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

Talc Litigation Supported by Slippery Expert Witness

April 25th, 2017

Another day, another talc trial in Missouri. This one involves Lois Slemp, who sued Johnson & Johnson and its talc supplier, Imerys Talc America Inc., on her claim that her long-term use of talc caused her to develop borderline ovarian cancer.

To support her causal claim, Slemp’s lawyers called upon Dr. Daniel Cramer, a gynecologist and epidemiologist, from Harvard, to testify. See Daniel Siegal, “J & J’s Talc Caused Woman’s Cancer, Harvard MD Tells Jury,” Law360 (April 24, 2017) [cited as Siegel]. At first blush, counsel’s retention of Dr. Cramer seems like a brilliant choice. Cramer is a Professor of Epidemiology, at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School Of Public Health, and a Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, at Harvard Medical School. For over 30 years, Cramer has published primary studies, reviews, and commentary pieces in which he has addressed the epidemiologic and biological evidence involving talc and ovarian cancer.1

Cramer, as both a physician and an epidemiologist, addressed both general and specific causation in the Slemp case. Notwithstanding Slemp’s risk factors of family history of cancer and obesity, Cramer asserted with “reasonable degree of medical and scientific certainty” that talc was “the major contributing cause and substantial cause in the development of her serious borderline tumor.” Siegel, supra.

Somehow this physician epidemiologist has taken a putative risk factor and converted it into the cause. This conversion would perhaps make sense if the risk factor were necessary or sufficient to cause the outcome, but the evidence involving talc and ovarian cancer does not even remotely resemble such a situation. The epidemiologic evidence is weak and inconsistent, but if causation were assumed on the basis of cherry-picked studies, the relative risk for ovarian cancer would be somewhere around 1.2. Somewhat like the magic grits in My Cousin Vinny, Dr. Cramer has found a putative risk factor that blocks out all other risk factors, including the idiopathic, baseline risks that afflict all women in the age range of Ms. Slemp.

On cross-examination, Cramer was confronted with his failure to have asserted general causation in his professional, peer-reviewed publications on talc and ovarian cancer. Defense counsel Orlando Richmond drew the jury’s attention to an invidious comparison between Cramer’s courtroom assertions and his epistemically more modest conclusions and qualifications in the scientific literature, in which he never claimed a causal relationship between talc use and ovarian cancer:

Q. “Nowhere in the published scientific literature, did you or your colleagues, ever publish, ever publish, that genital talc use causes serious borderline tumors, the disease Ms. Slemp has. Isn’t that a correct statement, sir?”

A. “We certainly made a powerful case for there being an association. We may not have used the word ‘causal,’ if I had known how important that word was, I would have used it a long time ago.”


Wow! A Harvard professor of medicine and epidemiology, who teaches at the Harvard School of Public Health, and who labored in the field of epidemiology for over three decades, was unaware until earlier this week, when he darkened the doorway of a Missouri courtroom, that there was an important distinction between association and causation, and this distinction was crucial to discussions and debates in science and public policy.

Now that is slipperier than the most lubricious talc dusting. Why would such an accomplished physician scientist equivocate so? Perhaps Cramer refrained from drawing a causal conclusion because uncertainty favored obtaining future grants to study the same issue. Maybe he refrained from drawing a causal conclusion because doing so would have made him subject to criticism, ridicule, and rebuttal from his professional colleagues. I cannot think of a flattering reason for Cramer’s timidity in expressing himself clearly to his professional peers over the course of 34 years of researching the issues.

Previously, I have called attention to “white hat” bias in the courtroom, which occurs when scientists enter the fray based upon their distorted perceptions of siding with the “little guy” in a misguided quest for social justice. Cramer’s participation in the litigation process illustrates another kind of bias in play in courtrooms. After 30 years of publishing on talc and ovarian cancer, Cramer has failed to obtain acceptance of a claim for causality from the scientific community, but the courtroom is a venue where he can obtain the approving judgment of a scientifically naïve jury or judge and thus gain some vindication for his work that has gone unappreciated by professional colleagues and policy makers.

