More Antic Proposals for Expert Witness Testimony – Including My Own Antic Proposals

The late Professor Margaret Berger epitomized a person you could like and even admire, while finding many of her ideas erroneous, incoherent, and even dangerous. Berger was frequently on the losing side of expert witness admissibility issues, and she fell under the influence of the plaintiffs’ bar, holding conferences with their walking-around money, laundered through SKAPP, The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy.[1] In appellate cases, Berger often lent the credibility of her scholarship to support plaintiffs’ efforts to strip away admissibility criteria for expert witness causation opinion.[2] Still, she was always polite and respectful in debate. When Judge Weinstein appointed her to chair a committee to search for appropriate court-appointed expert witnesses in the silicone gel breast implant litigation, Professor Berger proved a careful, impartial listener to all the parties involved.

In 2009, before the publication of the Third Edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, Professor Berger gave a presentation for an American Law Institute continuing legal education program, in which she aired her antipathy toward gatekeeping.[3] With her sights set primarily on defense expert witnesses, Berger opined that a monetary relationship between an expert witness and the defendant could be grounds for a Rule 702 exclusion. While the jingle of coin doth soothe the hurt that conscience must feel (for some expert witnesses), the focus of the Rule 702 inquiry is properly on relevance, reliability, and validity. Judge Shira Scheindlin, who sat on the same panel as Professor Berger, diplomatically pointed out that employee expert witnesses are offered all the time, and any bias is a subject for cross-examination, not disqualification. Remarkably, neither Professor Berger nor Judge Scheindlin acknowledged that conflicts of interest, actual or potential, are not relevant to the Daubert or Rule 702 factors that guide admissibility. If Berger’s radical position of identifying conflict of interest with unreliability were correct, we might dismiss her views without any consideration[4], given her conflicts of interest from her association with SKAPP, and her several amicus briefs filed on behalf of plaintiffs, seeking to avoid the exacting requirements of expert witness evidence gatekeeping.

In her ALI-CLE lecture, Professor Berger waxed enthusiastically about what was then a recent federal trial court decision in Allen v. Martin Surfacing, 263 F.R.D. 47 (D. Mass. 2009). Berger asserted that the case was unpublished and that the case, like many other “Daubert” cases was hidden from view. Berger thought that Allen’s obscurity was unfortunate because the decision was “fabulous” and was based upon astute opinions of “outstanding” experts[5]. Berger was wrong on every point, from the chemical involved, to the unavailability of the opinion, to the quality of the expert witnesses (who were not ALS experts, but frequent, willing testifiers), and to the carefulness of the exposure and causation opinions offered.[6] See James L. Bernat & Richard Beresford, Ethical and Legal Issues in Neurology 59-60 (Amsterdam 2013) (discussing Allen and characterizing the court’s decision to admit plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ opinions as based upon plausibility without more).

Implicit in Berger’s errors, however, may be the beginnings of some concrete suggestions for improving the gatekeeping process. After all, Berger thought that no one would likely find and read the Allen decision.  She may have thus believed that she had some freedom from scrutiny when she praised the decision and the expert witnesses involved. Just as there is a groundswell of support for greater disclosure of underlying data to accompany scientific publications, there should be support for wide dissemination of the underlying materials behind Rule 702 opinions. Most judges cannot or will not write sufficiently comprehensive opinions describing and supporting their decisions to admit or exclude expert witness opinion to permit vigorous public scrutiny. Some judges fail to cite to the underlying studies or data that are the bases of the challenged opinions. As a result, the “Daubert” scholarship suffers because it frequently lacks access to the actual reports, testimony, studies, and data themselves. Often the methodological flaws discussed in judicial opinions are just the tip of the iceberg, with flaws running all the way to the bottom.

And while I am on “antic proposals” of my own, courts should consider requiring all parties to file proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, with record cites, to support their litigation positions. Lawyers on both sides of the “v.” have proven themselves cavalier and careless in their descriptions and characterizations of scientific evidence, inference, and analysis. Proposed findings would permit reviewing courts, scientists, and scholars to identify errors for the benefit of appellate courts and later trial courts.


 

[1] SKAPP claimed to have aimed at promoting transparent decision making, but deceived the public with its disclosure of having been supported by the “Common Benefit Trust, a fund established pursuant to a court order in the Silicone Gel Breast Implant Products Liability litigation.” Somehow SKAPP forgot to disclose that this court order simply created a common-benefit fund for plaintiffs’ lawyers to pursue their litigation goals. How money from the silicone gel breast implant MDL was diverted for advocated anti-Daubert policies is a mystery that no amount of transparent decision making has to date uncovered. Fortunately, for the commonweal, SKAPP appears to have been dissolved. The SKAPP website lists those who guided and supported SKAPP’s attempts to subvert expert witness validity requirements; not surprisingly, the SKAPP supporters were mostly plaintiffs’ expert witnesses:

Eula Bingham, PhD
Les Boden, PhD
Richard Clapp, DSc, MPH
Polly Hoppin, ScD
Sheldon Krimsky, PhD
David Michaels, PhD, MPH
David Ozonoff, MD, MPH
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA

[2] See, e.g., Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., N.Y. Ct. App., Brief Amicus Curiae of Profs. Margaret A. Berger, Edward J. Imwinkelried, Sheila Jasanoff, and Stephen A. Saltzburg (July 28, 2006) (represented by Anthony Z. Roisman, of the National Legal Scholars Law Firm).

[3] Berger, “Evidence, Procedure, and Trial Update: How You Can Win (Or Lose) Your Case (Expert Witnesses, Sanctions, Spoliation, Daubert, and More)” (Mar. 27, 2009).

Berger, “Evidence, Procedure, and Trial Update: How You Can Win (Or Lose) Your Case (Expert Witnesses, Sanctions, Spoliation, Daubert, and More)” (Mar. 27, 2009).

[4] We can see this position carried to its natural, probable, and extreme endpoint in Elizabeth Laposata, Richard Barnes, and Stanton Glantz, “Tobacco Industry Influence on the American Law Institute’s Restatements of Torts and Implications for Its Conflict of Interest Policies,” 98 Iowa Law Rev. 1 (2012), where the sanctimonious authors, all anti-tobacco advocates criticize the American Law Institute for permitting the participation of lawyers who represent tobacco industry. The authors fail to recognize that ALI members include lawyers representing plaintiffs in tobacco litigation, and that it is possible, contrary to their ideological worldview, to discuss and debate an issue without reference to ad hominem “conflicts” issues. The authors might be surprised by the degree to which the plaintiffs’ bar has lobbied (successfully) for many provisions in various Restatements.

[5] Including Richard Clapp, who served as an advisor to SKAPP, which lavished money on Professor Berger’s conferences.

[6] SeeBad Gatekeeping or Missed Opportunity – Allen v. Martin Surfacing” (Nov. 30, 2012); “Gatekeeping in Allen v. Martin Surfacing — Postscript” (April 11, 2013).

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