Differential Diagnosis in Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group

Graffiti on the bathroom wall in the building that housed my undergraduate college’s philosophy department:

How does a philosopher treat constipation?

By using iterative disjunctive syllogism.

The joke is that this variety of syllogism is nothing other than reasoning by the process of elimination.

A or B or C

~A

B or C

~B

∴C

The syllogism works as a valid form of argument if the premises are all true.  So, if we start with three possible causes, A, B, and C, and we know that one or more of them caused an outcome, then we might proceed by the process of elimination to show that we can rule out all the others but the alleged cause.  The first line of the syllogism is true if at least one of the disjuncts is true.  As we rule out particular disjuncts upon learning that they are in fact false, we are left we a smaller set of disjuncts.  If we can proceed until we are left with the disjunct of interest, we may actually have succeeded in identifying a cause in fact of the particular case.

In the syllogistic argument above, we must be able to show that A and B are false before we can then conclude that C is true.

In differential etiology, we start with known causes, exposures or conditions that are known to be capable of causing a disease or disorder.  We do not know whether the potential causes were actually in play in a given case.  If we can use this syllogistic reasoning to conclude that the defendant’s product was a cause of the of the plaintiff’s harm, we might actually have shown specific causation in a reliable fashion.  If, however, we cannot proceed to a conclusion that unequivocally includes the defendant’s product, we are left with an indeterminate outcome, and the plaintiff must take nothing.

The Milward case was recently back in the news.  On remand from the First Circuit, the district judge, now the Hon. Douglas Woodlock, faced a renewed Rule 702 motion directed to Milward’s specific causation expert witnesses.  Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., Civil Action No. 07–11944–DPW, 2013 WL 4812425 (D. Mass. Sept. 6, 2013).

Judge Woodlock wryly commented upon the First Circuit’s ignoring the statutory mandate of Rule 702, by its embracing caselaw that predated the 2000 statutory amendment of the Rule:

“While a 2000 amendment to Fed.R.Evid. 702 codified a rigorous reliability test, the Daubert line of cases has been read by the First Circuit as “demand[ing] only that the proponent of the evidence show that the expert’s conclusion has been arrived at in a scientifically sound and methodologically reliable fashion.” Ruiz–Troche v. Pepsi Cola of Puerto Rico Bottling Co., 161 F.3d 77, 85 (1st Cir.1998). “So long as an expert’s scientific testimony rests upon good grounds based on what is known, it should be tested by the adversarial process, rather than excluded for fear that jurors will not be able to handle the scientific complexities.” Milward, 639 F.3d at 15 (internal quotation and citation omitted).”

Milward, at *3.  After noting the statute’s “rigorous reliability test,” and the First Circuit’s having  diluted the statutory standard by drawing from pre-statute caselaw, Judge Woodlock got down to the business of gatekeeping, by examining the facts of record before him.

The defense’s first challenge was to Milward’s industrial hygienist’s opinion that quantified his benzene exposure.  The industrial hygienist, James Stewart, estimated Milward’s benzene exposure, both total and from individual products.  The defense challenge was interesting, given that plaintiffs have challenged defendants’ use of similar exposure recreations to advance apportionments that will defeat joint and several liability.  The district court denied the defense challenge, and turned its attention to the specific causation issue, which proved to be a good example of patho-epistemology .

The plaintiffs relied upon Dr. Sheila Butler, who was board certified in occupational medicine, pathology, and hematology, to opine that Brian Milward’s exposure was responsible for causing his Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia (“APL”), a rare subtype of Acute Myeloid Leukemia (“AML”). Butler’s opinion was simple if not simpistic:

“there is a ‘reasonable medical probability that there is a direct causal association between Mr. Milward’s APL and his excessive occupational exposure to benzene containing substances’ based primarily on

(1) the fact that his exposure to benzene preceded his development of APL, and

(2) a survey of studies showing increased AML risk following low average dose exposures to benzene.”

Milward at *6.

Simplistic and simply wrong. Butler had equated exposure and some risk, unquantified, with specific causation, an empty and unsupported assertion.  Judge Woodlock did not dignify this subjective opinion with further discussion, but turned his attention to Butler’s “differential diagnosis” analysis by which Butler claimed to have eliminated other potential causes of Milward’s APL such that she could say that benzene was a specific cause.

