Echeverria Talc Trial – Crossexamination on Alleged Expert Witness Misconduct

In a post-trial end-zone victory dance in Echeverria v. Johnson & Johnson, plaintiffs’ lawyer, Allen Smith proffered three explanations for the jury’s stunning $417 million verdict in his talc ovarian cancer case.1 One of the explanations asserted was Smith’s boast that he had adduced evidence that Johnson & Johnson’s expert witness on epidemiology, Douglas Weed, a former National Cancer Institute epidemiologist and physician, had been sanctioned in another, non-talc case in North Carolina, for lying under oath about whether he had notes to his expert report in that other case.2 Having now viewed Dr. Weed’s testimony3, through the Courtroom Video Network, I can evaluate Smith’s claim.

Weed’s allegedly perjurious testimony took place in Carter v. Fiber Composites LLC, 11 CVS 1355, N.C. Super. Ct., where he served as a party expert witness. In April 2014, Weed gave deposition testimony in the discovery phase of the Carter case. Although not served personally with a lawful subpoena, defense counsel had agreed to accept a subpoena for their expert witness to appear and produce documents, as was the local custom. In deposition, plaintiffs’ counsel asked Dr. Weed to produce any notes he created in the process of researching and writing his expert witness report. Dr. Weed testified that he had no notes. 

The parties disputed whether Dr. Weed had complied with a subpoena served upon defense counsel. The discovery dispute escalated and Dr. Weed obtained legal counsel, and submitted a sworn affidavit that denied the existence of notes. Plaintiffs’ counsel pressed on Dr. Weed’s understanding that he had no “notes.” In an Order, dated May 6, 2014, the trial court directed Dr. Weed to produce everything in his possession. In response to the order, Weed produced his calendar and a thumb drive with “small fragments of notes,” “inserts,” and “miscellaneous items.”

The North Carolina court did not take kindly to Dr. Weed’s confusion about whether his report “segments” and “inserts” were notes, or not. Dr. Weed viewed the segments and inserts to have been parts of his report, and later included within his report without any substantial change. The court concluded, however, that although Dr. Weed did not violate any court order, his assertion, in deposition, in an affidavit, and through legal counsel, was unreasonable, and directly related to his credibility in the Carter case. See Order Concerning Plaintiffs’ Motion for Sanctions Against Defendants and Non-Party Witness for Defendants (June 22, 2015) (Forrest D. Bridges, J.).

The upshot was that Dr. Weed and his counsel had provided false information to the court, on the court’s understanding of what had been requested in discovery. In the court’s view, Dr. Weed’s misunderstanding may have been understandable as a non-lawyer, but it was not reasonable for him to persist and have his counsel argue that there were no notes. The trial court specifically did not find that Dr. Weed had lied, as asserted by Allen Smith, but found that Weed’s conduct was undertaken intentionally or with reckless disregard of the truth, and that his testimony was an unacceptable violation of the oath to tell the whole truth. The trial court concluded that it could not sanction Dr. Weed personally, but its order specified that as a sanction, the plaintiffs’ counsel would be permitted to cross-examine Dr. Weed with the court’s findings and conclusions in the Carter case. Id. Not surprisingly, defense counsel withdrew Dr. Weed as an expert witness.

In the Echeverria case, the defense counsel did not object to the cross-examination; the video proceedings did not inform the viewers whether there had been a prior motion in limine concerning this examination. Allen Smith’s assertion about the North Carolina court’s findings was thus almost true. A cynic might say he too had not told the whole truth, but he did march Dr. Weed through Judge Bridges’ order of June 2015, which was displayed to the jury.

Douglas Weed handled the cross-examination about as well as possible. He explained on cross, and later on redirect, that he did not regard segments of his report, which were later incorporated into his report as served, to be notes. He pointed out that there was no information in the segments, which differed from the final report, or which was not included in the report. Smith’s cross-examination, however, had raised questions not so much about credibility (despite Judge Bridges’ findings), but about whether Dr. Weed was a “quibbler,” who would hide behind idiosyncratic understandings of important words such as “consistency.” Given how harmless the belatedly produced report fragments and segments were, we are left to wonder why Dr. Weed persisted in not volunteering them.

Smith’s confrontation of Dr. Weed with the order from the Carter case came at the conclusion of a generally unsuccessful cross-examination. Unlike the Slemp case, in which Smith appeared to be able to ask unfounded questions without restraint from the bench, in Echeverria, Smith drew repeated objections, which were frequently sustained. His response often was to ask almost the same question again, drawing the same objection and the same ruling. He sounded stymied and defeated.

Courtroom Video Network, of course, does not film the jurors, and so watching the streaming video of the trial offers no insights into how the jurors reacted in real time to Smith’s cross-examination. If Weed’s testimony was ignored or discredited by Smith’s cross-examination on the Carter order, then the Escheverria case cannot be considered a useful test of the plaintiffs’ causal claim. Dr. Weed had offered important testimony on methodological issues for conducting and interpreting studies, as well as inferring causation.

One of the peculiarities of the Slemp case was that the defense offered no epidemiologist in the face of two epidemiologists offered by the plaintiff. In Escheverria, the defense addressed this gap and went further to have its epidemiologist address the glaring problem of how any specific causal inference can be drawn from a risk ratio of 1.3. Dr. Weed explained attributable risk and probability of causation, and this testimony and many other important points went without cross-examination or contradiction. And yet, after finding general causation on a weak record, the jury somehow leaped over an insurmountable epistemic barrier on specific causation.


1 Amanda Bronstad, “New Evidence Seen as Key in LA Jury’s $417M Talc Verdict,” Law.com (Aug. 22, 2017).

3 The cross-examination at issue arose about one hour, nine minutes into Smith’s cross-examination, on Aug. 15, 2017.

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