TORTINI

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The Hazard of Composite End Points – More Lumpenepidemiology in the Courts

October 20th, 2018

One of the challenges of epidemiologic research is selecting the right outcome of interest to study. What seems like a simple and obvious choice can often be the most complicated aspect of the design of clinical trials or studies.1 Lurking in this choice of end point is a particular threat to validity in the use of composite end points, when the real outcome of interest is one constituent among multiple end points aggregated into the composite. There may, for instance, be strong evidence in favor of one of the constituents of the composite, but using the composite end point results to support a causal claim for a different constituent begs the question that needs to be answered, whether in science or in law.

The dangers of extrapolating from one disease outcome to another is well-recognized in the medical literature. Remarkably, however, the problem received no meaningful discussion in the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence (3d ed. 2011). The handbook designed to help judges decide threshold issues of admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony discusses the extrapolation from sample to population, from in vitro to in vivo, from one species to another, from high to low dose, and from long to short duration of exposure. The Manual, however, has no discussion of “lumping,” or on the appropriate (and inappropriate) use of composite or combined end points.

Composite End Points

Composite end points are typically defined, perhaps circularly, as a single group of health outcomes, which group is made up of constituent or single end points. Curtis Meinert defined a composite outcome as “an event that is considered to have occurred if any of several different events or outcomes is observed.”2 Similarly, Montori defined composite end points as “outcomes that capture the number of patients experiencing one or more of several adverse events.”3 Composite end points are also sometimes referred to as combined or aggregate end points.

Many composite end points are clearly defined for a clinical trial, and the component end points are specified. In some instances, the composite nature of an outcome may be subtle or be glossed over by the study’s authors. In the realm of cardiovascular studies, for example, investigators may look at stroke as a single endpoint, without acknowledging that there are important clinical and pathophysiological differences between ischemic strokes and hemorrhagic strokes (intracerebral or subarachnoid). The Fletchers’ textbook4 on clinical epidemiology gives the example:

In a study of cardiovascular disease, for example, the primary outcomes might be the occurrence of either fatal coronary heart disease or non-fatal myocardial infarction. Composite outcomes are often used when the individual elements share a common cause and treatment. Because they comprise more outcome events than the component outcomes alone, they are more likely to show a statistical effect.”

Utility of Composite End Points

The quest for statistical “power” is often cited as a basis for using composite end points. Reduction in the number of “events,” such as myocardial infarction (MI), through improvements in medical care has led to decreased rates of MI in studies and clinical trials. These low event rates have caused power issues for clinical trialists, who have responded by turning to composite end points to capture more events. Composite end points permit smaller sample sizes and shorter follow-up times, without sacrificing power, the ability to detect a statistically significant increased rate of a prespecified size and Type I error. Increasing study power, while reducing sample size or observation time, is perhaps the most frequently cited rationale for using composite end points.

Competing Risks

Another reason sometimes offered in support of using composite end points is composites provide a strategy to avoid the problem of competing risks.5 Death (any cause) is sometimes added to a distinct clinical morbidity because patients who are taken out of the trial by death are “unavailable” to experience the morbidity outcome.

Multiple Testing

By aggregating several individual end points into a single pre-specified outcome, trialists can avoid corrections for multiple testing. Trials that seek data on multiple outcomes, or on multiple subgroups, inevitably raise concerns about the appropriate choice of the measure for the statistical test (alpha) to determine whether to reject the null hypothesis. According to some authors, “[c]omposite endpoints alleviate multiplicity concerns”:

If designated a priori as the primary outcome, the composite obviates the multiple comparisons associated with testing of the separate components. Moreover, composite outcomes usually lead to high event rates thereby increasing power or reducing sample size requirements. Not surprisingly, investigators frequently use composite endpoints.”6

Other authors have similarly acknowledged that the need to avoid false positive results from multiple testing is an important rationale for composite end points:

Because the likelihood of observing a statistically significant result by chance alone increases with the number of tests, it is important to restrict the number of tests undertaken and limit the type 1 error to preserve the overall error rate for the trial.”7

Indecision about an Appropriate Single Outcome

The International Conference on Harmonization suggests that the inability to select a single outcome variable may lead to the adoption of a composite outcome:

If a single primary variable cannot be selected …, another useful strategy is to integrate or combine the multiple measurements into a single or composite variable.”8

The “indecision” rationale has also been criticized as “generally not a good reason to use a composite end point.”9

Validity of Composite End Points

The validity of composite end points depends upon methodological assumptions, which will have to be made at the time of the study design and protocol creation. After the data are collected and analyzed, the assumptions may or may not be supported. Among the supporting assumptions about the validity of using composites are:10

  • similarity in patient importance for included component end points,

  • similarity of association size of the components, and

  • number of events across the components.

The use of composite end points can sometimes be appropriate in the “first look” at a class of diseases or disorders, with the understanding that further research will sort out and refine the associated end point. Research into the causes of human birth defects, for instance, often starts out with a look at “all major malformations,” before focusing in on specific organ and tissue systems. To some extent, the legal system, in its gatekeeping function, has recognized the dangers and invalidity of lumping in the epidemiology of birth defects.11 The Frischhertz decision, for instance, clearly acknowledged that given the clear evidence that different birth defects arise at different times, based upon interference with different embryological processes, “lumping” of end points was methodologically inappropriate. 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181507, at *8 (citing Chamber v. Exxon Corp., 81 F. Supp. 2d 661 (M.D. La. 2000), aff’d, 247 F.3d 240 (5th Cir. 2001) (unpublished)).

The Chamber decision involved a challenge to the causation opinion of frequent litigation industry witness, Peter Infante,12 who attempted to defend his opinion about benzene and chronic myelogenous leukemia, based upon epidemiology of benzene and acute myelogenous leukemia. Plaintiffs’ witnesses and counsel sought to evade the burden of producing evidence of an AML association by pointing to a study that reported “excess leukemias,” without specifying the relevant type. Chamber, 81 F. Supp. 2d at 664. The trial court, however, perspicaciously recognized the claimants’ failure to identify relevant evidence of the specific association needed to support the causal claim.