1 See, e.g., Daniel W. Cramer, et al., “The Association Between Talc Use and Ovarian Cancer: A Retrospective Case-Control Study in Two U.S. States,” 27 Epidemiology 334 (2016); Daniel W. Cramer, “The epidemiology of endometrial and ovarian cancer,” 26 Hematol. Oncol. 1 (2012); M. A. Gates, Daniel W. Cramer, et al., “Talc use, variants of the GSTM1, GSTT1, and NAT2 genes, and risk of epithelial ovarian cancer,” 17 Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prevention 2436 (2008); Joshua Muscat, M. Huncharek, and Daniel W. Cramer, “Talc and anti-MUC1 antibodies,” 14 Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prevention 2679 (2005); Daniel W. Cramer, et al., “Presence of talc in pelvic lymph nodes of a woman with ovarian cancer and long-term genital exposure to cosmetic talc,” 110 Obstet. & Gynecol. 498 (2007); D. M. Gertig, Daniel W. Cramer, Graham A. Colditz, et al., “Prospective study of talc use and ovarian cancer,” 92 J. Nat’l Cancer Inst. 249 (2000); Daniel W. Cramer, “Perineal talc exposure and subsequent epithelial ovarian cancer: a case-control study,” 94 Obstet. & Gynecol. 160 (1999); Daniel W. Cramer, et al., “Genital talc exposure and risk of ovarian cancer,” 81 Internat’l J. Cancer 351 (1999); Bernard L. Harlow, Daniel W. Cramer, et al., “Perineal exposure to talc and ovarian cancer risk,” 80 Obstet. & Gynecol. 19 (1992); Daniel W. Cramer, et al., “Ovarian cancer and talc: a case-control study, 50 Cancer 372 (1982).

Science Day Should Be Every Day in Our Courtrooms — Part II

March 24th, 2017

This post and the previous one are an expansion upon a post that I wrote with Dr. David Schwartz, of Innovative Science Solutions, LLC. Dr. Schwartz is a talented scientist with whom I had the privilege and pleasure to work at McCarter & English, before he left to become an independent scientific consultant. Dr. Schwartz is one of the founding partners of his firm, which focuses on helping lawyers with the scientific issues in complex health effects litigation. Our earlier post can be found on the Courtroom View Network’s website. “Guest Analysis: Key Takeaways from Recent Talc Powder ‘Science Day’ Hearing in California,” Courtroom View Network (Mar 24, 2017).


Talc Science Goes Bicoastal

This year, two trial judges have entertained Science Days in talc cases, on both coasts of the United States. In the federal talc litigation, MDL 2738,1 Judge Freda L. Wolfson conducted a Science Day on January 26, 2017. In the coordinated California state court talc cases, Judge Maren E. Nelson, of the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles County, conducted a Science Day, on March 7, 2017.2

Federal Talc MDL 2738

In the federal cases, Johnson & Johnson, one of the defendants, initiated the Science Day, in November 2016, when it asked Judge Wolfson to set aside a day in “which the parties and their experts can outline their positions/arguments regarding the medical and science issues at play.”3 In Case Management Order No. 1 (Jan. 23, 2017), Judge Wolfson apparently agreed, and the parties had their talc Science Day on January 26, 2017.4 The Science Day took up over five hours of presentations to Judge Freda L. Wolfson, and Judge Lois H. Goodman.5

California Coordinated Docket

In the California cases,6 plaintiffs’ counsel filed a formal motion, in early December 2016, to request a Science Day tutorial. The plaintiffs’ motion requested that each side be permitted two hours to present their views of the scientific evidence in support of their litigation positions on causation and liability in talc ovarian cancer cases. The plaintiffs argued that a Science Day would be “significant benefit to the Court and the parties.”7 Judge Nelson granted the request, and held Science Day on March 7, 2017.

Courtroom View Network (CVN)

The proceedings in California were recorded videographically, and are available through Courtroom View Network (CVN). Johnson & Johnson opposed televising the Science Day proceedings, on the procedural ground that CVN had not filed and served the appropriate motion. Johnson & Johnson also argued a substantive ground that the proceedings were not a formal trial, and that televising “would not confer any benefit on the public, the parties, or the Court, let alone one that outweighs the significant concerns posed by such a broadcast.”8

Whatever the merits of J & J’s procedural ground, its substantive grounds seem dubious. The importance of the Science Day proceedings transcends the pecuniary interests of the parties to the litigation. First, the presentations provide the empirical bases for other courts and lawyer to evaluate the procedures employed. Second, lawyers and judges generally, outside the talc litigation, can learn a great deal from the strengths, weaknesses, and mistakes made by the participants in the televised proceedings. Many of the scientific issues that pervade the talc litigation recur frequently in other mass tort litigations in the United States and abroad. Finally, and perhaps most important, the talc litigation involves litigation claims of huge import to the public generally. For better or worse, litigation has become an adjunct to regulation in the United States. If the plaintiffs’ claims are true, then there has been a serious failure of national and international regulatory agencies and scientific organizations in evaluating the evidentiary record. If the defendants’ claims are true, then the plaintiffs’ lawyers have misunderstood and distorted the basic process of synthesizing evidence and arriving at conclusions of causation. More important, it behooves the public to understand why one side is wrong.

