David Madigan’s Graywashed Meta-Analysis in Taxotere MDL

Once again, a meta-analysis is advanced as a basis for an expert witness’s causation opinion, and once again, the opinion is the subject of a Rule 702 challenge. The litigation is In re Taxotere (Docetaxel) Products Liability Litigation, a multi-district litigation (MDL) proceeding before Judge Jane Triche Milazzo, who sits on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Taxotere is the brand name for docetaxel, a chemotherapic medication used either alone or in conjunction with another chemotherapy, to treat a number of different cancers. Hair loss is a side effect of Taxotere, but in the MDL, plaintiffs claim that they have experienced permanent hair loss, which was not adequately warned about in their view. The litigation thus involved issues of exactly what “permanent” means, medical causation, adequacy of warnings in the Taxotere package insert, and warnings causation.

Defendant Sanofi challenged plaintiffs’ statistical expert witness, David Madigan, a frequent testifier for the lawsuit industry. In its Rule 702 motion, Sanofi argued that Madigan had relied upon two randomized clinical trials (TAX 316 and GEICAM 9805) that evaluated “ongoing alopecia” to reach conclusions about “permanent alopecia.” Sanofi made the point that “ongoing” is not “permanent,” and that trial participants who had ongoing alopecia may have had their hair grow back. Madigan’s reliance upon an end point different from what plaintiffs complained about made his analysis irrelevant. The MDL court rejected Sanofi’s argument, with the observation that Madigan’s analysis was not irrelevant for using the wrong end point, only less persuasive, and that Sanofi’s criticism was one that “Sanofi can highlight for the jury on cross-examination.”[1]

Did Judge Milazzo engage in judicial dodging with rejecting the relevancy argument and emphasizing the truism that Sanofi could highlight the discrepancy on cross-examination?  In the sense that the disconnect can be easily shown by highlight the different event rates for the alopecia differently defined, the Sanofi argument seems like one that a jury could easily grasp and refute. The judicial shrug, however, begs the question why the defendant should have to address a data analysis that does not support the plaintiffs’ contention about “permanence.” The federal rules are supposed to advance the finding of the truth and the fair, speedy resolution of cases.

Sanofi’s more interesting argument, from the perspective of Rule 702 case law, was its claim that Madigan had relied upon a flawed methodology in analyzing the two clinical trials:

“Sanofi emphasizes that the results of each study individually produced no statistically significant results. Sanofi argues that Dr. Madigan cannot now combine the results of the studies to achieve statistical significance. The Court rejects Sanofi’s argument and finds that Sanofi’s concern goes to the weight of Dr. Madigan’s testimony, not to its admissibility.34”[2]

There seems to be a lot going on in the Rule 702 challenge that is not revealed in the cryptic language of the MDL district court. First, the court deployed the jurisprudentially horrific, conclusory language to dismiss a challenge that “goes to the weight …, not to … admissibility.” As discussed elsewhere, this judicial locution is rarely true, fails to explain the decision, and shows a lack of engagement with the actual challenge.[3] Of course, aside from the inanity of the expression, and the failure to explain or justify the denial of the Rule 702 challenge, the MDL court may have been able to provide a perfectly adequately explanation.

Second, the footnote in the quoted language, number 34, was to the infamous Milward case,[4] with the explanatory parenthetical that the First Circuit had reversed a district court for excluding testimony of an expert witness who had sought to “draw conclusions based on combination of studies, finding that alleged flaws identified by district court go to weight of testimony not admissibility.”[5] As discussed previously, the widespread use of the “weight not admissibility” locution, even by the Court of Appeals, does not justify it. More important, however, the invocation of Milward suggests that any alleged flaws in combining study results in a meta-analysis are always matters for the jury, no matter how arcane, technical, or threatening to validity they may be.

So was Judge Milazzo engaged in judicial dodging in Her Honor’s opinion in Taxotere? Although the citation to Milward tends to inculpate, the cursory description of the challenge raises questions whether the challenge itself was valid in the first place. Fortunately, in this era of electronic dockets, finding the actual Rule 702 motion is not very difficult, and we can inspect the challenge to see whether it was dodged or given short shrift. Remarkably, the reality is much more complicated than the simple, simplistic rejection by the MDL court would suggest.