The Frischhertz and Chamber cases are hardly unique. Several state and federal courts have concurred in the context of cancer causation claims.13 In the context of birth defects litigation, the Public Affairs Committee of the Teratology Society has weighed in with strong guidance that counsels against extrapolation between different birth defects in litigation:

Determination of a causal relationship between a chemical and an outcome is specific to the outcome at issue. If an expert witness believes that a chemical causes malformation A, this belief is not evidence that the chemical causes malformation B, unless malformation B can be shown to result from malformation A. In the same sense, causation of one kind of reproductive adverse effect, such as infertility or miscarriage, is not proof of causation of a different kind of adverse effect, such as malformation.”14

The threat to validity in attributing a suggested risk for a composite end point to all included component end points is not, unfortunately, recognized by all courts. The trial court, in Ruff v. Ensign-Bickford Industries, Inc.,15 permitted plaintiffs’ expert witness to reanalyze a study by grouping together two previously distinct cancer outcomes to generate a statistically significant result. The result in Ruff is disappointing, but not uncommon. The result is also surprising, considering the guidance provided by the American Law Institute’s Restatement:

Even when satisfactory evidence of general causation exists, such evidence generally supports proof of causation only for a specific disease. The vast majority of toxic agents cause a single disease or a series of biologically-related diseases. (Of course, many different toxic agents may be combined in a single product, such as cigarettes.) When biological-mechanism evidence is available, it may permit an inference that a toxic agent caused a related disease. Otherwise, proof that an agent causes one disease is generally not probative of its capacity to cause other unrelated diseases. Thus, while there is substantial scientific evidence that asbestos causes lung cancer and mesothelioma, whether asbestos causes other cancers would require independent proof. Courts refusing to permit use of scientific studies that support general causation for diseases other than the one from which the plaintiff suffers unless there is evidence showing a common biological mechanism include Christophersen v. Allied-Signal Corp., 939 F.2d 1106, 1115-1116 (5th Cir. 1991) (applying Texas law) (epidemiologic connection between heavy-metal agents and lung cancer cannot be used as evidence that same agents caused colon cancer); Cavallo v. Star Enters., 892 F. Supp. 756 (E.D. Va. 1995), aff’d in part and rev’d in part, 100 F.3d 1150 (4th Cir. 1996); Boyles v. Am. Cyanamid Co., 796 F. Supp. 704 (E.D.N.Y. 1992). In Austin v. Kerr-McGee Ref. Corp., 25 S.W.3d 280, 290 (Tex. Ct. App. 2000), the plaintiff sought to rely on studies showing that benzene caused one type of leukemia to prove that benzene caused a different type of leukemia in her decedent. Quite sensibly, the court insisted that before plaintiff could do so, she would have to submit evidence that both types of leukemia had a common biological mechanism of development.”

Restatement (Third) of Torts § 28 cmt. c, at 406 (2010). Notwithstanding some of the Restatement’s excesses on other issues, the guidance on composites, seems sane and consonant with the scientific literature.

Role of Mechanism in Justifying Composite End Points

A composite end point may make sense when the individual end points are biologically related, and the investigators can reasonably expect that the individual end points would be affected in the same direction, and approximately to the same extent:16

Confidence in a composite end point rests partly on a belief that similar reductions in relative risk apply to all the components. Investigators should therefore construct composite endpoints in which the biology would lead us to expect similar effects across components.”

The important point, missed by some investigators and many courts, is that the assumption of similar “effects” must be tested by examining the individual component end points, and especially the end point that is the harm claimed by plaintiffs in a given case.

Methodological Issues

The acceptability of composite end points is often a delicate balance between the statistical power and efficiency gained and the reliability concerns raised by using the composite. As with any statistical or interpretative tool, the key questions turn on how the tool is used, and for what purpose. The reliability issues raised by the use of composites are likely to be highly contextual.

For instance, there is an important asymmetry between justifying the use of a composite for measuring efficacy and the use of the same composite for safety outcomes. A biological improvement in type 2 diabetes might be expected to lead to a reduction in all the macrovascular complications of that disease, but a medication for type 2 diabetes might have a very specific toxicity or drug interaction, which affects only one constituent end point among all macrovascular complications, such as myocardial infarction. The asymmetry between efficacy and safety outcomes is specifically addressed by cardiovascular epidemiologists in an important methodological paper:17

Varying definitions of composite end points, such as MACE, can lead to substantially different results and conclusions. There, the term MACE, in particular, should not be used, and when composite study end points are desired, researchers should focus separately on safety and effectiveness outcomes, and construct separate composite end points to match these different clinical goals.”

There are many clear, published statements that caution consumers of medical studies against being misled by claims based upon composite end points. Several years ago, for example, the British Medical Journal published a paper with six methodological suggestions for consumers of studies, one of which deals explicitly with composite end points:18

“Guide to avoid being misled by biased presentation and interpretation of data

1. Read only the Methods and Results sections; bypass the Discuss section

2. Read the abstract reported in evidence based secondary publications

3. Beware faulty comparators

4. Beware composite endpoints

5. Beware small treatment effects

6. Beware subgroup analyses”

The paper elaborates on the problems that arise from the use of composite end points:19

Problems in the interpretation of these trials arise when composite end points include component outcomes to which patients attribute very different importance… .”

Problems may also arise when the most important end point occurs infrequently or when the apparent effect on component end points differs.”

When the more important outcomes occur infrequently, clinicians should focus on individual outcomes rather than on composite end points. Under these circumstances, inferences about the end points (which because they occur infrequently will have very wide confidence intervals) will be weak.”

