N.J. Supreme Court Uproots Weeds in Garden State’s Law of Expert Witnesses

The United States Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert is now over 25 years old. The idea of judicial gatekeeping of expert witness opinion testimony is even older in New Jersey state courts. The New Jersey Supreme Court articulated a reliability standard before the Daubert case was even argued in Washington, D.C. See Landrigan v. Celotex Corp., 127 N.J. 404, 414 (1992); Rubanick v. Witco Chem. Corp., 125 N.J. 421, 447 (1991). Articulating a standard, however, is something very different from following a standard, and in many New Jersey trial courts, until very recently, the standard was pretty much anything goes.

One counter-example to the general rule of dog-eat-dog in New Jersey was Judge Nelson Johnson’s careful review and analysis of the proffered causation opinions in cases in which plaintiffs claimed that their use of the anti-acne medication isotretinoin (Accutane) caused Crohn’s disease. Judge Johnson, who sits in the Law Division of the New Jersey Superior Court for Atlantic County held a lengthy hearing, and reviewed the expert witnesses’ reliance materials.1 Judge Johnson found that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses had employed undue selectivity in choosing what to rely upon. Perhaps even more concerning, Judge Johnson found that these witnesses had refused to rely upon reasonably well-conducted epidemiologic studies, while embracing unpublished, incomplete, and poorly conducted studies and anecdotal evidence. In re Accutane, No. 271(MCL), 2015 WL 753674, 2015 BL 59277 (N.J.Super. Law Div., Atlantic Cty. Feb. 20, 2015). In response, Judge Johnson politely but firmly closed the gate to conclusion-driven duplicitous expert witness causation opinions in over 2,000 personal injury cases. “Johnson of Accutane – Keeping the Gate in the Garden State” (Mar. 28, 2015).

Aside from resolving over 2,000 pending cases, Judge Johnson’s judgment was of intense interest to all who are involved in pharmaceutical and other products liability litigation. Judge Johnson had conducted a pretrial hearing, sometimes called a Kemp hearing in New Jersey, after the New Jersey Supreme Court’s opinion in Kemp v. The State of New Jersey, 174 N.J. 412 (2002). At the hearing and in his opinion that excluded plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ causation opinions, Judge Johnson demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for analyzing data and inferences in the gatekeeping process.

When the courtroom din quieted, the trial court ruled that the proffered testimony of Dr., Arthur Kornbluth and Dr. David Madigan did not meet the liberal New Jersey test for admissibility. In re Accutane, No. 271(MCL), 2015 WL 753674, 2015 BL 59277 (N.J.Super. Law Div. Atlantic Cty. Feb. 20, 2015). And in closing the gate, Judge Johnson protected the judicial process from several bogus and misleading “lines of evidence,” which have become standard ploys to mislead juries in courthouses where the gatekeepers are asleep. Recognizing that not all evidence is on the same analytical plane, Judge Johnson gave case reports short shrift.

[u]nsystematic clinical observations or case reports and adverse event reports are at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy.”

Id. at *16. Adverse event reports, largely driven by the very litigation in his courtroom, received little credit and were labeled as “not evidentiary in a court of law.” Id. at 14 (quoting FDA’s description of FAERS).

Judge Johnson recognized that there was a wide range of identified “risk factors” for irritable bowel syndrome, such as prior appendectomy, breast-feeding as an infant, stress, Vitamin D deficiency, tobacco or alcohol use, refined sugars, dietary animal fat, fast food. In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *9. The court also noted that there were four medications generally acknowledged to be potential risk factors for inflammatory bowel disease: aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), oral contraceptives, and antibiotics. Understandably, Judge Johnson was concerned that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses preferred studies unadjusted for potential confounding co-variables and studies that had involved “cherry picking the subjects.” Id. at *18.

Judge Johnson had found that both sides in the isotretinoin cases conceded the relative unimportance of animal studies, but the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses nonetheless invoked the animal studies in the face of the artificial absence of epidemiologic studies that had been created by their cherry-picking strategies. Id.

Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses had reprised a common claimants’ strategy; namely, they claimed that all the epidemiology studies lacked statistical power. Their arguments often ignored that statistical power calculations depend upon statistical significance, a concept to which many plaintiffs’ counsel have virulent antibodies, as well as an arbitrarily selected alternative hypothesis of association size. Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ arguments ignored the actual point estimates, most of which were favorable to the defense, and the observed confidence intervals, most of which were reasonably narrow.

The defense responded to the bogus statistical arguments by presenting an extremely capable clinical and statistical expert witness, Dr. Stephen Goodman, to present a meta-analysis of the available epidemiologic evidence.

Meta-analysis has become an important facet of pharmaceutical and other products liability litigation[1]. Fortunately for Judge Johnson, he had before him an extremely capable expert witness, Dr. Stephen Goodman, to explain meta-analysis generally, and two meta-analyses he had performed on isotretinoin and irritable bowel outcomes.

Dr. Goodman explained that the plaintiffs’ witnesses’ failure to perform a meta-analysis was telling when meta-analysis can obviate the plaintiffs’ hyperbolic statistical complaints:

the strength of the meta-analysis is that no one feature, no one study, is determinant. You don’t throw out evidence except when you absolutely have to.”