The district court started from the premise that so-called differential diagnosis is useful and accepted for assessing causation. Id. at *7 (citing Baker v. Dalkon Shield Claimants Trust, 156 F.3d 248, 253 (1st Cir.1998).  For some reason, however, the court emphasized that the differential etiology was particularly appropriate when the expert witness’s opinion lacks a foundation of epidemiologic studies or a “well-established threshold exposure levels at which disease occurs.”  The district court did not explain what it possibly could have meant by this emphasis, and I doubt that there is any basis for the court’s statement.

The real issue in Milward, on remand, was whether Dr. Butler applied the differential etiology in a reliable manner.  The defense argued that Dr. Butler failed to rule out competing risk factors, Milward’s prior smoking, and his morbid obesity, as causes of Milward’s APL.  The court dismissed this challenge with the recognition that plaintiffs might still prevail if Milward’s disease resulted from either benzene and smoking or benzene, smoking, and obesity. Sadly, the court did not address the quality or quantity of the evidence for smoking, or for obesity, and APL; nor did it address the magnitude of the associations that were being claimed by the defense, or by the plaintiffs.  The court did not explore the evidentiary base for the defense assertion that smoking or obesity causes APL such that it should be in the first line of the iterative disjunctive syllogism.

The problem, of course, was not the plaintiffs’ failure to rule out obesity or smoking, but their failure to rule out the unknown factors, which account for the solid majority of APL cases.  Indeed, in the first round of Rule 702 briefings and hearings, plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Martin Smith, opined that between 70 and 80 percent of APL cases are idiopathic; that is, they have no known cause.  Id. at *7.  The syllogism thus becomes very difficult because one proposition in the first line of the argument is that the cause is unknown, and the plaintiff cannot arrive at the conclusion that his APL was caused by benzene unless and until he provides reliable evidence that more likely than not, his APL disease was not caused by one or more of the unknown causes.  In other words, plaintiffs must show that the APL was not a background case that would have occurred regardless of occupational benzene exposure, and perhaps regardless of occupational exposure with obesity and smoking.  Judge Woodlock, relying heavily upon the Restatement (Third) of Torts expressed the matter this way:

“When a disease has a discrete set of causes, eliminating some number of them significantly raises the probability that the remaining option or options were the cause-in-fact of the disease.  Restatement (Third) of Torts: Phys. & Emot. Harm § 28, cmt. c(4) (2010) (‘The underlying premise [of differential etiology] is that each of the[] known causes is independently responsible for some proportion of the disease in a given population.  Eliminating one or more of these as a possible cause for a specific plaintiff’s disease increases the probability that the agent in question was responsible for that plaintiff’s disease.’). The same cannot be said when eliminating a few possible causes leaves not only fewer possible causes but also a high probability that a cause cannot be identified. Id. (‘When the causes of a disease are largely unknown … differential etiology is of little assistance’.).”

In the face of this irrefutable logic of this part of comment c, Butler argued that she had “ruled out” idiopathic APL by “ruling in” benzene.  Of course, benzene had to be postulated as a general cause in order for it to be placed into the first line of the syllogism, but Butler’s assertion about ruling in benzene as a specific cause is truly an ipse dixit, a non sequitur, and a petitio principii, all rolled into one opinion.  After all, the APL case may have arisen out of benzene exposure and the unknown causes, or only the unknown (idiopathic) causes.  Butler cannot rule in benzene until she rules out idiopathic causes as the sole specific causes in this case. To be fair, the prevalence of idiopathic cases cited by Martyn Smith might be lower in a population with heavy benzene exposure, assuming Smith’s general causation were true, but again, such an acknowledgment would only raise the question of what the prevalence of idiopathic cases is in a population of exposure that looked like Mr. Milward’s.