Authors generally acknowledge that “[w]hen large variations exist between components the composite end point should be abandoned.”20

Methodological Issues Concerning Causal Inferences from Composite End Points to Individual End Points

Several authors have criticized pharmaceutical companies for using composite end points to “game” their trials. Composites allow smaller sample size, but they lend themselves to broader claims for outcomes included within the composite. The same criticism applies to attempts to infer that there is risk of an individual endpoint based upon a showing of harm in the composite endpoint.

If a trial report specifies a composite endpoint, the components of the composite should be in the well-known pathophysiology of the disease. The researchers should interpret the composite endpoint in aggregate rather than as showing efficacy of the individual components. However, the components should be specified as secondary outcomes and reported beside the results of the primary analysis.”21

Virtually the entire field of epidemiology and clinical trial study has urged caution in inferring risk for a component end point from suggested risk in a composite end point:

In summary, evaluating trials that use composite outcome requires scrutiny in regard to the underlying reasons for combining endpoints and its implications and has impact on medical decision-making (see below in Sect. 47.8). Composite endpoints are credible only when the components are of similar importance and the relative effects of the intervention are similar across components (Guyatt et al. 2008a).”22

Not only do important methodologists urge caution in the interpretation of composite end points,23 they emphasize a basic point of scientific (and legal) relevancy:

[A] positive result for a composite outcome applies only to the cluster of events included in the composite and not to the individual components.”24

Even regular testifying expert witnesses for the litigation industry insist upon the “principle of full disclosure”:

The analysis of the effect of therapy on the combined end point should be accompanied by a tabulation of the effect of the therapy for each of the component end points.”25

Gatekeepers in our judicial system need to be more vigilant against bait-and-switch inferences based upon composite end points. The quest for statistical power hardly justifies larding up an end point with irrelevant data points.


1 See, e.g., Milton Packer, “Unbelievable! Electrophysiologists Embrace ‘Alternative Facts’,” MedPage (May 16, 2018) (describing clinical trialists’ abandoning pre-specified intention-to-treat analysis).

2 Curtis Meinert, Clinical Trials Dictionary (Johns Hopkins Center for Clinical Trials 1996).

3 Victor M. Montori, et al., “Validity of composite end points in clinical trials.” 300 Brit. Med. J. 594, 596 (2005).

4 R. Fletcher & S. Fletcher, Clinical Epidemiology: The Essentials at 109 (4th ed. 2005).

5 Neaton, et al., “Key issues in end point selection for heart failure trials: composite end points,” 11 J. Cardiac Failure 567, 569a (2005).

6 Schulz & Grimes, “Multiplicity in randomized trials I: endpoints and treatments,” 365 Lancet 1591, 1593a (2005).

7 Freemantle & Calvert, “Composite and surrogate outcomes in randomized controlled trials,” 334 Brit. Med. J. 756, 756a – b (2007).

8 International Conference on Harmonisation of Technical Requrements for Registration of Pharmaceuticals for Human Use; “ICH harmonized tripartite guideline: statistical principles for clinical trials,” 18 Stat. Med. 1905 (1999).

9 Neaton, et al., “Key issues in end point selection for heart failure trials: composite end points,” 11 J. Cardiac Failure 567, 569b (2005).

10 Montori, et al., “Validity of composite end points in clinical trials.” 300 Brit. Med. J. 594, 596, Summary Point No. 2 (2005).

11 SeeLumpenepidemiology” (Dec. 24, 2012), discussing Frischhertz v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 181507 (E.D. La. 2012).Frischhertz was decided in the same month that a New York City trial judge ruled Dr. Shira Kramer out of bounds in the commission of similarly invalid lumping, in Reeps v. BMW of North America, LLC, 2012 NY Slip Op 33030(U), N.Y.S.Ct., Index No. 100725/08 (New York Cty. Dec. 21, 2012) (York, J.), 2012 WL 6729899, aff’d on rearg., 2013 WL 2362566, aff’d, 115 A.D.3d 432, 981 N.Y.S.2d 514 (2013), aff’d sub nom. Sean R. v. BMW of North America, LLC, ___ N.E.3d ___, 2016 WL 527107 (2016). See also New York Breathes Life Into Frye Standard – Reeps v. BMW(Mar. 5, 2013).

12Infante-lizing the IARC” (May 13, 2018).

13 Knight v. Kirby Inland Marine, 363 F.Supp. 2d 859, 864 (N.D. Miss. 2005), aff’d, 482 F.3d 347 (5th Cir. 2007) (excluding opinion of B.S. Levy on Hodgkin’s disease based upon studies of other lymphomas and myelomas); Allen v. Pennsylvania Eng’g Corp., 102 F.3d 194, 198 (5th Cir. 1996) (noting that evidence suggesting a causal connection between ethylene oxide and human lymphatic cancers is not probative of a connection with brain cancer);Current v. Atochem North America, Inc., 2001 WL 36101283, at *3 (W.D. Tex. Nov. 30, 2001) (excluding expert witness opinion of Michael Gochfeld, who asserted that arsenic causes rectal cancer on the basis of studies that show association with lung and bladder cancer; Hill’s consistency factor in causal inference does not apply to cancers generally); Exxon Corp. v. Makofski, 116 S.W.3d 176, 184-85 (Tex. App. Houston 2003) (“While lumping distinct diseases together as ‘leukemia’ may yield a statistical increase as to the whole category, it does so only by ignoring proof that some types of disease have a much greater association with benzene than others.”).

14The Public Affairs Committee of the Teratology Society, “Teratology Society Public Affairs Committee Position Paper Causation in Teratology-Related Litigation,” 73 Birth Defects Research (Part A) 421, 423 (2005).

15 168 F. Supp. 2d 1271, 1284–87 (D. Utah 2001).

