More Case Report Mischief in the Gadolinium Litigation

The Decker case is one curious decision, by the MDL trial court, and the Sixth Circuit. Decker v. GE Healthcare Inc., ___ F.3d ___, 2014 FED App. 0258P, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 20049 (6th Cir. Oct. 20, 2014). First, the Circuit went out of its way to emphasize that the trial court had discretion, not only in evaluating the evidence on a Rule 702 challenge, but also in devising the criteria of validity[1]. Second, the courts ignored the role and the weight being assigned to Federal Rule of Evidence 703, in winnowing the materials upon which the defense expert witnesses could rely. Third, the Circuit approved what appeared to be extremely asymmetric gatekeeping of plaintiffs’ and defendant’s expert witnesses. The asymmetrical standards probably were the basis for emphasizing the breadth of the trial court’s discretion to devise the criteria for assessing scientific validity[2].

In barring GEHC’s expert witnesses from testifying about gadolinium-naive nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF) cases, Judge Dan Polster, the MDL judge, appeared to invoke a double standard. Plaintiffs could adduce any case report or adverse event report (AER) on the theory that the reports were relevant to “notice” of a “safety signal” between gadolinium-based contrast agents in MRI and NSF. Defendants’ expert witnesses, however, were held to the most exacting standards of clinical identity with the plaintiff’s particular presentation of NSP, biopsy-proven presence of Gd in affected tissue, and documentation of lack of GBCA-exposure, before case reports would be permitted as reliance materials to support the existence of gadolinium-naïve NSF.

A fourth issue with the Decker opinion is the latitude it permitted the district court to allow testimony from plaintiffs’ pharmacovigilance expert witness, Cheryl Blume, Ph.D., over objections, to testify about the “signal” created by the NSF AERs available to GEHC. Decker at *11. At the same trial, the MDL judge prohibited GEHC’s expert witness, Dr. Anthony Gaspari, to testify that the AERs described by Blume did not support a clinical diagnosis of NSF.

On a motion for reconsideration, Judge Polster reaffirmed his ruling on grounds that

(1) the AERs were too incomplete to rule in or rule out a diagnosis of NSF, although they were sufficient to create a “signal”;

(2) whether the AERs were actual cases of NSF was not relevant to their being safety signals;

(3) Dr. Gaspari was not an expert in pharmacovigilance, which studied “signals” as opposed to causation; and

(4) Dr. Gaspari’s conclusion that the AERs were not NSF was made without reviewing all the information available to GEHC at the time of the AERs.

Decker at *12.

The fallacy of this stingy approach to Dr. Gaspari’s testimony lies in the courts’ stubborn refusal to recognize that if an AER was not, as a matter of medical science, a case of NSF, then it could not be a “signal” of a possible causal relationship between GBCA and NSF. Pharmacovigilance does not end with ascertaining signals; yet the courts privileged Blume’s opinions on signals even though she could not proceed to the next step and evaluate diagnostic accuracy and causality. This twisted logic makes a mockery of pharmacovigilance. It also led to the exclusion of Dr. Gaspari’s testimony on a key aspect of plaintiffs’ liability evidence.

The erroneous approach pioneered by Judge Polster was compounded by the district court’s refusal to give a jury instruction that AERs were only relevant to notice, and not to causation. Judge Polster offered his reasoning that “the instruction singles out one type of evidence, and adds, rather than minimizes, confusion.” Judge Polster cited the lack of any expert witness testimony that suggested that AERs showed causation and “besides, it doesn’t matter because those patients are not, are not the plaintiffs.” Decker at *17.

The lack of dispute about the meaning of AERs would have seemed all the more reason to control jury speculation about their import, and to give a binding instruction on AERs and their limited significance. As for the AER patients’ not being the plaintiffs, well, the case report patients were not the plaintiffs, either. This last reason is not even wrong[3]. The Circuit, in affirming, turned a blind eye to the district court’s exercise of discretion in a way that systematically increased the importance of Blume’s testimony on signals, while systematically hobbling the defendant’s expert witnesses.


[1]THE STANDARD OF APPELLATE REVIEW FOR RULE 702 DECISIONS” (Nov. 12, 2014).

[2]Gadolinium, Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis, and Case Reports” (Nov. 24, 2014).

[3] “Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!” The quote is attributed to Wolfgang Pauli in R. E. Peierls, “Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, 1900-1958,” 5 Biographical Memoirs Fellows Royal Soc’y 175, 186 (1960).

 

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