Sanofi’s brief attacks three separate analyses proffered by David Madigan, and not surprisingly, the MDL court did not address every point made by Sanofi.[6] Sanofi’s point about the inappropriateness of conducting the meta-analysis was its third in its supporting brief:

“Third, Dr. Madigan conducted a statistical analysis on the TAX316 and GEICAM9805/TAX301 clinical trials separately and combined them to do a ‘meta-analysis’. But Dr. Madigan based his analysis on unproven assumptions, rendering his methodology unreliable. Even without those assumptions, Dr. Madigan did not find statistical significance for either of the clinical trials independently, making this analysis unhelpful to the trier of fact.”[7]

This introductory statement of the issue is itself not particularly helpful because it fails to explain why combining two individual clinical trials (“RCTs”), each not having “statistically significant” results, by meta-analysis would be unhelpful. Sanofi’s brief identified other problems with Madigan’s analyses, but eventually returned to the meta-analysis issue, with the heading:

“Dr. Madigan’s analysis of the individual clinical trials did not result in statistical significance, thus is unhelpful to the jury and will unfairly prejudice Sanofi.”[8]

After a discussion of some of the case law about statistical significance, Sanofi pressed its case against Madigan. Madigan’s statistical analysis of each of two RCTs apparently did not reach statistical significance, and Sanofi complained that permitting Madigan to present these two analyses with results that were “not statistically very impressive,” would confuse and mislead the jury.[9]

“Dr. Madigan tried to avoid that result here [of having two statistically non-significant results] by conducting a ‘meta-analysis’ — a greywashed term meaning that he combined two statistically insignificant results to try to achieve statistical significance. Madigan Report at 20 ¶ 53. Courts have held that meta-analyses are admissible, but only when used to reduce the numerical instability on existing statistically significant differences, not as a means to achieve statistical significance where it does not exist. RMSE at 361–362, fn76.”

Now the claims here are quite unsettling, especially considering that they were lodged in a defense brief, in an MDL, with many cases at stake, made on behalf of an important pharmaceutical company, represented by two large, capable national or international law firms.

First, what does the defense brief signify by placing ‘meta-analysis’ in quotes. Are these scare quotes to suggest that Madigan was passing off something as a meta-analysis that failed to be one? If so, there is nothing in the remainder of the brief that explains such an interpretation. Meta-analysis has been around for decades, and reporting meta-analyses of observational or of experimental studies has been the subject of numerous consensus and standard-setting papers over the last two decades. Furthermore, the FDA has now issued a draft guidance for the use of meta-analyses in pharmacoepidemiology. Scare quotes are at best unexplained, at worst, inappropriate. If the authors had something else in mind, they did not explain the meaning of using quotes around meta-analysis.

Second, the defense lawyers referred to meta-analysis as a “greywashed” term. I am always eager to expand my vocabulary, and so I looked up the word in various dictionaries of statistical and epidemiologic terms. Nothing there. Perhaps it was not a technical term, so I checked with the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. No relevant entries.

Pushed to the wall, I checked the font of all knowledge – the internet. To be sure, I found definitions, but nothing that could explain this odd locution in a brief filed in an important motion:

gray-washing: “noun In calico-bleaching, an operation following the singeing, consisting of washing in pure water in order to wet out the cloth and render it more absorbent, and also to remove some of the weavers’ dressing.”

graywashed: “adj. adopting all the world’s cultures but not really belonging to any of them; in essence, liking a little bit of everything but not everything of a little bit.”

Those definitions do not appear pertinent.

Another website offered a definition based upon the “blogsphere”:

Graywash: “A fairly new term in the blogsphere, this means an investigation that deals with an offense strongly, but not strongly enough in the eyes of the speaker.”

Hmmm. Still not on point.

Another one from “Urban Dictionary” might capture something of what was being implied:

Graywashing: “The deliberate, malicious act of making art having characters appear much older and uglier than they are in the book, television, or video game series.”

Still, I am not sure how this is an argument that a federal judge can respond to in a motion affecting many cases.

Perhaps, you say, I am quibbling with word choices, and I am not sufficiently in tune with the way people talk in the Eastern District of Louisiana. I plead guilty to both counts. But the third, and most important point, is the defense assertion that meta-analyses are only admissible “when used to reduce the numerical instability on existing statistically significant differences, not as a means to achieve statistical significance where it does not exist.”

