Legal Remedies for Suspect Medical Science in Products Cases – Part Three

 Legislative Initiatives – The Asbestos Fairness in Compensation Act

Over the years, Congress has considered various possible solutions to the problem of asbestos liability. One proposed reform bill, which bore the title “Asbestos Fairness in Compensation Act,” was specifically motivated by a concern about the quality of the expert opinions that fueled the asbestos litigation tsunami.[1] The Report by the Senate Judiciary Committee for this bill commented on its view of medical testimony in asbestos cases:

“Defendants’ rights are further compromised when courts lack the resources to monitor the medical evidence submitted by plaintiffs.  A study by neutral academics showed that forty-one (41 %) percent of audited claims of alleged asbestosis or pleural disease were found by trust physicians to have either no disease or a less severe disease than alleged by the plaintiffs’ experts (for example, pleural disease rather than asbestosis).”[2]

A key part of the bill sought to establish a process to ensure that claims would be based upon sound medical science.  As the Senate Report explained the legislative goal:

4. Diagnostic and latency criteria

Asbestos claimants must meet diagnostic and latency criteria to be compensated by the Fund.  The diagnostic criteria should reflect the typical components of a true medical diagnosis by a claimant’s doctor, including an in-person physical examination (or pathology in the case where the injured person is deceased) and a review of the claimant’s medical, smoking and exposure history by the doctor diagnosing an asbestos-related disease.  These requirements ensure that the claimant will be given a meaningful diagnosis related to the claimant’s condition.  The diagnosis must also include consideration of other more likely causes of the condition to ensure that asbestos exposure was the cause of any claimed nonmalignant disease (as opposed to other industrial dust exposure) or a substantial contributing factor in causing a malignant disease….”[3]

A number of the bill’s specific provisions sought to limit payments to only claimants who could qualify under properly validated medical criteria. This bill, like all those before it, died on the Hill.

The Health Care Quality Improvement Act of 1986

In 1986, Congress passed the Health Care Quality Improvement Act (“HCQIA”)[4], which was prompted by concerns that fear of litigation would deter hospitals, physicians and others from carrying out peer review of unprofessional conduct and from providing candid assessments to peer review bodies.  The Act gave all participants in a qualifying “professional review action” immunity from being held liable in damages “under any law of the United States or of any State (or political subdivision thereof) with respect to the action.”[5]  One of the immunized entities is a “professional review body,” a term defined by HCQIA to mean “a health care entity and the governing body or any committee of a health care entity which conducts professional review activity, and includes any committee of the medical staff of such an entity when assisting the governing body in a professional review activity.”[6]  Moreover, another provision of the Act[7] provides immunity from damages to any person “providing information to a professional review body regarding the competence or professional conduct of a physician. . . .unless such information is false and the person providing it knew such information was false.”

The HCQIA has given rise to litigation over whether it protects professional review bodies from defamation cases involving litigation opinions. If medico-legal opinions are within the scope of the practice of medicine, then a potentially important method for curbing unscrupulous expert witnesses and false or exaggerated opinion testimony might consist of peer review actions through professional associations or state medical boards.

In Florida litigation, an intermediate appellate court held that the Florida Medical Association did not have immunity under the HCQIA for having provided procedures for pressing complaints against medical expert witnesses for unprofessional conduct.[8] The state law that might be invoked to curb meretricious testimony by licensed physicians, through professional associations or medical licensing boards, remains a hodge-podge.[9]

The American Bar Association’s Resolution Condemning Screenings and Calling For Impairment Criteria in Asbestos Litigation

Part of the impetus for federal legislative reform of asbestos litigation and its diagnostic gamesmanship came from an American Bar Association (ABA) recommendation of enacting impairment requirements for asbestos non-malignant personal injury cases.[10]  Acting upon concerns of court dockets backlogged by unimpaired and false-positive and bogus asbestosis cases, many of which arose out of mass screenings, the ABA urged that limitations rules be relaxed so as not to require the filing of unimpaired cases and that compensation be limited to cases that have demonstrable objective evidence of physical impairment due to asbestosis.  The ABA Report helped to instigate asbestos tort reform efforts in Congress, as well as several successful state legislative efforts.

State Tort Reform Acts for Reliable Diagnostic and Impairment Criteria in Asbestos and Silica Cases

While Congress floundered on litigation reform of the asbestos racket, several states enacted meaningful procedural and substantive changes to address some of the more abusive medical screening practices in asbestos and silica cases.  Texas, Georgia, Florida, and Ohio have enacted remedial legislation that requires a demonstration of objective pulmonary impairment.  In some instances, the tort reform measures specify that the diagnosing physician have a patient-physician relationship with the claimant.  This requirement was aimed at chilling the efforts of itinerant, out-of-state screening physicians, whose conduct came under scrutiny in In re Silica.[11]

Daubert, Its Progeny, and Amended Rule of Evidence 702

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Daubert was not only a watershed in the analysis of expert evidence generally but also reflected specific concerns about expert testimony in the area of product liability litigation. Daubert itself was a pharmaceutical product liability case, as were Joiner and Kumho Tire.  Medical causation is one of the key issues in every product liability case, and the pressure to produce an opinion, whether inculpatory or exculpatory, will occasionally distort a fragile epistemic foundation that will not support a conclusion with any certainty.  In In re Silica, the prospect of creating a mass tort out of whole cloth seems to have had just such a distorting influence.[12]

As noted by Judge Jack, in making the reliability inquiry, the trial judge has the responsibility “to make certain that an expert … employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field.”[13] Typically, this requirement of “intellectual rigor” means that physicians proffering a diagnosis for litigation purposes must employ the same standards and practices in reaching that diagnosis that they would use in their regular, non-litigation practice of medicine.

