Confounding in Daubert, and Daubert Confounded

ABERRANT DECISIONS

The Daubert trilogy and the statutory revisions to Rule 702 have not brought universal enlightenment. Many decisions reflect a curmudgeonly and dismissive approach to gatekeeping.

The New Jersey Experience

Until recently, New Jersey law looked as though it favored vigorous gatekeeping of invalid expert witness opinion testimony. The law as applied, however, was another matter, with most New Jersey judges keen to find ways to escape the logical and scientific implications of the articulated standards, at least in civil cases.1 For example, in Grassis v. Johns-Manville Corp., 248 N.J. Super. 446, 591 A.2d 671, 675 (App. Div. 1991), the intermediate appellate court discussed the possibility that confounders may lead to an erroneous inference of a causal relationship. Plaintiffs’ counsel claimed that occupational asbestos exposure causes colorectal cancer, but the available studies, inconsistent as they were, failed to assess the role of smoking, family history, and dietary factors. The court essentially shrugged its judicial shoulders and let a plaintiffs’ verdict stand, even though it was supported by expert witness testimony that had relied upon seriously flawed and confounded studies. Not surprisingly, 15 years after the Grassis case, the scientific community acknowledged what should have been obvious in 1991: the studies did not support a conclusion that asbestos causes colorectal cancer.2

This year, however, saw the New Jersey Supreme Court step in to help extricate the lower courts from their gatekeeping doldrums. In a case that involved the dismissal of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ testimony in over 2,000 Accutane cases, the New Jersey Supreme Court demonstrated how to close the gate on testimony that is based upon flawed studies and involves tenuous and unreliable inferences.3 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.4

Cook v. Rockwell International

The litigation over radioactive contamination from the Colorado Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant is illustrative of the retrograde tendency in some federal courts. The defense objected to plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Clapp, whose study failed to account for known confounders.5 Judge Kane denied the challenge, claiming that the defense could:

cite no authority, scientific or legal, that compliance with all, or even one, of these factors is required for Dr. Clapp’s methodology and conclusions to be deemed sufficiently reliable to be admissible under Rule 702. The scientific consensus is, in fact, to the contrary. It identifies Defendants’ list of factors as some of the nine factors or lenses that guide epidemiologists in making judgments about causation. Ref. Guide on Epidemiolog at 375.).”6

In Cook, the trial court or the parties or both missed the obvious references in the Reference Manual to the need to control for confounding. Certainly many other scientific sources could be cited as well. Judge Kane apparently took a defense expert witness’s statement that ecological studies do not account for confounders to mean that the presence of confounding does not render such studies unscientific. Id. True but immaterial. Ecological studies may be “scientific,” but they do not warrant inferences of causation. Some so-called scientific studies are merely hypothesis generating, preliminary, tentative, or data-dredging exercises. Judge Kane employed the flaws-are-features approach, and opined that ecological studies are merely “less probative” than other studies, and the relative weights of studies do not render them inadmissible.7 This approach is, of course, a complete abdication of gatekeeping responsibility. First, studies themselves are not admissible; it is the expert witness, whose testimony is challenged. The witness’s reliance upon studies is relevant to the Rule 702 and 703 analyses, but admissibility is not the issue. Second, Rule 702 requires that the proffered opinion be “scientific knowledge,” and ecological studies simply lack the necessary epistemic warrant to support a causal conclusion. Third, the trial court in Cook had to ignore the federal judiciary’s own reference manual’s warnings about the inability of ecological studies to provide causal inferences.8 The Cook case is part of an unfortunate trend to regard all studies as “flawed,” and their relative weights simply a matter of argument and debate for the litigants.9

Abilify

Another example of sloppy reasoning about confounding can be found in a recent federal trial court decision, In re Abilify Products Liability Litigation,10 where the trial court advanced a futility analysis. All observational studies have potential confounding, and so confounding is not an error but a feature. Given this simplistic position, it follows that failure to control for every imaginable potential confounder does not invalidate an epidemiologic study.11 From its nihilistic starting point, the trial court readily found that an expert witness could reasonably dispense with controlling for confounding factors of psychiatric conditions in studies of a putative association between the antipsychotic medication Abilify and gambling disorders.12

Under this sort of “reasoning,” some criminal defense lawyers might argue that since all human beings are “flawed,” we have no basis to distinguish sinners from saints. We have a long way to go before our courts are part of the evidence-based world.


