Litigation-Driven Access to Underlying Data and Materials

On Monday, October 21, 2013, the Center for Public Integrity published an editorial criticizing Georgia-Pacific Corporation for its “secretive research program.” SeeFacing lawsuits over deadly asbestos, paper giant launched secretive research program.”  

Georgia-Pacific (GP) commissioned several studies to help advance its defenses in asbestos litigation. Given that plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ counsel, proxies for the plaintiffs, and self-appointed public health zealots have commissioned and conducted research designed to advance interests of the litigation industry (a/k/a the plaintiffs’ bar) and to undermine GP’s defenses, GP’s actions seem perfectly appropriate.  GP’s attempt to claim an attorney-client and work-product privilege in the communications with investigators, however, raises serious concerns by casting a shadow over industry sponsorship generally.

In response to publication of GP’s sponsored research, plaintiffs’ counsel Jerry Kristal sought discovery of some of the studies and GP’s role in instigating, planning, conducting, and interpreting the studies.  Again, these discovery requests seem perfectly reasonable, but GP reacted by asserting that its lawyers had been involved in the communication loop between GP and the scientists who conducted and published the research, and therefore, the requested evidence was protected by the attorney-client privilege.  As I have argued previously, GP’s position was a serious mistake, and it has opened itself up to a good deal of justified criticism for “secretive research.” See, e.g., Noah S. Seixas, “Protecting Our Science,” 57 Ann. Occup. Hyg. 963 (2013) (emphasizing that there was no evidence that GP’s research was in fact fraudulent, and that the papers published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene had appropriate disclosures).  See alsoA Cautionary Tale on How Not to Sponsor a Scientific Study for Litigation” (June 21, 2013); “Using the Rule 45 Subpoena to Obtain Research Data” (July 24, 2013).

One measure of the lapse in judgment by GP in questionably asserting an attorney-client privilege is the ammunition that it gives to idealogues and zealots such as the Center for Public Integrity (CPI).  The CPI editorial quotes Harvard University Professor Sheila Jasanoff, as noting that:

“There’s something extremely smelly about claiming attorney-client privilege for something that is being claimed at the same time as good science. … Legal confidentiality protections should not be placed around good science.”

Professor Jasonoff is absolutely correct, but interestingly, her olfactory sense has been remarkably inconsistent.  Back in October 2007, Dr. Brad Racette and I were invited by the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academies of Science to discuss, and debate, litigation and compelled access to underlying research data.  Dr. Racette moaned and groaned about how disruptive subpoenas were into the operation of his research.  Some members of the Committee seemed sympathetic until I reminded them that Racette’s research grew out of medico-legal screenings organized, conducted, and paid for by plaintiffs’ lawyers, and that it had been over 30 years since the National Research Council urged scientists to plan proactively for sharing data from their research, and that current National Institutes of Health guidelines require such a plan. See National Institutes of Health, Final Statement on Sharing Research Data (Feb. 26, 2003); Stephen E. Fienberg, et al., eds. Committee on National Statistics, National Research Council, Sharing Research Data (1985); Eleanor Singer, chair, Panel on Data Access for Research Purposes, National Research Council, Expanding Access to Research Data: Reconciling Risks and Opportunities (2005).  See also National Academy of Sciences Committee on Ensuring the Utility and Integrity of Research Data in a Digital Age, Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age (2009). Most members of the Committee expressed their reassurance that nothing untoward had occurred with the subpoena of Dr. Racette’s underlying data, but at the time, Professor Jasanoff maintained her opposition to the approach. 

Jasanoff’s selective sniffing reflects the hypocrisy and asymmetry that pervades current discussions of conflicts of interest (COI) and access to data.  COI accusations are directed at industry, but not at the litigation industry, staffed by the plaintiffs’ bar and advanced by eco-zealots.  Access to data is a rallying cry against pharmaceutical industry clinical trials, and industry-sponsored studies, but when stakeholders want access to non-industry study data, suddenly privacy interests and researchers’ privileges become paramount, and researchers “feel harrassed.”  It really is time to choose:  either we stop our insistence upon seeing the data themselves, or we formulate rules that apply across the board, independent of study sponsorship.