16 Montori, et al., “Validity of composite end points in clinical trials.” 300 Brit. Med. J. 594, 595b (2005).

17 Kevin Kip, et al., “The problem with composite end points in cardiovascular studies,” 51 J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. 701, 701 (2008) (Abstract – Conclusions) (emphasis in original).

18 Montori, et al., “Users’ guide to detecting misleading claims in clinical research reports,” 329 Brit. Med. J. 1093 (2004) (emphasis added).

19 Id. at 1094b, 1095a.

20 Montori, et al., “Validity of composite end points in clinical trials.” 300 Brit. Med. J. 594, 596 (2005).

21 Schulz & Grimes, “Multiplicity in randomized trials I: endpoints and treatments,” 365 Lancet 1591, 1595a (2005) (emphasis added). These authors acknowledge that composite end points often lack clinical relevancy, and that the gain in statistical efficiency comes at the high cost of interpretational difficulties. Id. at 1593.

22 Wolfgang Ahrens & Iris Pigeot, eds., Handbook of Epidemiology 1840 (2d ed. 2014) (47.5.8 Use of Composite Endpoints).

23 See, e.g., Stuart J. Pocock, John J.V. McMurray, and Tim J. Collier, “Statistical Controversies in Reporting of Clinical Trials: Part 2 of a 4-Part Series on Statistics for Clinical Trials,” 66 J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. 2648, 2650-51 (2015) (“Interpret composite endpoints carefully.”)(“COMPOSITE ENDPOINTS. These are commonly used in CV RCTs to combine evidence across 2 or more outcomes into a single primary endpoint. But, there is a danger of oversimplifying the evidence by putting too much emphasis on the composite, without adequate inspection of the contribution from each separate component.”); Eric Lim, Adam Brown, Adel Helmy, Shafi Mussa, and Douglas G. Altman, “Composite Outcomes in Cardiovascular Research: A Survey of Randomized Trials,” 149 Ann. Intern. Med. 612, 612, 615-16 (2008) (“Individual outcomes do not contribute equally to composite measures, so the overall estimate of effect for a composite measure cannot be assumed to apply equally to each of its individual outcomes.”) (“Therefore, readers are cautioned against assuming that the overall estimate of effect for the composite outcome can be interpreted to be the same for each individual outcome.”); Freemantle, et al., “Composite outcomes in randomized trials: Greater precision but with greater uncertainty.” 289 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 2554, 2559a (2003) (“To avoid the burying of important components of composite primary outcomes for which on their own no effect is concerned, . . . the components of a composite outcome should always be declared as secondary outcomes, and the results described alongside the result for the composite outcome.”).

24 Freemantle & Calvert, “Composite and surrogate outcomes in randomized controlled trials.” 334 Brit. Med. J. 757a (2007).

25 Lem Moyé, “Statistical Methods for Cardiovascular Researchers,” 118 Circulation Research 439, 451 (2016).

N.J. Supreme Court Uproots Weeds in Garden State’s Law of Expert Witnesses

August 8th, 2018

The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert is now over 25 years old. The idea of judicial gatekeeping of expert witness opinion testimony is even older in New Jersey state courts. The New Jersey Supreme Court articulated a reliability standard before the Daubert case was even argued in Washington, D.C. See Landrigan v. Celotex Corp., 127 N.J. 404, 414 (1992); Rubanick v. Witco Chem. Corp., 125 N.J. 421, 447 (1991). Articulating a standard, however, is something very different from following a standard, and in many New Jersey trial courts, until very recently, the standard was pretty much anything goes.

One counter-example to the general rule of dog-eat-dog in New Jersey was Judge Nelson Johnson’s careful review and analysis of the proffered causation opinions in cases in which plaintiffs claimed that their use of the anti-acne medication isotretinoin (Accutane) caused Crohn’s disease. Judge Johnson, who sits in the Law Division of the New Jersey Superior Court for Atlantic County held a lengthy hearing, and reviewed the expert witnesses’ reliance materials.1 Judge Johnson found that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses had employed undue selectivity in choosing what to rely upon. Perhaps even more concerning, Judge Johnson found that these witnesses had refused to rely upon reasonably well-conducted epidemiologic studies, while embracing unpublished, incomplete, and poorly conducted studies and anecdotal evidence. In re Accutane, No. 271(MCL), 2015 WL 753674, 2015 BL 59277 (N.J.Super. Law Div., Atlantic Cty. Feb. 20, 2015). In response, Judge Johnson politely but firmly closed the gate to conclusion-driven duplicitous expert witness causation opinions in over 2,000 personal injury cases. “Johnson of Accutane – Keeping the Gate in the Garden State” (Mar. 28, 2015).

Aside from resolving over 2,000 pending cases, Judge Johnson’s judgment was of intense interest to all who are involved in pharmaceutical and other products liability litigation. Judge Johnson had conducted a pretrial hearing, sometimes called a Kemp hearing in New Jersey, after the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion in Kemp v. The State of New Jersey, 174 N.J. 412 (2002). At the hearing and in his opinion that excluded plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ causation opinions, Judge Johnson demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for analyzing data and inferences in the gatekeeping process.

When the courtroom din quieted, the trial court ruled that the proffered testimony of Dr., Arthur Kornbluth and Dr. David Madigan did not meet the liberal New Jersey test for admissibility. In re Accutane, No. 271(MCL), 2015 WL 753674, 2015 BL 59277 (N.J.Super. Law Div. Atlantic Cty. Feb. 20, 2015). And in closing the gate, Judge Johnson protected the judicial process from several bogus and misleading “lines of evidence,” which have become standard ploys to mislead juries in courthouses where the gatekeepers are asleep. Recognizing that not all evidence is on the same analytical plane, Judge Johnson gave case reports short shrift.

[u]nsystematic clinical observations or case reports and adverse event reports are at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy.”