1 In the context of a “social justice” issue such as whether race disparities exist in death penalty cases, New Jersey court has carefully considered confounding in its analyses. See In re Proportionality Review Project (II), 165 N.J. 206, 757 A.2d 168 (2000) (noting that bivariate analyses of race and capital sentences were confounded by missing important variables). Unlike the New Jersey courts (until the recent decision in Accutane), the Texas courts were quick to adopt the principles and policies of gatekeeping expert witness opinion testimony. See Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc. v. Havner, 953 S.W.2d 706, 714, 724 (Tex.1997) (reviewing court should consider whether the studies relied upon were scientifically reliable, including consideration of the presence of confounding variables).  Even some so-called Frye jurisdictions “get it.” See, e.g., Porter v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., No. 3516 EDA 2015, 2017 WL 1902905 *6 (Phila. Super., May 8, 2017) (unpublished) (affirming exclusion of plaintiffs’ expert witness on epidemiology, under Frye test, for relying upon an epidemiologic study that failed to exclude confounding as an explanation for a putative association), affirming, Mem. Op., No. 03275, 2015 WL 5970639 (Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. Oct. 5, 2015) (Bernstein, J.), and Op. sur Appellate Issues (Phila. Ct. Com. Pl., Feb. 10, 2016) (Bernstein, J.).

3 In re Accutane Litig., ___ N.J. ___, ___ A.3d ___, 2018 WL 3636867 (2018); see N.J. Supreme Court Uproots Weeds in Garden State’s Law of Expert Witnesses(Aug. 8, 2018).

2018 WL 3636867, at *20 (citing the Reference Manual 3d ed., at 597-99).

5 Cook v. Rockwell Internat’l Corp., 580 F. Supp. 2d 1071, 1098 (D. Colo. 2006) (“Defendants next claim that Dr. Clapp’s study and the conclusions he drew from it are unreliable because they failed to comply with four factors or criteria for drawing causal interferences from epidemiological studies: accounting for known confounders … .”), rev’d and remanded on other grounds, 618 F.3d 1127 (10th Cir. 2010), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___ (May 24, 2012). For another example of a trial court refusing to see through important qualitative differences between and among epidemiologic studies, see In re Welding Fume Prods. Liab. Litig., 2006 WL 4507859, *33 (N.D. Ohio 2006) (reducing all studies to one level, and treating all criticisms as though they rendered all studies invalid).

6 Id.   

7 Id.

8 RMSE3d at 561-62 (“[ecological] studies may be useful for identifying associations, but they rarely provide definitive causal answers”) (internal citations omitted); see also David A. Freedman, “Ecological Inference and the Ecological Fallacy,” in Neil J. Smelser & Paul B. Baltes, eds., 6 Internat’l Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences 4027 (2001).

9 See also McDaniel v. CSX Transportation, Inc., 955 S.W.2d 257 (Tenn. 1997) (considering confounding but holding that it was a jury issue); Perkins v. Origin Medsystems Inc., 299 F. Supp. 2d 45 (D. Conn. 2004) (striking reliance upon a study with uncontrolled confounding, but allowing expert witness to testify anyway)

10 In re Abilifiy (Aripiprazole) Prods. Liab. Litig., 299 F. Supp. 3d 1291 (N.D. Fla. 2018).

11 Id. at 1322-23 (citing Bazemore as a purported justification for the court’s nihilistic approach); see Bazemore v. Friday, 478 U.S. 385, 400 (1986) (“Normally, failure to include variables will affect the analysis’ probativeness, not its admissibility.).

12 Id. at 1325.


Appendix – Some Federal Court Decisions on Confounding

1st Circuit

Bricklayers & Trowel Trades Internat’l Pension Fund v. Credit Suisse Sec. (USA) LLC, 752 F.3d 82, 85 (1st Cir. 2014) (affirming exclusion of expert witness whose event study and causal conclusion failed to consider relevant confounding variables and information that entered market on the event date)

2d Circuit

In re “Agent Orange” Prod. Liab. Litig., 597 F. Supp. 740, 783 (E.D.N.Y. 1984) (noting that confounding had not been sufficiently addressed in a study of U.S. servicemen exposed to Agent Orange), aff’d, 818 F.2d 145 (2d Cir. 1987) (approving district court’s analysis), cert. denied sub nom. Pinkney v. Dow Chemical Co., 484 U.S. 1004 (1988)

3d Circuit

In re Zoloft Prods. Liab. Litig., 858 F.3d 787, 793, 799 (2017) (acknowledging that statistically significant findings occur in the presence of inadequately controlled confounding or bias; affirming the exclusion of statistical expert witness, Nicholas Jewell, in part for using an admittedly non-rigorous approach to adjusting for confouding by indication)