We are becoming, by fits and starts, a data-driven and evidence-based world.  The time has come and gone to rely upon authors’ own interpretation of the data, and to realize that there is a public trust, interest, and need for data sharing.  GP’s capital mistake was the same made by Dr. Racette, when he asserted various privileges to argue against disclosure of his underlying data.  (Had GP paid attention to prior disputes, it would have learned that the attorney-client privilege has been uniformly rejected, as it was in Racette’s case.)  Jasanoff’s capital mistake is to attribute stench to GP for asserting a privilege, but excusing it when done by scientists funded or supported by the “litigation industry.”

The CPI reported that a GP spokesman refused to answer questions, but referred a reporter to GP’s court filings, where GP maintained that it “properly commissioned studies to explore scientific issues that repeatedly arise in joint compound litigation, disclosed its role in the studies themselves, and submitted them to the technical rigors of scientific peer review by qualified scientists who were neither affiliated with nor selected by Georgia-Pacific.”

Sounds good, but then why try to assert an attorney-client privilege and an attorney-work product confidentiality?  Plaintiffs’ counsel, having relied upon some rather poorly conducted studies would likely known that peer review is not a very good filter for sound science, and they would press for access to the inner workings of the studies and the possible influence that the sponsor had on any aspect of the studies.  Furthermore, faced with the prospect of GP’s succeeding in its claim of privilege, the plaintiffs were surely warranted in trying to explore exceptions to the privilege, such as the crime-fraud exception, weak though the evidence may be to support such an exception.

Now Look Who Is Manufacturing Doubt!

In the GP case, the New York Appellate Division did not hold that GP had engaged in a fraudulent scheme, only that plaintiffs’ allegations were serious enough to support an order that the trial judge review, in camera, the supposedly privileged materials.  The CPI, however, has used the decision to support its overwrought generalization of charges against all industry-sponsored studies. 

The CPI has used the commonplace smear tactic of analogizing every company’s defensive strategies against litigation, even against unwarranted claims, as a manifestation of the same tactics used by Big Tobacco.  Unfortunately, GP advanced the attorney-client privilege theory, which had been asserted previously, and unsuccessfully, by tobacco companies.  This legal misstep, however, does not justify CPI’s smear campaign against the scientists who conducted the studies at issue.  There is nothing stated or suggested in CPI’s editorial that raises any meaningful question about the validity of the research sponsored by GP.

COI and Access to Data – Two-Way Street

GP’s misguided assertion of the attorney-client privilege opened itself and industry generally to the CPI charges of using “well-paid experts to minimize the hazards of toxic chemicals and fend off liability, regulation, or both.” Indeed, the CPI’s editorial is little more than a sustained ad hominem attack on industry’s efforts to protect itself from liability and regulation, without any acknowledgement that often the attempts to impose liability or regulation are based upon dubious science or imprudent policy. Some liability claims are corrupt, and must be defended, including many frivolous and fraudulent claims in the asbestos litigation.

While the CPI rails against industry experts, it is suspiciously silent about so-called public interest groups or claimants, using well-paid experts, or worse, over-zealous experts, to obtain litigation or regulation results. To be sure, there are many instances of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses failing to disclose their potential conflicts, as well as failing to disclose their funding or support from plaintiffs’ counsel, plaintiffs, or plaintiffs’ proxies. Mr. Kristal’s strategy of claiming fraud in failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest will lead to a regime that will be uncomfortable for many scientists and physicians who fail to make appropriate disclosures.  See, e.g., “Conflicts of Interest in Asbestos Studies – the Plaintiffs’ Double Standard” (Sept. 18, 2013); “The Mt. Sinai Catechism” (June 7, 2013).

The CPI’s complaint that GP hired experts who were aligned with their cause is curious given the history of the plaintiffs’ counsel to hire expert witnesses who were aligned with their clients’ labor unions and the like.  Irving Selikoff, who was engaged by the insulators’ union to conduct a study of their cancer mortality, had testified in worker compensation proceedings and in some of the early civil actions involving claims of asbestos-related injuries.  The CPI quotes plaintiffs’ lawyer Alan Golanski as alleging that GP had tried to “seed” the medical literature with “methodologically skewed, litigation-driven research.” Of course, this is exactly what plaintiffs’ expert witnesses have done over the last half century.

It really is time to stop.  COI disclosures cannot be a full, satisfactory answer because the most potent conflicts arise out of intellectual and political commitments, not money.  Increasing transparency and access to study protocols, data, analyses may perhaps help. 

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