Mass Torts Made Less Bad – The Zambelli-Weiner Affair in the Zofran MDL

Judge Saylor, who presides over the Zofran MDL, handed down his opinion on the Zambelli-Weiner affair, on July 25, 2019.[1] As discussed on these pages back in April of this year,[2] GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the defendant in the Zofran birth defects litigation, sought documents from plaintiffs and Dr Zambelli-Weiner (ZW) about her published study on Zofran and birth defects.[3] Plaintiffs refused to respond to the discovery on grounds of attorney work product,[4] and of consulting expert witness confidential communications.[5] After an abstract of ZW’s study appeared in print, GSK subpoenaed ZW and her co-author, Dr. Russell Kirby, for a deposition and for production of documents.

Plaintiffs’ counsel sought a protective order. Their opposition relied upon a characterization of ZW as a research scientist; they conveniently ommitted their retention of her as a paid expert witness. In December 2018, the MDL court denied plaintiffs’ motion for a protective order, and allowed the deposition to go forward to explore the financial relationship between counsel and ZW.

In January 2019, when GSK served ZW with its subpoena duces tecum, ZW through her own counsel moved for a protective order, supported by ZW’s affidavit with factual assertions to support her claim to be not subject to the deposition. The MDL court quickly denied her motion, and in short order, her lawyer notified the court that ZW’s affidavit contained “factual misrepresentations,” which she refused to correct, and he sought leave to withdraw.

According to the MDL court, the ZW affidavit contained three falsehoods. She claimed not to have been retained by any party when she had been a paid consultant to plaintiffs at times over the previous five years, since December 2014. ZW claimed that she had no factual information about the litigation, when in fact she had participated in a Las Vegas plaintiffs’ lawyers’ conference, “Mass Torts Made Perfect,” in October 2015. Furthermore, ZW falsely claimed that monies received from plaintiffs’ law firms did not go to fund the Zofran study, but went to her company, Translational Technologies International Health Research & Economics, for unrelated work. ZW received in excess of $200,000 for her work on the Zofran study.

After ZW obtained new counsel, she gave deposition testimony in February 2019, when she acknowledged the receipt of money for the study, and the lengthy relationship with plaintiffs’ counsel. Armed with this information, GSK moved for full responses to its document requests. Again, plaintiffs’ counsel and ZW resisted on grounds of confidentiality and privilege.

Judge Saylor reviewed the requested documents in camera, and held last week that they were not protected by consulting expert witness privilege or by attorney work product confidentiality. ZW’s materials and communications in connection with the Las Vegas plaintiffs’ conference never had the protection of privilege or confidentiality. ZW presented at a “quasi-public” conference attended by lawyers who had no connection to the Zofran litigation.[6]

With respect to work product claims, Judge Saylor found that GSK had shown “exceptional circumstances” and “substantial need” for the requested materials given that the plaintiffs’ testifying expert witnesses had relied upon the ZW study, which had been covertly financially supported by plaintiffs’ lawyers.[7] With respect to whatever was thinly claimed to be privileged and confidential, Judge Saylor found the whole arrangement to fail the smell test:[8]

“It is troublesome, to say the least, for a party to engage a consulting, non-testifying expert; pay for that individual to conduct and publish a study, or otherwise affect or influence the study; engage a testifying expert who relies upon the study; and then cloak the details of the arrangement with the consulting expert in the confidentiality protections of Rule 26(b) in order to conceal it from a party opponent and the Court. The Court can see no valid reason to permit such an arrangement to avoid the light of discovery and the adversarial process. Under the circumstances, GSK has made a showing of substantial need and an inability to obtain these documents by other means without undue hardship.

Furthermore, in this case, the consulting expert made false statements to the Court as to the nature of her relationship with plaintiffs’ counsel. The Court would not have been made aware of those falsehoods but for the fact that her attorney became aware of the issue and sought to withdraw. Certainly plaintiffs’ counsel did nothing at the time to correct the false impressions created by the affidavit. At a minimum, the submission of those falsehoods effectively waived whatever protections might otherwise apply. The need to discover the truth and correct the record surely outweighs any countervailing policy in favor of secrecy, particularly where plaintiffs’ testifying experts have relied heavily on Dr. Zambelli-Weiner’s study as a basis for their causation opinions. In order to effectively cross-examine plaintiffs’ experts about those opinions at trial, GSK is entitled to review the documents. At a minimum, the documents shed additional light on the nature of the relationship between Dr. Zambelli-Weiner and plaintiffs’ counsel, and go directly to the credibility of Dr. Zambelli-Weiner and the reliability of her study results.”

It remains to be seen whether Judge Saylor will refer the matter of ZW’s false statements in her affidavit to the U.S. Attorney’s office, or the lawyers’ complicity in perpetuating these falsehoods to disciplinary boards.

Mass torts will never be perfect, or even very good. Judge Saylor, however, has managed to make the Zofran litigation a little less bad.


[1]  Memorandum and order on In Camera Production of Documents Concerning Dr. April Zambelli-Weiner, In re Zofran Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL 2657, D.Mass. (July 25, 2019) [cited as Mem.].

[2]  NAS, “Litigation Science – In re Zambelli-Weiner” (April 8, 2019).

[3]  April Zambelli-Weiner, et al., “First Trimester Ondansetron Exposure and Risk of Structual Birth Defects,” 83 Reproductive Toxicol. 14 (2019).

[4]  Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(3).

[5]  Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(4)(D).

[6]  Mem. at 7-9.

[7]  Mem. at 9.

[8]  Mem. at 9-10.

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