4th Circuit

Gross v. King David Bistro, Inc., 83 F. Supp. 2d 597 (D. Md. 2000) (excluding expert witness who opined shigella infection caused fibromyalgia, given the existence of many confounding factors that muddled the putative association)

5th Circuit

Kelley v. American Heyer-Schulte Corp., 957 F. Supp. 873 (W.D. Tex. 1997) (noting that observed association may be causal or spurious, and that confounding factors must be considered to distinguish spurious from real associations)

Brock v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 874 F.2d 307, 311 (5th Cir. 1989) (noting that “[o]ne difficulty with epidemiologic studies is that often several factors can cause the same disease.”)

6th Circuit

Nelson v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., WL 1297690, at *4 (W.D. Tenn. Aug. 31, 1998) (excluding an expert witness who failed to take into consideration confounding factors), aff’d, 243 F.3d 244, 252 (6th Cir. 2001), cert. denied, 534 U.S. 822 (2001)

Adams v. Cooper Indus. Inc., 2007 WL 2219212, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55131 (E.D. Ky. 2007) (differential diagnosis includes ruling out confounding causes of plaintiffs’ disease).

7th Circuit

People Who Care v. Rockford Bd. of Educ., 111 F.3d 528, 537-38 (7th Cir. 1997) (Posner, J.) (“a statistical study that fails to correct for salient explanatory variables, or even to make the most elementary comparisons, has no value as causal explanation and is therefore inadmissible in a federal court”) (educational achievement in multiple regression);

Sheehan v. Daily Racing Form, Inc., 104 F.3d 940 (7th Cir. 1997) (holding that expert witness’s opinion, which failed to correct for any potential explanatory variables other than age, was inadmissible)

Allgood v. General Motors Corp., 2006 WL 2669337, at *11 (S.D. Ind. 2006) (noting that confounding factors must be carefully addressed; holding that selection bias rendered expert testimony inadmissible)

9th Circuit

In re Bextra & Celebrex Marketing Celebrex Sales Practices & Prod. Liab. Litig., 524 F.Supp. 2d 1166, 1178-79 (N.D. Cal. 2007) (noting plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ inconsistent criticism of studies for failing to control for confounders; excluding opinions that Celebrex at 200 mg/day can cause heart attacks, as failing to satisfy Rule 702)

Avila v. Willits Envt’l Remediation Trust, 2009 WL 1813125, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 67981 (N.D. Cal. 2009) (excluding expert witness’s opinion in part because of his failure to rule out confounding exposures and risk factors for the outcomes of interest), aff’d in relevant part, 633 F.3d 828 (9th Cir.), cert denied, 132 S.Ct. 120 (2011)

Hendricksen v. ConocoPhillips Co., 605 F. Supp. 2d 1142, 1158 (E.D. Wash. 2009) (“In general, epidemiology studies are probative of general causation: a relative risk greater than 1.0 means the product has the capacity to cause the disease. “Where the study properly accounts for potential confounding factors and concludes that exposure to the agent is what increases the probability of contracting the disease, the study has demonstrated general causation – that exposure to the agent is capable of causing [the illness at issue] in the general population.’’) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)

Valentine v. Pioneer Chlor Alkali Co., Inc., 921 F. Supp. 666, 677 (D. Nev. 1996) (‘‘In summary, Dr. Kilburn’s study suffers from very serious flaws. He took no steps to eliminate selection bias in the study group, he failed to identify the background rate for the observed disorders in the Henderson community, he failed to control for potential recall bias, he simply ignored the lack of reliable dosage data, he chose a tiny sample size, and he did not attempt to eliminate so-called confounding factors which might have been responsible for the incidence of neurological disorders in the subject group.’’)

Claar v. Burlington No. RR, 29 F.3d 499 (9th Cir. 1994) (affirming exclusion of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, and grant of summary judgment, when plaintiffs’ witnesses concluded that the plaintiffs’ injuries were caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, without investigating any other possible causes).

10th Circuit

Hollander v. Sandoz Pharms. Corp., 289 F.3d 1193, 1213 (10th Cir. 2002) (affirming exclusion in Parlodel case involving stroke; confounding makes case reports inappropriate bases for causal inferences, and even observational epidemiologic studies must evaluated carefully for confounding)

D.C. Circuit

American Farm Bureau Fed’n v. EPA, 559 F.3d 512 (2009) (noting that in setting particulate matter standards addressing visibility, agency should avoid relying upon data that failed to control for the confounding effects of humidity)

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