Judge Jack was not writing on a completely blank slate in finding the silicosis diagnoses to be bogus in the MDL cases. A few years earlier, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the exclusion of a physician expert witness who insisted upon a “hands-on” examination in his medical practice, but who did not bother to examine the plaintiff personally in a case involving a failed spinal fusion.[14] Standing alone, the physician expert witness’s failure to conduct a physical examination might not have required exclusion, but the deviation from his own established, non-litigation practice provided a persuasive showing that the expert witness “did not employ in the courtroom the same methods that he employs in his own practice,” which required exclusion.[15]

A similar example of gatekeeping occurred in Ingram v. Solkatronic Chemical, Inc.,[16] where the trial judge excluded the testimony of a medical expert witness who opined that plaintiff had been injured by exposure to arsine gas.  At his deposition, the expert witness “outlined his standard diagnostic protocol when called upon to evaluate a cause of a given physical ailment.”[17]  The witness’s own protocol included taking a medical history, performing a physical examination, and determining what tests were required.  This protocol starkly contrasted with the expert witness’s anemic litigation approach to diagnosis, which failed to include physical examinations or review of complete medical or occupational histories.  Finding that the expert’s procedures “depart[ed] from his own established diagnostic standards,” the court excluded his testimony.[18]

[1]  S. 852, 109th Congress, 1st Session, and Senate Judiciary Comm. Report (June 30, 2005).

[2]  Id. at 21.

[3]  Id. at 34.

[4]  42 U.S.C. §§ 11101, et seq.

[5]  42 U.S.C. § 11111(a)(1).

[6]  42 U.S.C. § 11151(11).

[7]  42 U.S.C. § 11111(a)(2)/

[8]  Fullerton v. The Florida Med. Ass’n, 938 So.2d 587 (Fla. D. Ct. App. 2006). See also Adam Liptak, “Doctor’s Testimony Leads To a Complex Legal Fight,” N.Y. Times (June 20, 2004).

[9]  See, e.g., Sandeep K. Narang & Stephan R. Paul, “Expert Witness Participation in Civil and Criminal Proceedings,” 139 Pediatrics e1 (2017); Robert A. Bitterman, “Halting inappropriate expert witness testimony – Part I: Professional associations’ efforts to police ‘experts’,” Relias Media (Jan. 1, 2007); Robert A. Bitterman, “Halting Inappropriate Expert Witness Testimony — Part II: Efforts of State Medical Boards and State Medical Societies to Police ‘Experts’,” Relias Media (Feb. 1, 2007); Robert A. Bitterman, “Halting inappropriate expert witness testimony ? Part III: Tort reform to prevent not-so-expert opinions,” Relias Media (Mar. 1, 2007).

[10]  See ABA Commission on Asbestos Litigation, Report to the House of Delegates (Report No. 302) (February 2003).

[11]  For discussion of some of the state legislative reform, see Mark A. Behrens, “What’s New in Asbestos Litigation?” 28 Rev. Litig. 501 (2009); Jeb Barnes, “Rethinking the Landscape of Tort Reform: Legislative Inertia and Court-Base Tort Reform in the Case of Asbestos,” 28 The Justice System J. 157 (2007); Jeb Barnes, Dust-Up: Asbestos Litigation and the Failure of Commonsense Policy Reform (2011).

[12]  In re Silica Prods. Liab. Litig., 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D. Tex. 2005).

[13]  Id. at 621, quoting Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137, 152 (1999). 

[14]  Cooper v. Smith & Nephew, Inc., 259 F.3d 194, 203 (4th Cir. 2001).

[15]  Id.

[16]  2005 WL 3544244 (N.D. Okla., Dec. 28, 2005),

[17]  Id. at *13.

[18]  Id. at *14.  See also Goebel v. Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad Co., 346 F.3d 987, 998 (10th Cir. 2003) (upholding admissibility of opinion of medical expert witness who “followed ‘standard medical procedure in evaluating and diagnosing’ [plaintiff]”) (internal quotations omitted); Fitzgerald v. Smith & Nephew Richards, Inc., 1999 WL 1489199 (D. Md., Dec. 30, 1999), aff’d, 11 Fed. Appx. 335, 339 (4th Cir. 2001) (excluding opinion of medical expert who testified that clinical judgment requires personal contact with patient, but who failed to examine the plaintiff or review her complete medical history; finding that the expert “did not undertake his medical review and formulate his opinions with ‘intellectual rigor’”); Wooley v. Smith & Nephew Richards, Inc., 67 F. Supp. 2d 703, 709 (S.D. Tex. 1999) (excluding testimony of medical expert witness who had not examined plaintiff, and who relied on his review of medical records selected by  plaintiff’s counsel; concluding that “no expert orthopedic surgeon would attempt to make an accurate and complete diagnosis as to the probable cause of postoperative spinal injury without interviewing or examining the patient or considering the entirety of a patient’s records”).

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