Id. at *16. Adverse event reports, largely driven by the very litigation in his courtroom, received little credit and were labeled as “not evidentiary in a court of law.” Id. at 14 (quoting FDA’s description of FAERS).

Judge Johnson recognized that there was a wide range of identified “risk factors” for irritable bowel syndrome, such as prior appendectomy, breast-feeding as an infant, stress, Vitamin D deficiency, tobacco or alcohol use, refined sugars, dietary animal fat, fast food. In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *9. The court also noted that there were four medications generally acknowledged to be potential risk factors for inflammatory bowel disease: aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), oral contraceptives, and antibiotics. Understandably, Judge Johnson was concerned that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses preferred studies unadjusted for potential confounding co-variables and studies that had involved “cherry picking the subjects.” Id. at *18.

Judge Johnson had found that both sides in the isotretinoin cases conceded the relative unimportance of animal studies, but the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses nonetheless invoked the animal studies in the face of the artificial absence of epidemiologic studies that had been created by their cherry-picking strategies. Id.

Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses had reprised a common claimants’ strategy; namely, they claimed that all the epidemiology studies lacked statistical power. Their arguments often ignored that statistical power calculations depend upon statistical significance, a concept to which many plaintiffs’ counsel have virulent antibodies, as well as an arbitrarily selected alternative hypothesis of association size. Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ arguments ignored the actual point estimates, most of which were favorable to the defense, and the observed confidence intervals, most of which were reasonably narrow.

The defense responded to the bogus statistical arguments by presenting an extremely capable clinical and statistical expert witness, Dr. Stephen Goodman, to present a meta-analysis of the available epidemiologic evidence.

Meta-analysis has become an important facet of pharmaceutical and other products liability litigation[1]. Fortunately for Judge Johnson, he had before him an extremely capable expert witness, Dr. Stephen Goodman, to explain meta-analysis generally, and two meta-analyses he had performed on isotretinoin and irritable bowel outcomes.

Dr. Goodman explained that the plaintiffs’ witnesses’ failure to perform a meta-analysis was telling when meta-analysis can obviate the plaintiffs’ hyperbolic statistical complaints:

the strength of the meta-analysis is that no one feature, no one study, is determinant. You don’t throw out evidence except when you absolutely have to.”

In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *8.

Judge Johnson’s judicial handiwork received non-deferential appellate review from a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division, which reversed the exclusion of Kornbluth and Madigan. In re Accutane Litig., 451 N.J. Super. 153, 165 A.3d 832 (App. Div. 2017). The New Jersey Supreme Court granted the isotretinoin defendants’ petition for appellate review, and the issues were joined over the appropriate standard of appellate review for expert witness opinion exclusions, and the appropriateness of Judge Johnson’s exclusions of Kornbluth and Madigan. A bevy of amici curiae joined in the fray.2

Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion, which reversed the Appellate Division’s holding that Judge Johnson had “mistakenly exercised” discretion. Applying its own precedents from Rubanick, Landrigan, and Kemp, and the established abuse-of-discretion standard, the Court concluded that the trial court’s ruling to exclude Kornbluth and Madigan was “unassailable.” In re Accutane Litig., ___ N.J. ___, 2018 WL 3636867 (2018), Slip op. at 79.3

The high court graciously acknowledged that defendants and amici had “good reason” to seek clarification of New Jersey law. Slip op. at 67. In abandoning abuse-of-discretion as its standard of review, the Appellate Division had relied upon a criminal case that involved the application of the Frye standard, which is applied as a matter of law. Id. at 70-71. The high court also appeared to welcome the opportunity to grant review and reverse the intermediate court reinforce “the rigor expected of the trial court” in its gatekeeping role. Id. at 67. The Supreme Court, however, did not articulate a new standard; rather it demonstrated at length that Judge Johnson had appropriately applied the legal standards that had been previously announced in New Jersey Supreme Court cases.4

In attempting to defend the Appellate Division’s decision, plaintiffs sought to characterize New Jersey law as somehow different from, and more “liberal” than, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert. The New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledged that it had never formally adopted the dicta from Daubert about factors that could be considered in gatekeeping, slip op. at 10, but the Court went on to note what disinterested observers had long understood, that the so-called Daubert factors simply flowed from a requirement of sound methodology, and that there was “little distinction” and “not much light” between the Landrigan and Rubanick principles and the Daubert case or its progeny. Id at 10, 80.

Curiously, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced that the Daubert factors should be incorporated into the New Jersey Rules 702 and 703 and their case law, but it stopped short of declaring New Jersey a “Daubert” jurisdiction. Slip op. at 82. In part, the Court’s hesitance followed from New Jersey’s bifurcation of expert witness standards for civil and criminal cases, with the Frye standard still controlling in the criminal docket. At another level, it makes no sense to describe any jurisdiction as a “Daubert” state because the relevant aspects of the Daubert decision were dicta, and the Daubert decision and its progeny were superseded by the revision of the controlling statute in 2000.5

There were other remarkable aspects of the Supreme Court’s Accutane decision. For instance, the Court put its weight behind the common-sense and accurate interpretation of Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s famous articulation of factors for causal judgment, which requires that sampling error, bias, and confounding be eliminated before assessing whether the observed association is strong, consistent, plausible, and the like. Slip op. at 20 (citing the Reference Manual at 597-99), 78.

The Supreme Court relied extensively on the National Academies’ Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence.6 That reliance is certainly preferable to judicial speculations and fabulations of scientific method. The reliance is also positive, considering that the Court did not look only at the problematic epidemiology chapter, but adverted also to the chapters on statistical evidence and on clinical medicine.

The Supreme Court recognized that the Appellate Division had essentially sanctioned an anything goes abandonment of gatekeeping, an approach that has been all-too-common in some of New Jersey’s lower courts. Contrary to the previously prevailing New Jersey zeitgeist, the Court instructed that gatekeeping must be “rigorous” to “prevent[] the jury’s exposure to unsound science through the compelling voice of an expert.” Slip op. at 68-9.