Evaluation of the California Talc Litigation Science Day

Plaintiffs’ Presentations

The presentation by the plaintiff lawyers was eerily reminiscent of the scientific case made by plaintiffs in the silicone breast implant ligation. Their arguments ranged from highlighting anecdotal evidence to emphasizing the implicit sinister nature of talc migration from the vaginal opening to the ovaries. Plaintiff counsel focused heavily on the alleged role of talc in the inflammatory process and strong (unsubstantiated) implications that anything that enhances inflammation must necessarily cause cancer.

As one would expect, plaintiff counsel placed strong emphasis on the published epidemiological studies linking talc exposure to ovarian cancer. It is important to highlight that the majority of the studies showing an association between talc and ovarian cancer came from case-control studies by design (as opposed to a cohort design). Plaintiff counsel offered very little distinction between these two study designs and, instead tried to make the case that the sheer volume of studies made their argument..

Finally, it should be noted that at many times throughout the plaintiff presentations, the presenter veered off into non-scientific, ad hominem attacks against the industry and/or activities that they tried to paint as venal or unseemly. Defense counsel made objections throughout that seemed to be based upon first amendment protections for the defendants’ ability to speak to agencies about the scientific evidence. For example, the last presenter for the plaintiffs described alleged industry “lobbying” efforts at NTP. Defense counsel objected on first amendment grounds, and the judge semi-sustained the objection on the basis that it had little or nothing to do with the science. The plaintiffs’ emphasis on “lobbying” contained no examples of misrepresentations of scientific data. See Talc Litigation in Missouri – Show Me the Law and the Evidence” (Feb. 24, 2017).

Defendants’ Presentations

In general, the defense presentations were more structured, coherent, substantial, and rigorously scientific. For example, unlike the plaintiffs’ graphics, many of the defense slides could stand on their own in a scientific or medical society presentation. The defense lawyers attempted to provide a solid foundation for the judge on the different types of ovarian cancer as well as the myriad uncertainties that exist in terms of the known causes of the condition. Many of the slides contained direct quotes from notable scientists and regulators on topics that were directly relevant to answering critical questions in the litigation.

Epidemiology and Specific Causation

Nevertheless, the defense presentations were not without their problems. Consider the following quote from an article by Graham Colditz, used in one of the defense powerpoint slides:9

The fundamental object of epidemiology is to estimate the population average risk of the disease. Risk is a population measure, not an individual disease measure.”

Colditz has served as an expert witness on epidemiology for plaintiffs in talc and other litigations, and the defense no doubt believed that they could make their point in a rhetorically powerful way by quoting him. The problem starts with the quote’s failure to make the defense’s point. Risk is a measure or relative proportions in the sample, to be used to estimate the population measure. To say that it is a group measure, however, does not mean that there are no reasonable inferences from the group measure to the individual member of the sample or population.

The defense seems to want to argue that even there were an increased risk not explained by chance, bias, or confounding, that measure of risk does not tell us anything about what caused an individual claimant’s ovarian cancer.

A fuller quotation might even have helped the defense because Colditz seems intent on undermining not just the use of group measures of risk as an individual variable, but also the use of the measure to support an inference about individuals:

The fundamental object of epidemiology is to estimate the population average risk of disease. Risk is a population measure, not an individual measure. Epidemiology does not estimate individual levels of risk, nor does it perfectly predict individual likelihood of disease. As noted by Rose, epidemiology does not describe why an individual case of cancer arises in the population but rather the population burden of cancer.14 In his article in this issue of the Journal, Begg ignores this principle and uses the term “risk” as an individual-level variable.15

The fuller quotation points to a disagreement in which another epidemiologist was willing to use risk to describe individual attribute, but more to the point is that Colditz’s assertion is that risk is a group measure.

Colditz, at least in this article, does not claim that the group measure of risk was irrelevant to prospective individual predictions or retrospective individual attributions. Interestingly, Graham Colditz has elsewhere asserted that an increased risk of disease cannot be translated into the “but-for” standard of causation10:

Knowledge that a factor is associated with increased risk of disease does not translate into the premise that a case of disease will be prevented if a specific individual eliminates exposure to that risk factor. Disease pathogenesis at the individual level is extremely complex.”

Defense may have wanted to highlight this assertion even recognizing that it is controversial, and quite dependent upon the magnitude of the measured risk.