Dr. Butler argued that Martyn Smith had previously ruled in benzene, but that was only as a general cause that can then be represented as one disjunct in the first line of the syllogism.  Here Judge Woodlock identified another gap between Smith’s general causation opinion and Dr. Butler’s attempt to use Smith’s opinion to place benzene into the differential etiology for Mr. Milward.  On this remand, the plaintiffs had to show that “the levels of exposure that are hazardous to human beings generally as well as the plaintiff’s actual level of exposure.” Id. (citing Westberry v. Gislaved Gummi AB, 178 F.3d 257, 263-64 (4th Cir.1999) (talcum powder undisputedly could cause sinus problems, and plaintiff was exposed at levels known to be causative).  The court suggested that Milward had not yet shown that exposure at the levels he experienced could cause APL.  Of course, even if Milward sustained cumulative exposures capable of causing APL, this fact sufficed only to place benzene into the differential diagnosis, and it did not advance the iterative disjunctive syllogism to a conclusion of either a single or multiple disjuncts that included benzene.

Judge Woodlock did a good job of saving the First Circuit from the notoriety of its general causation decision in the Milward case. The new trial court decision is a strong reminder that risk does not equal causation.  Differential etiology cannot rule out idiopathic cause(s) as the sole specific cause of a plaintiff’s disease unless there is a fingerprint of causation that makes the risk identifiable as a cause in a specific case.  Such a fingerprint or biomarker was apparently absent in the Milward case.  Similarly, the differential etiology might rule out putative specific causes on a probabilistic basis if the idiopathic cases made up a small number of all the cases in relation to the number of cases that arise from the exposure that is the subject of the litigation.

The Milward decision joins other soundly decided differential diagnosis cases coming out of the First Circuit.  See, e.g., Plourde v. Gladstone, 190 F. Supp. 2d 708, 722-723 (D. Vt. 2002) (excluding testimony where expert failed to rule out causes of plaintiff’s illness other than exposure to herbicides); Whiting v. Boston Edison Co., 891 F. Supp. 12, 21 n.41 (D. Mass. 1995) (noting that differential diagnosis cannot be used to support conclusion of specific causation when 90% disease cases are idiopathic).

But lest anyone get too comfortable with the notion that this issue has been mastered by the federal judiciary, keep in mind that there are some really poorly reasoned cases out there. See, e.g., Allen v. Martin Surfacing, 263 F.R.D. 47, 56 (D. Mass. 2008) (admitting general and specific causation testimony to be tested by adversary process, rather than excluded altogether, despite paucity of epidemiologic evidence and general acceptance that there are no known causes of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

The limits of the “process of elimination” approach has been addressed by some scientific organizations, such as the Teratology Society, in the particularly demanding context of determining a cause for a child’s congenital malformation:

“Biologic plausibility includes a consideration of alternative explanations for the outcome in an individual plaintiff. For example, if a plaintiff has a birth defect syndrome caused by a known genetic disorder, chemical exposure becomes implausible as a cause of the abnormality in that particular individual. The consideration of alternative explanations is sometimes misused by expert witnesses to mean that failure to find an alternative explanation for an outcome is proof that the exposure at issue must have caused the outcome. A conclusion that an exposure caused an outcome is, however, based on positive evidence rather than on lack of an alternative explanation.”

The 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).

A brief, partial survey of differential etiology cases is set out below.


SECOND CIRCUIT

McCullock v. H.B. Fuller Co., 61 F.3d 1038, 1044 (2d Cir. 1995) (defining differential etiology as an analysis “which requires listing possible causes, then eliminating all causes but one”)

Prohaska v. Sofamor, S.N.C., 138 F. Supp. 2d 422, 439 (W.D.N.Y. 2001) (excluding expert’s opinion and granting summary judgment where expert “was unable to rule out, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, [plaintiff’s] pre-existing condition, scoliosis, as a current cause of her pain”)

Zwillinger v. Garfield Slope Hous. Corp., 1998 WL 623589, at *20 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 1998) (excluding testimony and granting summary judgment where expert failed to rule out alternative causes of plaintiff’s immunotoxicity syndrome)

THIRD CIRCUIT

Magistrini v. One Hour Martinizing Dry Cleaning, 180 F. Supp. 2d 584, 608-610 (D.N.J. 2002) (excluding testimony of expert who sought to testify that dry cleaning fluid caused leukemia, but failed to rule out smoking as an alternative cause), aff’d, 68 F. App’x 356 (3d Cir. 2003)