Not all evidence is equal. “[C]ase reports are at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy.” Slip op. at 73. Extrapolation from non-human animal studies is fraught with external validity problems, and such studies “far less probative in the face of a substantial body of epidemiologic evidence.” Id. at 74 (internal quotations omitted).

Perhaps most chilling for the lawsuit industry will be the Supreme Court’s strident denunciation of expert witnesses’ selectivity in choosing lesser evidence in the face of a large body of epidemiologic evidence, id. at 77, and their unprincipled cherry picking among the extant epidemiologic publications. Like the trial court, the Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ inconsistent use of methodological criteria and their selective reliance upon studies (disregarding eight of the nine epidemiologic studies) that favored their task masters was the antithesis of sound methodology. Id. at 73, citing with approval, In re Lipitor, ___ F.3d ___ (4th Cir. 2018) (slip op. at 16) (“Result-driven analysis, or cherry-picking, undermines principles of the scientific method and is a quintessential example of applying methodologies (valid or otherwise) in an unreliable fashion.”).

An essential feature of the Supreme Court’s decision is that it was not willing to engage in the common reductionism that has “all epidemiologic studies are flawed,” and which thus privileges cherry picking. Not all disagreements between expert witnesses can be framed as differences in interpretation. In re Accutane will likely stand as a bulwark against flawed expert witness opinion testimony in the Garden State for a long time.


1 Judge Nelson Johnson is also the author of Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2010), a spell-binding historical novel about political and personal corruption.

2 In support of the defendants’ positions, amicus briefs were filed by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce; by law professors Kenneth S. Broun, Daniel J. Capra, Joanne A. Epps, David L. Faigman, Laird Kirkpatrick, Michael M. Martin, Liesa Richter, and Stephen A. Saltzburg; by medical associations the American Medical Association, Medical Society of New Jersey, American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology, American Acne and Rosacea Society, and Dermatological Society of New Jersey, by the Defense Research Institute; by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; and by New Jersey Civil Justice Institute. In support of the plaintiffs’ position and the intermediate appellate court’s determination, amicus briefs were filed by political action committee the New Jersey Association for Justice; by the Ironbound Community Corporation; and by plaintiffs’ lawyer Allan Kanner.

3 Nothing in the intervening scientific record called question upon Judge Johnson’s trial court judgment. See, e.g., I.A. Vallerand, R.T. Lewinson, M.S. Farris, C.D. Sibley, M.L. Ramien, A.G.M. Bulloch, and S.B. Patten, “Efficacy and adverse events of oral isotretinoin for acne: a systematic review,” 178 Brit. J. Dermatol. 76 (2018).

4 Slip op. at 9, 14-15, citing Landrigan v. Celotex Corp., 127 N.J. 404, 414 (1992); Rubanick v. Witco Chem. Corp., 125 N.J. 421, 447 (1991) (“We initially took that step to allow the parties in toxic tort civil matters to present novel scientific evidence of causation if, after the trial court engages in rigorous gatekeeping when reviewing for reliability, the proponent persuades the court of the soundness of the expert’s reasoning.”).

5 The Court did acknowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 had been amended in 2000, to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert, Joiner, and Kumho Tire, but the Court did not deal with the inconsistencies between the present rule and the 1993 Daubert case. Slip op. at 64, citing Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., 350 F.3d 316, 320-21, 320 n.8 (3d Cir. 2003).

6 See Accutane slip op. at 12-18, 24, 73-74, 77-78. With respect to meta-analysis, the Reference Manual’s epidemiology chapter is still stuck in the 1980s and the prevalent resistance to poorly conducted, often meaningless meta-analyses. SeeThe Treatment of Meta-Analysis in the Third Edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence” (Nov. 14, 2011) (The Reference Manual fails to come to grips with the prevalence and importance of meta-analysis in litigation, and fails to provide meaningful guidance to trial judges).

Failed Gatekeeping in Ambrosini v. Labarraque (1996)

December 28th, 2017

The Ambrosini case straddled the Supreme Court’s 1993 Daubert decision. The case began before the Supreme Court clarified the federal standard for expert witness gatekeeping, and ended in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, after the high court adopted the curious notion that scientific claims should be based upon reliable evidence and valid inferences. That notion has only slowly and inconsistently trickled down to the lower courts.

Given that Ambrosini was litigated in the District of Columbia, where the docket is dominated by regulatory controversies, frequently involving dubious scientific claims, no one should be surprised that the D.C. Court of Appeals did not see that the Supreme Court had read “an exacting standard” into Federal Rule of Evidence 702. And so, we see, in Ambrosini, this Court of Appeals citing and purportedly applying its own pre-Daubert decision in Ferebee v. Chevron Chem. Co., 552 F. Supp. 1297 (D.D.C. 1982), aff’d, 736 F.2d 1529 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1984).1 In 2000, the Federal Rule of Evidence 702 was revised in a way that extinguishes the precedential value of Ambrosini and the broad dicta of Ferebee, but some courts and commentators have failed to stay abreast of the law.

Escolastica Ambrosini was using a synthetic progestin birth control, Depo-Provera, as well as an anti-nausea medication, Bendectin, when she became pregnant. The child that resulted from this pregnancy, Teresa Ambrosini, was born with malformations of her face, eyes, and ears, cleft lip and palate, and vetebral malformations. About three percent of all live births in the United States have a major malformation. Perhaps because the Divine Being has sovereign immunity, Escolastica sued the manufacturers of Bendectin and Depo-Provera, as well as the prescribing physician.

The causal claims were controversial when made, and they still are. The progestin at issue, medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), was embryotoxic in the cynomolgus monkey2, but not in the baboon3. The evidence in humans was equivocal at best, and involved mostly genital malformations4; the epidemiologic evidence for the MPA causal claim to this day remains unconvincing5.