In attempting to make their point with a quote from plaintiffs’ own expert (Dr. Graham Colditz), the defense oversimplified a much more complex issue. While increased or relative risk is indeed a measure or incidence rates used to estimate rates in the broader population, this aspect of relative risk as a measure does not mean that there are no reasonable inferences that can be made from the group measure to the individual member of the sample or population. The defense seems to want to make the seemingly unreasonable point that even if an increased risk were appropriately demonstrated by the epidemiology, that that measure of risk does not tell us anything about what caused an individual claimant’s ovarian cancer. This point might be correct when the magnitude of the increased risk is small (as is alleged in the talc ovarian cancer litigation), but the sweeping generality of the defense’s assertion is jarring.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, tobacco companies attempted to rebut inferences of individual causation, despite scientific consensus on general causation, and relative risks of 20 to 30, and more for lung cancer in smoking versus non-smoking groups. The tobacco companies’ claim of the irrelevancy of epidemiology to inferring specific causation was not particularly credible when the population attributable risk was 95 percent and greater.

Even at lower relative risks, measures of risks in epidemiologic studies and clinical trials are used to predict individual responses to treatments, to life style interventions, and to life style and other risk factors. Of course, there is always potential heterogeneity in the sample and in the population, which should be acknowledged, but when the studies are multivariate, with inclusion of the known causes and potential risk factors, then scientists and physicians routinely use these measures of risks and benefits in groups to make predictions about individuals.

Consider a man, seriously overweight, who goes to see his internist. His physician tells him,

look in populations of overweight men, just like yourself, more men die of heart attack and stroke, and they die of these diseases at an early age, and suffer more morbidity and disability from them, then in groups of men who are not overweight, but don’t worry, that has NOTHING to do with you. We don’t know your risk, so go right on eating candy bars for breakfast, and studiously avoiding exercise.”

Of course, no sane, competent physician would advise the obese patient in this manner. Now, I understand rhetorically why the defense might want to capitalize on Colditz’ statement, but the end result appears to mislead the intended audience. The rejection of probabilistic inferences is still occasionally sanctioned by courts11, but more typically, such inferences are permitted when not conjectural.

Defense’s Misleading Claim that Case-Control Studies are Smaller than Cohort Studies

In its Science Day presentation, the defense asserted that a disadvantage of case-control studies is, among other things, their “small size.” In the same vein, the defense claimed that an advantage of cohort studies is their “large size.” The defense provided no supporting citations for its contention about the relative size of the two kinds of analytical epidemiologic studies.12

In his oral comments, the defense presenter notes the size disparity between the case-control and the cohort studies as a reason to distrust the results of the case-control studies on talc exposure and ovarian cancer. The presenter leans in and says that the cohort studies are huge, some with hundreds of thousands of women.

Now there are important qualitative differences between case-control and cohort studies, with respect to recall bias and the validity of control groups. To be sure, and fair, the defense made these points accurately. The defense’s invidious comparison of size of the two types of studies ignores that case-control studies are statistically much more efficient.

As the defense presented the matter, case-control studies are placed lower on the “hierarchy of evidence” than cohort studies. For this point, the defense did present a supporting citation13, and their claim is generally correct, but epidemiologists recognize that a well-conducted case-control study may well trump a cohort study. Case-control studies are often ranked below cohort studies because of greater potential for systematic bias, the inherent difficulty in selecting appropriate controls, and because the measure of risk in the form of an odds ratio is at best an estimate of the relative risk. The sizes of the “cases” group in a case-control study and the cohort in a cohort study are not a valid comparison.

A case-control study may be based upon hundreds of cases of ovarian cancer, a size that would require a huge cohort study. Furthermore, the size of the cohort study can be highly misleading because recruitment and inception into the cohort often takes place at a young age, when the rate of ovarian cancer is very low. The efficiency of the case-control study design is reflected in the narrow confidence intervals seen in many of the published papers. Some of these confidence intervals are as narrow as those generated by analysis of data from “larger” cohort studies.14 The size is ultimately related to the precision of the various studies’ point estimates of measured risk, not to the accuracy of their measurements. The statistical efficiency of the ovarian cancer talc case-control studies becomes an important when rare disease subtypes are considered, or when the interaction between genotype, exposure, and cancer outcomes needs to be considered.

Synthesis of Evidence for Judgments of Causation

Finally, it seems that neither the defense nor the plaintiffs adequately incorporated into their presentations the important concept of causal inference (or how evidence from disparate sources is synthesized into a judgment of causation, or into a rejection of such a claim). Specifically, counsel never explicitly set forth the importance of the Bradford Hill factors, or the techniques of proper and rigorous systematic review methodologies. The defense did touch upon many of the key considerations of the Bradford Hill factors as they applied to the relevant data, but there was no discussion of how these factors are considered after the identification of an association that is not likely the result of bias and that is beyond the play of chance. With respect to meta-analysis, both sides provided no guidance or insight into the problems that arise in conducting, reporting, and interpreting quantitative syntheses of a body of epidemiologic studies.

