Gatekeeping of Expert Witnesses Needs a Bair Hug

For every Rule 702 (“Daubert”) success story, there are multiple gatekeeping failures. See David E. Bernstein, “The Misbegotten Judicial Resistance to the Daubert Revolution,” 89 Notre Dame L. Rev. 27 (2013).1 Exemplars of inadequate expert witness gatekeeping in state or federal court abound, and overwhelm the bar. The only solace one might find is that the abuse-of-discretion appellate standard of review keeps the bad decisions from precedentially outlawing the good ones.

Judge Joan Ericksen recently provided another Berenstain Bears’ example of how not to keep the expert witness gate, in litigation claims that the Bair Hugger forced air warming devices (“Bair Huggers”) cause infections. In re Bair Hugger Forced Air Warming, MDL No. 15-2666, 2017 WL 6397721 (D. Minn. Dec. 13, 2017). Although Her Honor properly cited and quoted Rule 702 (2000), a new standard is announced in a bold heading:

Under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, the Court need only exclude expert testimony that is so fundamentally unsupported that it can offer no assistance to the jury.”

Id. at *1. This new standard thus permits largely unsupported opinion that can offer bad assistance to the jury. As Judge Ericksen demonstrates, this new standard, which has no warrant in the statutory text of Rule 702 or its advisory committee notes, allows expert witnesses to rely upon studies that have serious internal and external validity flaws.

Jonathan Samet, a specialist in pulmonary medicine, not infectious disease or statistics, is one of the plaintiffs’ principal expert witnesses. Samet relies in large measure upon an observational study2, which purports to find an increased odds ratio for use of the Bair Hugger among infection cases in one particular hospital. The defense epidemiologist, Jonathan B. Borak, criticized the McGovern observational study on several grounds, including that the study was highly confounded by the presence of other known infection risks. Id. at *6. Judge Ericksen characterized Borak’s opinion as an assertion that the McGovern study was an “insufficient basis” for the plaintiffs’ claims. A fair reading of even Judge Ericksen’s précis of Borak’s proffered testimony requires the conclusion that Borak’s opinion was that the McGovern study was invalid because of data collection errors and confounding. Id.

Judge Ericksen’s judicial assessment, taken from the disagreement between Samet and Borak, is that there are issues with the McGovern study, which go to “weight of the evidence.” This finding obscures, however, that there were strong challenges to the internal and external validity of the study. Drawing causal inferences from an invalid observational study is a methodological issue, not a weight-of-the-evidence problem for the jury to resolve. This MDL opinion never addresses the Rule 703 issue, whether an epidemiologic expert would reasonably rely upon such a confounded study.

The defense proffered the opinion of Theodore R. Holford, who criticized Dr. Samet for drawing causal inferences from the McGovern observational study. Holford, a professor of biostatistics at Yale University’s School of Public Health, analyzed the raw data behind the McGovern study. Id. at *8. The plaintiffs challenged Holford’s opinions on the ground that he relied on data in “non-final” form, from a temporally expanded dataset. Even more intriguingly, given that the plaintiffs did not present a statistician expert witness, plaintiffs argued that Holford’s opinions should be excluded because

(1) he insufficiently justified his use of a statistical test, and

(2) he “emphasizes statistical significance more than he would in his professional work.”

Id.

The MDL court dismissed the plaintiffs’ challenge on the mistaken conclusion that the alleged contradictions between Holford’s practice and his testimony impugn his credibility at most.” If there were truly such a deviation from the statistical standard of care, the issue is methodological, not a credibility issue of whether Holford was telling the truth. And as for the alleged over-emphasis on statistical significance, the MDL court again falls back to the glib conclusions that the allegation goes to the weight, not the admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony, and that plaintiffs can elicit testimony from Dr Samet as to how and why Professor Holford over-emphasized statistical significance. Id. Inquiring minds, at the bar, and in the academy, are left with no information about what the real issues are in the case.

Generally, both sides’ challenges to expert witnesses were denied.3 The real losers, however, were the scientific and medical communities, bench, bar, and general public. The MDL court glibly and incorrectly treated methodological issues as “credibility” issues, confused sufficiency with validity, and banished methodological failures to consideration by the trier of fact for “weight.” Confounding was mistreated as simply a debating point between the parties’ expert witnesses. The reader of Judge Ericksen’s opinion never learns what statistical test was used by Professor Holford, what justification was needed but allegedly absent for the test, why the justification was contested, and what other test was alleged by plaintiffs to have been a “better” statistical test. As for the emphasis given statistical significance, the reader is left in the dark about exactly what that emphasis was, and how it led to Holford’s conclusions and opinions, and what the proper emphasis should have been.

Eventually appellate review of the Bair Hugger MDL decision must turn on whether the district court abused its discretion. Although appellate courts give trial judges discretion to resolve Rule 702 issues, the appellate courts cannot reach reasoned decisions when the inferior courts fail to give even a cursory description of what the issues were, and how and why they were resolved as they were.


2 P. D. McGovern, M. Albrecht, K. G. Belani, C. Nachtsheim, P. F. Partington, I. Carluke, and M. R. Reed, “Forced-Air Warming and Ultra-Clean Ventilation Do Not Mix: An Investigation of Theatre Ventilation, Patient Warming and Joint Replacement Infection in Orthopaedics,” 93 J. Bone Joint 1537 (2011). The article as published contains no disclosures of potential or actual conflicts of interest. A persistent rumor has it that the investigators were funded by a commercial rival to the manufacturer of the Bair Hugger at issue in Judge Ericksen’s MDL. See generally, Melissa D. Kellam, Loraine S. Dieckmann, and Paul N. Austin, “Forced-Air Warming Devices and the Risk of Surgical Site Infections,” 98 Ass’n periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN) J. 354 (2013).

3 A challenge to plaintiffs’ expert witness Yadin David was sustained to the extent he sought to offer opinions about the defendant’s state of mind. Id. at *5.

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