At the close of discovery in Ambrosini, Upjohn (the manufacturer of the progestin) moved for summary judgment, with a supporting affidavit of a physician and geneticist, Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson. In his affidavit, Simpson discussed three epidemiologic studies, as well as other published papers, in support of his opinion that the progestin at issue did not cause the types of birth defects manifested by Teresa Ambrosini.

Ambrosini had disclosed two expert witnesses, Dr. Allen S. Goldman and Dr. Brian Strom. Neither Goldman nor Strom bothered to identify the papers, studies, data, or methodology used in arriving at an opinion on causation. Not surprisingly, the district judge was unimpressed with their opposition, and granted summary judgment for the defendant. Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 966 F.2d 1462, 1466 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

The plaintiffs appealed on the remarkable ground that Goldman’s and Strom’s crypto-evidence satisfied Federal Rule of Evidence 703. Even more remarkably, the Circuit, in a strikingly unscholarly opinion by Judge Mikva, opined that disclosure of relied-upon studies was not required for expert witnesses under Rules 703 and 705. Judge Mikva seemed to forget that the opinions being challenged were not given in testimony, but in (late-filed) affidavits that had to satisfy the requirement of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26. Id. at 1468-69. At trial, an expert witness may express an opinion without identifying its bases, but of course the adverse party may compel disclosure of those bases. In discovery, the proffered expert witness must supply all opinions and evidence relied upon in reach the opinions. In any event, the Circuit remanded the case for a hearing and further proceedings, at which the two challenged expert witnesses, Goldman and Strom, would have to identify the bases of their opinions. Id. at 1471.

Not long after the case landed back in the district court, the Supreme Court decided Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). With an order to produce entered, plaintiffs’ counsel could no longer hide Goldman and Strom’s evidentiary bases, and their scientific inferences came under judicial scrutiny.

Upjohn moved again to exclude Goldman and Strom’s opinions. The district court upheld Upjohn’s challenges, and granted summary judgment in favor of Upjohn for the second time. The Ambrosinis appealed again, but the second case in the D.C. Circuit resulted in a split decision, with the majority holding that the exclusion of Goldman and Strom’s opinions under Rule 702 was erroneous. Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 101 F.3d 129 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

Although issued two decades ago, the majority’s opinion remains noteworthy as an example of judicial resistance to the existence and meaning of the Supreme Court’s Daubert opinion. The majority opinion uncritically cited the notorious Ferebee6 and other pre-Daubert decisions. The court embraced the Daubert dictum about gatekeeping being limited to methodologic consideration, and then proceeded to interpret methodology as superficially as necessary to sustain admissibility. If an expert witness claimed to have looked at epidemiologic studies, and epidemiology was an accepted methodology, then the opinion of the expert witness must satisfy the legal requirements of Daubert, or so it would seem from the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Despite the majority’s hand waving, a careful reader will discern that there must have been substantial gaps and omissions in the explanations and evidence cited by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses. Seeing anything clearly in the Circuit’s opinion is made difficult, however, by careless and imprecise language, such as its descriptions of studies as showing, or not showing “causation,” when it could have meant only that such studies showed associations, with more or less random and systematic error.

Dr. Strom’s report addressed only general causation, and even so, he apparently did not address general causation of the specific malformations manifested by the plaintiffs’ child. Strom claimed to have relied upon the “totality of the data,” but his methodologic approach seems to have required him to dismiss studies that failed to show an association.

Dr. Strom first set forth the reasoning he employed that led him to disagree with those studies finding no causal relationship [sic] between progestins and birth defects like Teresa’s. He explained that an epidemiologist evaluates studies based on their ‘statistical power’. Statistical power, he continued, represents the ability of a study, based on its sample size, to detect a causal relationship. Conventionally, in order to be considered meaningful, negative studies, that is, those which allege the absence of a causal relationship, must have at least an 80 to 90 percent chance of detecting a causal link if such a link exists; otherwise, the studies cannot be considered conclusive. Based on sample sizes too small to be reliable, the negative studies at issue, Dr. Strom explained, lacked sufficient statistical power to be considered conclusive.”

Id. at 1367.

Putting aside the problem of suggesting that an observational study detects a “causal relationship,” as opposed to an association in need of further causal evaluation, the Court’s précis of Strom’s testimony on power is troublesome, and typical of how other courts have misunderstood and misapplied the concept of statistical power. Statistical power is a probability of observing an association of a specified size at a specified level of statistical significance. The calculation of statistical power turns indeed on sample size, the level of significance probability preselected for “statistical significance, an assumed probability distribution of the sample, and, critically, an alternative hypothesis. Without a specified alternative hypothesis, the notion of statistical power is meaningless, regardless of what probability (80% or 90% or some other percentage) is sought for finding the alternative hypothesis. Furthermore, the notion that the defense must adduce studies with “sufficient statistical power to be considered conclusive” creates an unscientific standard that can never be met, while subverting the law’s requirement that the claimant establish causation.

The suggestion that the studies that failed to find an association cannot be considered conclusive because they “lacked sufficient statistical power” is troublesome because it distorts and misapplies the very notion of statistical power. No attempt was made to describe the confidence intervals surrounding the point estimates of the null studies; nor was there any discussion whether the studies could be aggregated to increase their power to rule out meaningful associations.

The Circuit court’s scientific jurisprudence was thus seriously flawed. Without a discussion of the end points observed, the relevant point estimates of risk ratios, and the confidence intervals, the reader cannot assess the strength of the claims made by Goldman and Strom, or by defense expert Simpson, in their reports. Without identifying the study endpoints, the reader cannot evaluate whether the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses relied upon relevant outcomes in formulating their opinions. The court viewed the subject matter from 30,000 feet, passing over at 600 mph, without engagement or care. A strong dissent, however, suggested serious mischaracterizations of the plaintiffs’ evidence by the majority.