The Trial Court’s Role

Most trial judges, sadly, come to cases such as the talc ovarian cancer cases without any training in statistics, epidemiology, toxicology, or an adequate understanding of the role that clinical medicine plays (or does not play) in assessing important questions of causation. Judge Nelsen seemed to listen carefully, but asked few questions to suggest that Her Honor understood the discrepancy in statements made in the parties’ presentation.

Perhaps a starting point for Science Day should be an Order that sets out the procedures for the Day, as well as a statement: “The Court has read and studied the relevant chapters in the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence (3d ed. 2011), and all materials submitted by the parties. The parties should not recreate a tutorial that covers material in the Reference Manual, unless they wish to contest its contents. Specific references to the Manual, in connection with the parties’ presentation would be very helpful to the Court.”

1  In re Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Products Marketing, Sales Practices & Prods. Liab. Litig., No. 16-2738 (D.N.J.)

2 Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Cases, No. JCCP4872 (Calif. Super. Ct., Los Angeles Cty.).

3  “Johnson & Johnson Files Status Report in MDL Docket, Requests ‘Science Day’ to Address Causation in Talc Cases,” HarrisMartin’s Talcum Powder Litigation Report (Nov. 16, 2016).

4  “Parties in Federal Talcum Powder MDL Hold ‘Science Day’,” HarrisMartin’s Talcum Powder Litig. Report (Jan. 26, 2017).

5  Id.

6  Johnson & Johnson Talcum Powder Cases, No. JCCP4872 (Calif. Super. Ct., Los Angeles Cty.).

7  “Plaintiffs Ask Court to Hold ‘Science Day’ in California Coordinated Talcum Powder Docket,” HarrisMartin’s Talcum Powder Litig. Report (Dec. 7, 2016).

8  See “Calif. Court Oversees ‘Science Day’ in Talcum Powder Docket One Day After J&J Opposes Broadcast of Hearing,” HarrisMartin’s Talcum Powder Litig. Report (Mar. 8, 2017).

9 “Defense Slide 129. “Epidemiology Estimates Risk in the Population, Not in Individuals,” quoting from Graham Colditz, “Cancer Culture: Epidemics, Human Behavior, and the Dubious Search for New Risk Factors,” 91 Am. J. Pub. Health 357, 357 (2001).

10 Graham A. Colditz, “From epidemiology to cancer prevention: implications for the 21st Century,” 18 Cancer Causes Control 117, 118 (2007).

11 See, e.g., Smith v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 770 F. Supp. 1561, 1573 (N.D. Ga. 1991) (“However, in an individual case, epidemiology cannot conclusively prove causation; at best, it can only establish a certain probability that a randomly selected case of disease was one that would not have occurred absent exposure, or the ‘relative risk’ of the exposed population. Epidemiology, therefore, involves evidence on causation derived from group-based information, rather than specific conclusions regarding causation in an individual case.”).

12  See Defense Slide 134, “Disadvantages of Case-Control Studies,” which sets out in bullet points, “Recall Bias, Confounding, Small Size.” And in Defense Slide 135, “Epidemiologic Studies on Talc and Ovarian Cancer: Three Types Large Prospective Cohort Studies,” the defense touts advantages of cohort studies to include “No Recall Bias” and “Large Size.” The slides contained no supporting citation for the contention about size.

13 See Defense Slide 136, “Epidemiology Studies on Talc and Ovarian Cancer: Three Types,” where the defense places case-control studies lower on the “hierarchy of evidence” than cohort studies, citing Trisha Greenhalgh, “How to Read a Paper,” 315 Brit. Med. J. 241 (1997).

14 See Wera Berge, Kenneth Mundt, Hung Luu & Paolo Boffetta, “Genital use of talc and risk of ovarian cancer: a meta-analysis,” European J. Cancer Prevention (2017), in press, DOI: 10.1097/CEJ.0000000000000340.


American Bar Association’s “Civil Trial Practice Standards” (August 2007).

7. Use of Tutorials to Assist the Court

a. Pretrial Use of Tutorials. In cases involving complex technology or other complex subject matter which may be especially difficult for non-specialists to comprehend, the court may permit or require the use of tutorials to educate the court. Tutorials are intended to provide the court with background information to assist the court in understanding the technology or other complex subject matter involved in the case. Tutorials may, but need not, seek to explain the contentions or arguments made by each party with respect to the technology or complex subject matter.

b. Selection of Type of Tutorial.

i. In any case in which the court believes one or more tutorials might be useful in assisting it in understanding the complex technology or other complex subject matter, the court should invite the parties to express their views on the desirability of one or more tutorials.

ii. Once the court decides to permit or require one or more tutorials, it should invite the parties to suggest the subject matter and format of each tutorial.