This assertion is truly puzzling. Meta-analyses involve so many layers of hearsay that they will virtually never be admissible. Admissibility of the meta-analyses is virtually never the issue. When an expert witness has conducted a meta-analysis, or has relied upon one, the important legal question is whether the witness may reasonably rely upon the meta-analysis (under Rule 703) for an inference that satisfies Rule 702. The meta-analysis itself does not come into evidence, and does not go out to the jury for its deliberations.

But what about the defense brief’s “only when” language that clearly implies that courts have held that expert witnesses may rely upon meta-analyses only to reduce “numerical instability on existing statistically significant differences”? This seems clearly wrong because achieving statistical significance from studies that have no “instability” for their point estimates but individually lack statistical significance is a perfectly legitimate and valid goal. Consider a situation in which, for some reason, sample size in each study is limited by the available observations, but we have 10 studies, each with a point estimate of 1.5, and each with a 95% confidence interval of (0.88, 2.5). This hypothetical situation presents no instability of point estimates, and the meta-analytical summary point estimate would shrink the confidence interval so that the lower bound would exclude 1.0, in a perfectly valid analysis. In the real world, meta-analyses are conducted on studies with point estimates of risk that vary, because of random and non-random error, but there is no reason that meta-analyses cannot reduce random error to show that the summary point estimate is statistically significant at a pre-specified alpha, even though no constituent study was statistically significant.

Sanofi’s lawyers did not cite to any case for the remarkable proposition they advanced, but they did cite the Reference Manual for Scientific Evidence (RMSE). Earlier in the brief, the defense cited to this work in its third edition (2011), and so I turned to the cited page (“RMSE at 361–362, fn76”) only to find the introduction to the chapter on survey research, with footnotes 1 through 6.

After a diligent search through the third edition, I could not find any other language remotely supportive of the assertion by Sanofi’s counsel. There are important discussions about how a poorly conducted meta-analysis, or a meta-analysis that was heavily weighted in a direction by a methodologically flawed study, could render an expert witness’s opinion inadmissible under Rule 702.[10] Indeed, the third edition has a more sustained discussion of meta-analysis under the heading “VI. What Methods Exist for Combining the Results of Multiple Studies,”[11] but nothing in that discussion comes close to supporting the remarkable assertion by defense counsel.

On a hunch, I checked the second edition of RMSE, published in the year 2000. There was indeed a footnote 76, on page 361, which discussed meta-analysis. The discussion comes in the midst of the superseded edition’s chapter on epidemiology. Nothing, however, in the text or in the cited footnote appears to support the defense’s contention about meta-analyses are appropriate only when each included clinical trial has independently reported a statistically significant result.

If this analysis is correct, the MDL court was fully justified in rejecting the defense argument that combining two statistically non-significant clinical trials to yield a statistically significant result was methodologically infirm. No cases were cited, and the Reference Manual does not support the contention. Furthermore, no statistical text or treatise on meta-analysis supports the Sanofi claim. Sanofi did not support its motion with any affidavits of experts on meta-analysis.

Now there were other arguments advanced in support of excluding David Madigan’s testimony. Indeed, there was a very strong methodological challenge to Madigan’s decision to include the two RCTs in his meta-analysis, other than those RCTs lack of statistical significance on the end point at issue. In the words of the Sanofi brief:

“Both TAX clinical trials examined two different treatment regimens, TAC (docetaxel in combination with doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide) versus FAC (5-fluorouracil in combination with doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide). Madigan Report at 18–19 ¶¶ 47–48. Dr. Madigan admitted that TAC is not Taxotere alone, Madigan Dep. 305:21–23 (Ex. B); however, he did not rule out doxorubicin or cyclophosphamide in his analysis. Madigan Dep. 284:4–12 (“Q. You can’t rule out other chemotherapies as causes of irreversible alopecia? … A. I can’t rule out — I do not know, one way or another, whether other chemotherapy agents cause irreversible alopecia.”).”[12]

Now unlike the statistical significance argument, this argument is rather straightforward and turns on the clinical heterogeneity of the two trials that seems to clearly point to the invalidity of a meta-analysis of them. Sanofi’s lawyers could have easily supported this point with statements from standard textbooks and non-testifying experts (but alas did not). Sanofi did support their challenge, however, with citations to an important litigation and Fifth Circuit precedent.[13]

This closer look at the actual challenge to David Madigan’s opinions suggests that Sanofi’s counsel may have diluted very strong arguments about heterogeneity in exposure variable, and in the outcome variable, by advancing what seems a very doubtful argument based upon the lack of statistical significance of the individual studies in the Madigan meta-analysis.

