 F.3d 1333, 1343 (11th Cir. 2003).

[11]  Puga v. RCX Sols., Inc., 922 F.3d 285, 294 (5th Cir. 2019). See also United States v. Hodge, 933 F.3d 468, 478 (5th Cir. 2019)(“As a general rule, questions relating to the bases and sources of an expert’s opinion affect the weight to be assigned that opinion rather than its admissibility and should be left for the jury’s consideration.”); MCI Communications Service Inc. v. KC Trucking & Equip. LLC, 403 F. Supp. 3d 548, 556 (W.D. La. 2019); Coleman v. United States, No. SA-16-CA-00817-DAE, 2017 WL 9360840, at *4 (W.D. Tex. Aug. 16, 2017); Alvarez v. State Farm Lloyds, No. SA-18-CV-01191-XR, 2020 WL 734482, at *3 (W.D. Tex. Feb. 13, 2020)(“To the extent State Farm wishes to attack the ‘bases and sources’ of Dr. Hall’s opinion, such questions affect the weight to be assigned to that opinion rather than its admissibility and should also be left for the jury’s consideration.”)(internal quotation and citation omitted); Patenaude v. Dick’s Sporting Goods, Inc., No. 9:18-CV-3151-RMG, 2019 WL 5288077, at *2 (D.S.C. Oct. 18, 2019) (“More fundamentally, each of these arguments goes to the factual basis of the report, … and it is well settled that the factual basis for an expert opinion generally goes to weight, not admissibility.”); Wischermann Partners, Inc. v. Nashville Hosp. Capital LLC, No. 3:17-CV-00849, 2019 WL 3802121, at *3 (M.D. Tenn. Aug. 13, 2019) (“[A]rguments that Pinkowski’s opinions are unreliable because he failed to review other relevant information and ignored certain facts bear on the factual basis for Pinkowski’s opinions, and, therefore, go to the weight, rather than the admissibility, of Pinkowski’s testimony.”).

[12]  Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., 639 F.3d 11, 22 (1st Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted), cert. denied sub nom., U.S. Steel Corp. v. Milward, 132 S. Ct. 1002 (2012).

[13]  Kuhn v. Wyeth, Inc., 686 F.3d 618, 633 (8th Cir. 2012): Kuhn v. Wyeth, Inc., 686 F.3d 618, 633 (8th Cir. 2012), rev’g Beylin v. Wyeth, 738 F.Supp. 2d 887, 892 (E.D.Ark. 2010) (MDL court) (Wilson, J. & Montgomery, J.) (excluding proffered testimony of Dr. Jasenka Demirovic who appeared to have “selected study data that best supported her opinion, while downplaying contrary findings or conclusions.”); see United States v. Finch, 630 F.3d 1057 (8th Cir. 2011) (the sufficiency of the factual basis for an expert’s testimony goes to credibility rather than admissibility, and only where the testimony “is so fundamentally unsupported that it can offer no assistance to the jury must such testimony be excluded”); Katzenmeier v. Blackpowder Prods., Inc., 628 F.3d 948, 952 (8th Cir. 2010)(“As a general rule, the factual basis of an expert opinion goes to the credibility of the testimony, not the admissibility, and it is up to the opposing party to examine the factual basis for the opinion in cross-examination.”); Paul Beverage Co. v. American Bottling Co., No. 4:17CV2672 JCH, 2019 WL 1044057, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Mar. 5, 2019) (admitting challenged opinion testimony without addressing the expert witness’s basis or application of methodology, following Eighth Circuit’s incorrect statement in Nebraska Plastics, Inc. v. Holland Colors Americas, Inc., 408 F.3d 410, 416 (8th Cir. 2005) that “[a]s a general rule, the factual basis of an expert opinion goes to the credibility of the testimony, not the admissibility, and it is up to the opposing party to examine the factual basis for the opinion in cross-examination[,]”). See alsoThe Fallacy of Cherry Picking As Seen in American Courtrooms” (May 3, 2014).

[14]  SeeJudicial Dodgers – Reassigning the Burden of Proof on Rule 702” (May 13, 2020); “Judicial Dodgers – The Crossexamination Excuse for Denying Rule 702 Motions” (May 11, 2020).

[15]  Fed. R. Evid. 702, Advisory Note (quoting In re Paoli RR Yard PCB Litig., 35 F.3d 717, 745 (3d Cir. 1994)).

[16]  See Nease v. Ford Motor Co., 848 F.3d 219, 231 (4th Cir. 2017) (“For the district court to conclude that Ford’s reliability arguments simply ‘go to the weight the jury should afford Mr. Sero’s testimony’ is to delegate the court’s gatekeeping responsibility to the jury.”).

[17]  Daniel J. Capra, Reporter’s Memorandum re Forensic Evidence, Daubert and Rule 702, at 1-2 (Apr. 1, 2018)

[18]  Id. at 43.

[19]  Id. at 43, 49-50.

[20]  Id. at 49-50.

[21]  Id. at 52.

[22]  Daniel J. Capra, Reporter, Reporter’s Memorandum re Possible Amendments to Rule 702, Advisory Comm. on Evidence Rules, Minutes of Meeting at 23 (May 3, 2019).