iii. If the parties cannot agree on the subject matter and format, the court should invite each party to submit a description of any tutorial it proposes and to explain how that tutorial will assist the court and why it is preferable to the tutorial proposed by another party. The court may approve one or more tutorials proposed by the parties, or the court may fashion its own tutorial after providing the parties with an opportunity to comment on the court’s proposed subject matter and format.

c. Procedures for Presentation. A court may consider the following procedures for the presentation of tutorials:

i. An in-court or recorded presentation by an expert jointly selected by the parties.

ii. An in-court or recorded presentation by one or more experts on behalf of each party.

iii. An in-court or recorded presentation by counsel for each party.

iv. A combined in-court or recorded presentation by counsel and one or more experts on behalf of each party.

v. An in-court or recorded presentation by an expert appointed by the court, which may include cross-examination by counsel for each party.

vi. Recorded presentations that have been prepared for generic use in particular kinds of cases by reliable sources such as the Federal Judicial Center.

d. Trial Use of Tutorials. In cases involving complex technology or other complex subject matter which may be especially difficult for non-specialists to comprehend, the court may permit or require the use of tutorials to educate the court or jury during one or more stages of the trial. Trial tutorials are intended to provide the court or jury with background information to assist in understanding the technology or other complex subject matter involved in the case. Tutorials may, but need not, seek to explain the contentions or arguments made by each party with respect to the technology or complex subject matter.

e. Selection of Type of Tutorial. The court should use the process set forth in 7.b. above.

f. Procedures for Presentation.

i. In a bench trial, the court may consider using any of the procedures set forth in 7.b. above.

ii. In a jury trial, the court should consider the use of tutorials in connection with interim statements and arguments as provided in

Standard 9.

iii. In both bench and jury trials, the court should provide parties with a full opportunity to present admissible evidence in support of their cases that may differ from or quarrel with information presented in a tutorial and to argue that the information presented in a tutorial should be rejected by the court or jury.

Science Day Should Be Every Day in Our Courtrooms — Part I

March 24th, 2017

The following post and its sequel are an expansion upon a post that I wrote with Dr. David Schwartz, of Innovative Science Solutions, LLC. Dr. Schwartz is a talented scientist with whom I had the privilege and pleasure to work at McCarter & English, before he left to become an independent scientific consultant. Dr. Schwartz is one of the founding partners of his firm, which focuses on helping lawyers with the scientific issues in complex health effects litigation. Our earlier post can be found on the Courtroom View Network’s website. “Guest Analysis: Key Takeaways from Recent Talc Powder ‘Science Day’ Hearing in California,” Courtroom View Network (Mar 24, 2017).


Every February 28th, India celebrates National Science Day in honor the Indian physicist Sir Chandrashekhara Venkata Raman, who discovered the Raman effect. The United States has no equivalent celebration, but “Science Days” have become a commonplace in complex state and federal Litigations, around the country.


The major impetus for science tutorials seems to have come from the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The holding of Daubert, now incorporated into, and extended by Federal Rule of Evidence 702, requires trial judges to act as gatekeepers of the relevance and reliability of expert witness opinion testimony in their courtrooms. One of the first tests of the judiciary’s performance to perform this role came in the silicone gel breast implant litigation. The federal silicone cases were consolidated before Judge Pointer Sam C. Pointer, Jr., in MDL 926. Judge Pointer believed that trial judges in the transferor courts should conduct whatever review of expert witness opinion was needed to satisfy the then recent Daubert decision.

Some of the first federal silicone lawsuits remanded from the MDL went to Judge Robert Jones in Portland Oregon. These cases involved complex issues of immunology, clinical rheumatology, epidemiology, toxicology, surgery, and polymer and analytical chemistry. At the outset of his case management of the remanded cases, plaintiffs’ counsel requested that Judge Jones schedule an all-day tutorial for counsel to present on these scientific issues. The parties’ tutorials, along with an avalanche of defense Daubert motions, persuaded Judge Jones to take the unusual step of appointing technical advisors to assist him in assessing the scientific evidence, inferences and claims in the silicone litigation. See Hall v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 947 F. Supp. 1387, 1415 (D. Ore. 1996).1 Judge Jones’s technical advisors attended court throughout the Daubert hearings conducted in Portland, and they delivered advisory reports to Judge Jones to assist him in his gatekeeping function. Judge Jones ultimately granted the defense motions to exclude the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ claims of silicone causation of connective tissue diseases.