In re Paoli R.R. Yard PCB Litig., 2000 WL 274262, at *5 (E.D. Pa. March 1, 2000) (expert’s opinion should be excluded “because she failed to rule out alternative causes” of plaintiff’s injuries)

Kent v. Howell Elec. Motors, 1999 WL 517106, at * 5 (E.D. Pa. July 20, 1999) (excluding expert testimony and granting summary judgment because expert could “not rule out reasonable alternative theories of what caused the retaining ring to fail”);

O’Brien v. Sofamor, 1999 WL 239414, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 30, 1999) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment where plaintiff “offer[ed] no evidence that [plaintiff’s experts] performed a differential diagnosis, or even considered other potential causes” of plaintiff’s back condition)

Schmerling v. Danek Med., Inc., 1999 WL 712591, at *9 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 10, 1999) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment on the grounds that expert’s failure to rule out alternative causes “alone warrants a determination that the expert’s methodology is unreliable”);

Turbe v. Lynch Trucking Inc., 1999 WL 1087026, at *6 (D.V.I. Oct. 7, 1999) (excluding expert’s testimony where expert “expressed awareness of obvious alternative causes” yet “did not investigate any other possible causes”);

Reiff v. Convergent Technologies, 957 F. Supp. 573, 582-83 (D.N. J. 1997) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment where expert failed to rule out alternative causes of plaintiff’s carpal tunnel syndrome)

Rutigliano v. Valley Bus. Forms, 929 F. Supp. 779, 787 (D.N.J. 1996) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment where the “record is replete with evidence, including [the expert’s] own admissions, that [plaintiff’s] symptoms could be attributable to medical conditions other than formaldehyde sensitization”)

Diaz v. Matthey, Inc., 893 F. Supp. 358, 376-377 (D.N.J. 1995) (excluding testimony and granting summary judgment where expert failed to rule out alternative causes for plaintiff’s asthma) (Irenas, J.)

Wade-Greaux v. Whitehall Labs., Inc., 874 F. Supp. 1441 (D.V. I.), aff’d, 46 F.3d 1120 (3d Cir. 1994) (excluding testimony of expert who failed to rule out alternative causes of plaintiff’s birth defects)

FOURTH CIRCUIT

Westberry v. Gislaved Gummi AB, 178 F.3d 257, 262-263 (4th Cir. 1999) (“Differential diagnosis, or differential etiology, is a standard scientific technique of identifying the cause of a medical problem by eliminating the likely causes until the most probable one is isolated”)

Shreve v. Sears, Robuck & Co., 166 F. Supp. 2d 378, 397-98 (D. Md. 2001) (excluding testimony where expert failed to rule out other causes of plaintiff’s injury other than an alleged defect in snow thrower)

Fitzerald v. Smith & Nephew Richards, Inc., 1999 WL 1489199 (D. Md. Dec. 30, 1999) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment where expert “failed to rule out what could have been another cause of [plaintiff’s] condition”)

Aldridge v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 34 F. Supp. 2d 1010, 1024 (D. Md. 1999), vacated on other grounds, 223 F.3d 263 (4th Cir. 2000) (excluding testimony of plaintiffs’ experts where they “failed to adequately address possible alternative causes of plaintiffs’ illnesses”)

Oglesby v. General Motors Corp., 190 F.3d 244, 250 (4th Cir. 1999) (affirming exclusion of testimony where “as a matter of logic, [the expert witness] could not eliminate other equally plausible causes” of cracked plastic inlet);

Driggers v. Sofamor, S.N.C., 44 F. Supp. 2d 760, 765 (M.D.N.C. 1998) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment where “expert failed to rule out other possible causes of [plaintiff’s back] pain”);

Higgins v. Diversey Corp., 998 F. Supp. 598, 603 (D. Md. 1997), aff’d, 135 F.2d 769 (4th Cir. 1998) (excluding expert’s testimony that the accidental inhalation of a bleach caused plaintiff’s injuries, where expert “admit[ted] that he [could] not rule out several other possible causes”)