The only specific causation testimony to support plaintiff’s claims came from Goldman, in what appears to have been a “differential etiology.” Goldman purported to rule out a genetic cause, even though he had not conducted a critical family history or ordered a state-of-the-art chromosomal study. Id. at 140. Of course, nothing in a differential etiology approach would allow a physician to rule out “unknown” causes, which, for birth defects, make up the most prevalent and likely causes to explain any particular case. The majority acknowledged that these were short comings, but rhetorically characterized them as substantive, not methodologic, and therefore as issues for cross-examination, not for consideration by a judicial gatekeeping. All this is magical thinking, but it continues to infect judicial approaches to specific causation. See, e.g., Green Mountain Chrysler Plymouth Dodge Jeep v. Crombie, 508 F. Supp. 2d 295, 311 (D.Vt. 2007) (citing Ambrosini for the proposition that “the possibility of uneliminated causes goes to weight rather than admissibility, provided that the expert has considered and reasonably ruled out the most obvious”). In Ambrosini, however, Dr. Goldman had not ruled out much of anything.

Circuit Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson dissented in a short, but pointed opinion that carefully marshaled the record evidence. Drs. Goldman and Strom had relied upon a study by Greenberg and Matsunaga, whose data failed to show a statistically significant association between MPA and cleft lip and palate, when the crucial issue of timing of exposure was taken into consideration. Ambrosini, 101 F.3d at 142.

Beyond the specific claims and evidence, Judge Henderson anticipated the subsequent Supreme Court decisions in Joiner, Kumho Tire, and Weisgram, and the year 2000 revision of Rule 702, in noting that the majority’s acceptance of glib claims to have used a “traditional methodology” would render Daubert nugatory. Id. at 143-45 (characterizing Strom and Goldman’s methodologies as “wispish”). Even more importantly, Judge Henderson refused to indulge the assumption that somehow the length of Goldman’s C.V. substituted for evidence that his methods satisfied the legal (or scientific) standard of reliability. Id.

The good news is that little or nothing in Ambrosini survives the 2000 amendment to Rule 702. The bad news is that not all federal judges seem to have noticed, and that some commentators continue to cite the case, as lovely.

Probably no commentator has promiscuously embraced Ambrosini as warmly as Carl Cranor, a philosopher, and occasional expert witness for the lawsuit industry, in several publications and presentations.8 Cranor has been particularly enthusiastic about Ambrosini’s approval of expert witness’s testimony that failed to address “the relative risk between exposed and unexposed populations of cleft lip and palate, or any other of the birth defects from which [the child] suffers,” as well as differential etiologies that exclude nothing.9 Somehow Cranor, as did the majority in Ambrosini, believes that testimony that fails to identify the magnitude of the point estimate of relative risk can “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.”10 Of course, without that magnitude given, the trier of fact could not evaluate the strength of the alleged association; nor could the trier assess the probability of individual causation to the plaintiff. Cranor also has written approvingly of lumping unrelated end points, which defeats the assessment of biological plausibility and coherence by the trier of fact. When the defense expert witness in Ambrosini adverted to the point estimates for relevant end points, the majority, with Cranor’s approval, rejected the null findings as “too small to be significant.”11 If the null studies were, in fact, too small to be useful tests of the plaintiffs’ claims, intellectual and scientific honesty required an acknowledgement that the evidentiary display was not one from which a reasonable scientist would draw a causal conclusion.


1Ambrosini v. Labarraque, 101 F.3d 129, 138-39 (D.C. Cir. 1996) (citing and applying Ferebee), cert. dismissed sub nom. Upjohn Co. v. Ambrosini, 117 S.Ct. 1572 (1997) See also David E. Bernstein, “The Misbegotten Judicial Resistance to the Daubert Revolution,” 89Notre Dame L. Rev. 27, 31 (2013).

2 S. Prahalada, E. Carroad, M. Cukierski, and A.G. Hendrickx, “Embryotoxicity of a single dose of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) and maternal serum MPA concentrations in cynomolgus monkey (Macaca fascicularis),” 32 Teratology 421 (1985).

3 S. Prahalada, E. Carroad, and A.G. Hendrick, “Embryotoxicity and maternal serum concentrations of medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) in baboons (Papio cynocephalus),” 32 Contraception 497 (1985).

4 See, e.g., Z. Katz, M. Lancet, J. Skornik, J. Chemke, B.M. Mogilner, and M. Klinberg, “Teratogenicity of progestogens given during the first trimester of pregnancy,” 65 Obstet Gynecol. 775 (1985); J.L. Yovich, S.R. Turner, and R. Draper, “Medroxyprogesterone acetate therapy in early pregnancy has no apparent fetal effects,” 38 Teratology 135 (1988).

5 G. Saccone, C. Schoen, J.M. Franasiak, R.T. Scott, and V. Berghella, “Supplementation with progestogens in the first trimester of pregnancy to prevent miscarriage in women with unexplained recurrent miscarriage: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials,” 107 Fertil. Steril. 430 (2017).

6 Ferebee v. Chevron Chemical Co., 736 F.2d 1529, 1535 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1062 (1984).

7 Dr. Strom was also quoted as having provided a misleading definition of statistical significance: “whether there is a statistically significant finding at greater than 95 percent chance that it’s not due to random error.” Ambrosini at 101 F.3d at 136. Given the majority’s inadequate description of the record, the description of witness testimony may not be accurate, and error cannot properly be allocated.

8 Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 320, 327-28 (2006); see also Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 238 (2d ed. 2016).

9 Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 320 (2006).

10 Id.

11 Id. ; see also Carl F. Cranor, Toxic Torts: Science, Law, and the Possibility of Justice 238 (2d ed. 2016).