In large measure because of Judge Jones’s case management and exclusion of expert witness testimony, the silicone MDL court appointed a panel of neutral expert witnesses, in the fields of epidemiology, rheumatology, immunology, and toxicology.2

One of the first requests received from the Science Panel in MDL 926 was for what turned out to be a series of Science Days in which the parties’ expert witnesses would present to them, and explain their interpretation of the vast array of evidence, from different disciplines. Each presenting party expert witness was allowed 15 to 20 minutes to present. The lawyers were not entirely reduced to potted plants; they had a chance to conduct a short cross-examination. Given that the primary audience was a panel of four distinguished scientists, there was an emphasis for most of the lawyers, for the plaintiffs and the defendants, to ask pertinent, substantive questions.

The Science Panel was not entirely satisfied with the party expert witnesses, and requested a second Science Day, at which the Panel could call its own slate of scientists to address the scientific claims made in the litigation. The proceedings took place at the National Academies of Science, in Washington, D.C.

These proceedings, along with extensive submissions of articles and briefings from the parties led to the Report of National Science Panel, on November 30, 1998.

Every Day is Science Day, Somewhere

Since the breast implant litigation, many MDL and other courts have faced complex causation claims in litigation involving pharmaceutical products, medical devices, consumer products and a host of chemical exposures. Appointment of independent, neutral expert witnesses remains unusual, but trial judges have welcomed tutorials in the form of “Science Days,” to help them learn the methodologies and vocabularies of the scientific disciplines that are involved in the litigations before them. For some reason, the parties, the judges, and the legal media often reference Science Days in scare quotes, signaling that perhaps other Science takes place in these proceedings. Whether the scare quotes are warranted remains to be determined.

Science Days” have become a tradition in mass tort litigation.3 In the last few years, there is a Science Day somewhere, in some courtroom, going on, perhaps not daily, but with sufficient frequency that the phenomenon should receive more critical attention. Federal judges with multi-district litigation, or state judges with multi-county cases, set aside time to permit the parties a chance to educate them about the scientific and technical aspects of the litigations before them. Judges know that Daubert and Rule 702, or their state analogues, require them to act as gatekeepers. Furthermore, myriad motions in the discovery and trial phases of a case will require judges to make nuanced but accurate decisions about scope and content of discovery, and admissibility of documents and testimony,

Science Day – Have It Your Way

John Milton: We negotiating?

Kevin Lomax: Always.4

The Devil’s Advocate (1997).

There are no federal or state rules that set out procedures for science tutorials for judges or their appointed expert. The form and substance of Science Days depend upon a three-say negotiation among the plaintiffs, defendants, and the trial judge. Although the parties are often left to work out a plan for science day, most courts tend to weigh in by imposing time limits, and they may even rule in or rule out live witness testimony.

In 2007, the American Bar Association set out Civil Trial Practice Standards,5 which included an entire section on the use of tutorials to assist the court. [The relevant standards for tutorials is set out at the end of Part II of this post, as an appendix.]

1 See Laural L. Hooper, Joe S. Cecil, and Thomas E. Willging, “Neutral Science Panels: Two Examples of Panels of Court-Appointed Experts in the Breast Implants Product Liability Litigation,” at 9 (Federal Judicial Center 2001).

2 MDL 926 Order 31 (May 31, 1996) (order to show cause why a national Science Panel should not be appointed under Federal Rule of Evidence 706); MDL 926 Order No. 31C (Aug. 23, 1996) (appointing Drs. Barbara S. Hulka, Peter Tugwell, and Betty A. Diamond); Order No. 31D (Sept. 17, 1996) (appointing Dr. Nancy I. Kerkvliet).

3 See, e.g., Barbara J. Rothstein & Catherine R. Borden, Managing Multidistrict Litigation in Products Liability Cases: A Pocket Guide for Transferee Judges at 39 & n. 54 (Fed. Jud. Ctr. 2011); Sean Wajert, “‘Science Day’ In Mass Torts,” Mass Tort Defense (Oct. 20, 2008); Lisa M. Martin, “Using Science Day to Your Advantage,” 2(4) Pro Te: Solutio 9 (2009).

4 From the screenplay of the movie, directed by Taylor Hackford, written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, and based on a novel by Andrew Neiderman.

5 American Bar Association’s “Civil Trial Practice Standards” (August 2007 & 2011 Update).

Mercola’s Middlebury Moment – Conflicts of Interest As Distraction from the Merits

March 11th, 2017

Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician, who is possession of alternative facts about alternative medicine, which no doubt come from alternative science in an alternative universe. He is a conspiracy theorist who sees government, the media, and the scientific community as engaged in a vast conspiracy to stand in the way of his alternative truths.1

In his alternative world, vaccines kill, timerosal and milk2 cause autism, fluoridation3 and cell phones cause cancer. On his path to alternative health and wellbeing, Mercola has made millions selling and promoting dubious “health foods”; he has also found himself on the alternative side of the law, particularly with the FDA4 and the FTC5.