FIFTH CIRCUIT

Michaels v. Avitech, Inc., 202 F.3d 746, 753 (5th Cir. 2000) (excluding testimony when “plaintiff’s experts wholly fail[ed] to address and rule out the numerous other potential causes” of an aircraft disaster)

Black v Food Lion, Inc, 171 F3d 308 (5th Cir 1999) (expert witness, purporting to use a differential diagnosis, testified that plaintiff’s slip in the supermarket caused fibromyalgia, which is largely idiopathic) (“This analysis amounts to saying that because [the physician] thought she had eliminated other possible causes of fibromyalgia, even though she does not know the real ‘cause,’ it had to be the fall at Food Lion. This is not an exercise in scientific logic but in the fallacy of post-hoc propter-hoc reasoning, which is as unacceptable in science as in law.”)

Conger v. Danek Med., Inc., 1998 WL 1041331, at *5-6 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 14, 1998) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment when expert “had not attempted to rule out [other potential sources] as causes for [plaintiff’s back] pain”);

Leigh v. Danek Med., Inc., 1998 WL 1041329, at *4-5 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 14, 1998) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment where expert failed to rule out alternative causes of plaintiff’s back pain)

Bennett v. PRC Public Sector, 931 F. Supp. 484, 492 (S.D. Tex. 1996) (excluding testimony of expert who failed to consider and rule out alternative causes of plaintiff’s repetitive motion disorders)

SIXTH CIRCUIT

Nelson v. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co., 1998 WL 1297690, at *6 (W.D. Tenn. Aug. 1, 1998) (excluding testimony of expert who “failed to engage in adequate techniques to rule out alternative causes and offers no good explanation as to why his opinion is nevertheless reliable in light of other potential causes of the alleged injuries”);

Downs v. Perstorp Components, 126 F. Supp. 2d 1090, 1127 (E.D. Tenn. 1999) (excluding expert testimony as to whether exposure to chemicals caused plaintiff’s injuries where expert failed to rule out alternative causes)

EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Jisa Farms, Inc. v. Farmland Indus., No. 4:99CV3294, 2001 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26084 (D. Neb. 2001)

Thurman v. Missouri Gas Energy, 107 F. Supp. 2d 1046, 1058 (W.D. Mo. 2000) (expert’s opinion “that the pipeline failed because of corrosion” was excluded and summary judgment granted where expert reached the conclusion “without eliminating other causes”)

Bruzer v. Danek Med., Inc., 1999 WL 613329, at *8 (D. Minn. Mar. 8, 1999) (excluding expert’s testimony and granting summary judgment where expert did “not attempt to rule out any alternative potential causes for [plaintiff’s] continuing and increasing [back] pain”)

National Bank of Commerce v. Assoc. Milk Producers, 22 F. Supp. 2d 942, 963 (E.D. Ark. 1998), aff’d, 191 F.3d 858 (8th Cir.1999) (excluding testimony and granting summary judgment where expert did “not successfully rule out other possible alternative causes” for cancer)

TENTH CIRCUIT

In re Breast Implant Lit., 11 F. Supp. 2d 1217, 1234 (D. Colo. 1998) (excluding expert testimony where expert failed to “explain what alternative causes he considered, or how he ruled out other possible causes” of plaintiffs’ auto- immune disease)

Stover v. Eagle Products, 1996 WL 172972, at *11 (D. Kan. Mar. 19, 1996) (excluding testimony of expert who “[did] not explain in any meaningful detail how he [was] able to exclude the numerous multiple alternative causes” of injury to plaintiff’s dogs)

ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

Rink v. Cheminova, Inc., 400 F.3d 1286, 1295 (11th Cir. 2005) (“[I]n the context of summary judgment . . . differential diagnosis evidence by itself does not suffice for proof of causation.”)

STATE COURT CASES

Blanchard v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.,  2011 Vt. 85, 30 A.3d 1271 (2011) (holding that plaintiff’s claim that his NHL was caused by benzene was not reliably supported by differential diagnosis when a large percentage of NHL cases have no known cause)

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