Sanofi advanced two very strong points, first about the irrelevant outcome variable definitions used by Madigan, and second about the complexity of Taxotere’s being used with other, and different, chemotherapeutic agents in each of the two trials that Madigan combined.[14] The MDL court addressed the first point in a perfunctory and ultimately unsatisfactory fashion, but did not address the second point at all.

Ultimately, the result was that Madigan was given a pass to offer extremely tenuous opinions in an MDL on causation. Given that Madigan has proffered tendentious opinions in the past, and has been characterized as “an expert on a mission,” whose opinions are “conclusion driven,”[15] the missteps in the briefing, and the MDL court’s abridgement of the gatekeeping process are regrettable. Also regrettable is that the merits or demerits of a Rule 702 challenge cannot be fairly evaluated from cursory, conclusory judicial decisions riddled with meaningless verbiage such as “the challenge goes to the weight and not the admissibility of the witness.” Access to the actual Rule 702 motion helped shed important light on the inadequacy of one point in the motion but also the complexity and fullness of the challenge that was not fully addressed in the MDL court’s decision. It is possible that a Reply or a Supplemental brief, or oral argument, may have filled in gaps, corrected errors, or modified the motion, and the above analysis missed some important aspect of what happened in the Taxotere MDL. If so, all the more reason that we need better judicial gatekeeping, especially when a decision can affect thousands of pending cases.[16]

[1]  In re Taxotere (Docetaxel) Prods. Liab. Litig., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 143642, at *13 (E.D. La. Aug. 23, 2019) [Op.]

[2]  Op. at *13-14.

[3]  “Judicial Dodgers – Weight not Admissibility” (May 28, 2020).

[4]  Milward v. Acuity Specialty Prods. Grp., Inc., 639 F.3d 11, 17-22 (1st Cir. 2011).

[5]  Op. at *13-14 (quoting and citing Milward, 639 F.3d at 17-22).

[6]  Memorandum in Support of Sanofi Defendants’ Motion to Exclude Expert Testimony of David Madigan, Ph.D., Document 6144, in In re Taxotere (Docetaxel) Prods. Liab. Litig. (E.D. La. Feb. 8, 2019) [Brief].

[7]  Brief at 2; see also Brief at 14 (restating without initially explaining why combining two statistically non-significant RCTs by meta-analysis would be unhelpful).

[8]  Brief at 16.

[9]  Brief at 17 (quoting from Madigan Dep. 256:14–15).

[10]  Michael D. Green, Michael Freedman, and Leon Gordis, “Reference Guide on Epidemiology,” at 581n.89, in Fed. Jud. Center, Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence (3d ed. 2011).

[11]  Id. at 606.

[12]  Brief at 14.

[13]  Brief at 14, citing Burst v. Shell Oil Co., C. A. No. 14–109, 2015 WL 3755953, at *7 (E.D. La. June 16, 2015) (Vance, J.) (quoting LeBlanc v. Chevron USA, Inc., 396 F. App’x 94, 99 (5th Cir. 2010)) (“[A] study that notes ‘that the subjects were exposed to a range of substances and then nonspecifically note[s] increases in disease incidence’ can be disregarded.”), aff’d, 650 F. App’x 170 (5th Cir. 2016). SeeThe One Percent Non-solution – Infante Fuels His Own Exclusion in Gasoline Leukemia Case” (June 25, 2015).

[14]  Brief at 14-16.

[15]  In re Accutane Litig., 2015 WL 753674, at *19 (N.J.L.Div., Atlantic Cty., Feb. 20, 2015), aff’d, 234 N.J. 340, 191 A.3d 560 (2018). SeeJohnson of Accutane – Keeping the Gate in the Garden State” (Mar. 28, 2015); “N.J. Supreme Court Uproots Weeds in Garden State’s Law of Expert Witnesses” (Aug. 8, 2018).

[16]  Cara Salvatore, “Sanofi Beats First Bellwether In Chemo Drug Hair Loss MDL,” Law360 (Sept. 27, 2019).

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