Mercola is an entrepreneurial physician, who hawks untested “natural health” products, while bashing licensed, tested pharmaceuticals. Mercola may not be the most honest broker of scientific information6, and so it seems inappropriate when he lobbies for the silencing of scientific discussion and debate.

In a web post this week, Mercola claimed that the newspaper USA Today,had been ridiculed for a column by an “industry front group.”7 This was a bit of fake news from Mercola; the event he referenced actually involved an attempt by environmental activist groups8 to silence speech that they disagreed with. The speaker to be silenced was the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). No ridicule was involved; only accusations of undisclosed funding from self-styled public interest groups, which themselves do not disclose their funding sources in their letter.9

The President of the ACSH, Hank Campbell, responded with a rebuttal to this Middlebury Maneuver10, which is worth reading.11 Campbell eloquently makes three points. First, the accusers have serious conflicts of interest, both financial and positional, themselves. Second, the crucial issue in a scientific debate is the evidence, its quality, and its ability to warrant valid inferences. The “Lobby” wants to silence speech, but has nothing to offer on the merits of any scientific issue, except politically correct, subjective opinion. Third, the Lobby ignores that the ACSH has taken stands on health issues against many the pecuniary interests of corporations; indeed it has taken one of the strongest anti-smoking stances of any advocacy group. Campbell’s rebuttal is a powerful reminder that scientific disagreements cannot be won by bullying opponents into silence.

2 Joseph Mercola, “Milk linked to autism, schizophrenia,” Optimal Wellness Center Website (Mar .21, 1999; archived Jan. 2, 2008).

3 See, e.g., A. Mesh, “Dr Joseph Mercola gives $15,000 to anti-flouride campaign,” Williamette Week (May 6, 2013); Joseph Mercola, “Is fluoride as safe as you are told,” Optimal Wellness Center Website (Feb 2, 6, and 9, 2002); Mercola, the Sun, Tanning Beds, and Melanoma (Skeptic’s Dictionary Newsletter)

4 Susan J. Walker, Director, Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, “Warning letter to Joseph Mercola, D.O.,” (Feb 16, 2005) (Ref. No. CL-04-HFS-810-134 ); Scott J. MacIntire, District Director, “Warning letter to Joseph Mercola, D.O.,” (Sept. 21, 2006); Steven Silverman, Director, Office of Compliance, Center for Devices and Radiological Health, “Warning letter to Dr. Joseph Mercola,” (Mar. 22, 2011); see also Trine Tsouderos, “FDA warns doctor: Stop touting camera as disease screening tool,” Chicago Tribune (April 26, 2011); Stephen Barrett, “Dr. Joseph Mercola Ordered to Stop Illegal Claims,” Quackwatch (Jan. 9, 2017).

6 See Kate Knibbs, “The Most Honest Man in Medicine?” The Ringer (Jan. 5, 2017); Brian Smith, “Dr Mercola: Visionary or quack?” Chicago Magazine (Feb. 12, 2012).

7 Joseph Mercola, “USA Today Ridiculed for Column by Industry Front Group,” (Mar. 07, 2017).

8 Alaska Community Action on Toxics; Beyond Toxics; Breast Cancer Action; Breast Cancer Fund; Californians for Pesticide Reform; Center for Biological Diversity; Center for Food Safety; Citizens’ Environmental Coalition; Clean and Healthy New York Community Science Institute; Empire State Consumer Project; Farmworker Association of Florida; Friends of the Earth – US; Greenpeace; HavenBMedia; Healthy Building Network; Health Care Without Harm; Learning Disabilities Association of Maine; Made Safe Organic Consumers Association; Pesticide Action Network North America; Real Food Media; The 5 Gyres Institute; US Right to Know; Vermont Public Interest Research Group; Women’s Voices for the Earth; Ann Blake, PhD, Environmental & Public Health Consulting; Josh Freeman, MD (Emeritus Chair of Family Medicine, University of Kansas School of Medicine); Matthew Anderson, MD (Associate Professor, Dept. of Family and Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center); Martin Donohoe, MD, FACP (Adjunct Faculty, School of Community Health, Portland State University; Board of Advisors, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility).

10 Addison County Independent,Middlebury College professor injured by protesters as she escorted controversial speaker” (Mar. 6, 2017); Editorial Board, “Smothering Speech at Middlebury,” N.Y. Times (Mar. 7, 2017); Katharine Q. Seelye, “Protesters Disrupt Speech by ‘Bell Curve’ Author at Vermont College,” N.Y. Times (Mar. 3, 2017).