Failed Gatekeeping in Ambrosini v. Labarraque (1996)

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).

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