In re Accutane, 2015 WL 753674, at *8.

Judge Johnson’s judicial handiwork received non-deferential appellate review from a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division, which reversed the exclusion of Kornbluth and Madigan. In re Accutane Litig., 451 N.J. Super. 153, 165 A.3d 832 (App. Div. 2017). The New Jersey Supreme Court granted the isotretinoin defendants’ petition for appellate review, and the issues were joined over the appropriate standard of appellate review for expert witness opinion exclusions, and the appropriateness of Judge Johnson’s exclusions of Kornbluth and Madigan. A bevy of amici curiae joined in the fray.2

Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion, which reversed the Appellate Division’s holding that Judge Johnson had “mistakenly exercised” discretion. Applying its own precedents from Rubanick, Landrigan, and Kemp, and the established abuse-of-discretion standard, the Court concluded that the trial court’s ruling to exclude Kornbluth and Madigan was “unassailable.” In re Accutane Litig., ___ N.J. ___, 2018 WL 3636867 (2018), Slip op. at 79.3

The high court graciously acknowledged that defendants and amici had “good reason” to seek clarification of New Jersey law. Slip op. at 67. In abandoning abuse-of-discretion as its standard of review, the Appellate Division had relied upon a criminal case that involved the application of the Frye standard, which is applied as a matter of law. Id. at 70-71. The high court also appeared to welcome the opportunity to grant review and reverse the intermediate court reinforce “the rigor expected of the trial court” in its gatekeeping role. Id. at 67. The Supreme Court, however, did not articulate a new standard; rather it demonstrated at length that Judge Johnson had appropriately applied the legal standards that had been previously announced in New Jersey Supreme Court cases.4

In attempting to defend the Appellate Division’s decision, plaintiffs sought to characterize New Jersey law as somehow different from, and more “liberal” than, the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert. The New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledged that it had never formally adopted the dicta from Daubert about factors that could be considered in gatekeeping, slip op. at 10, but the Court went on to note what disinterested observers had long understood, that the so-called Daubert factors simply flowed from a requirement of sound methodology, and that there was “little distinction” and “not much light” between the Landrigan and Rubanick principles and the Daubert case or its progeny. Id at 10, 80.

Curiously, the New Jersey Supreme Court announced that the Daubert factors should be incorporated into the New Jersey Rules 702 and 703 and their case law, but it stopped short of declaring New Jersey a “Daubert” jurisdiction. Slip op. at 82. In part, the Court’s hesitance followed from New Jersey’s bifurcation of expert witness standards for civil and criminal cases, with the Frye standard still controlling in the criminal docket. At another level, it makes no sense to describe any jurisdiction as a “Daubert” state because the relevant aspects of the Daubert decision were dicta, and the Daubert decision and its progeny were superseded by the revision of the controlling statute in 2000.5

There were other remarkable aspects of the Supreme Court’s Accutane decision. For instance, the Court put its weight behind the common-sense and accurate interpretation of Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s famous articulation of factors for causal judgment, which requires that sampling error, bias, and confounding be eliminated before assessing whether the observed association is strong, consistent, plausible, and the like. Slip op. at 20 (citing the Reference Manual at 597-99), 78.

The Supreme Court relied extensively on the National Academies’ Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence.6 That reliance is certainly preferable to judicial speculations and fabulations of scientific method. The reliance is also positive, considering that the Court did not look only at the problematic epidemiology chapter, but adverted also to the chapters on statistical evidence and on clinical medicine.

The Supreme Court recognized that the Appellate Division had essentially sanctioned an anything goes abandonment of gatekeeping, an approach that has been all-too-common in some of New Jersey’s lower courts. Contrary to the previously prevailing New Jersey zeitgeist, the Court instructed that gatekeeping must be “rigorous” to “prevent[] the jury’s exposure to unsound science through the compelling voice of an expert.” Slip op. at 68-9.

Not all evidence is equal. “[C]ase reports are at the bottom of the evidence hierarchy.” Slip op. at 73. Extrapolation from non-human animal studies is fraught with external validity problems, and such studies “far less probative in the face of a substantial body of epidemiologic evidence.” Id. at 74 (internal quotations omitted).

Perhaps most chilling for the lawsuit industry will be the Supreme Court’s strident denunciation of expert witnesses’ selectivity in choosing lesser evidence in the face of a large body of epidemiologic evidence, id. at 77, and their unprincipled cherry picking among the extant epidemiologic publications. Like the trial court, the Supreme Court found that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ inconsistent use of methodological criteria and their selective reliance upon studies (disregarding eight of the nine epidemiologic studies) that favored their task masters was the antithesis of sound methodology. Id. at 73, citing with approval, In re Lipitor, ___ F.3d ___ (4th Cir. 2018) (slip op. at 16) (“Result-driven analysis, or cherry-picking, undermines principles of the scientific method and is a quintessential example of applying methodologies (valid or otherwise) in an unreliable fashion.”).

An essential feature of the Supreme Court’s decision is that it was not willing to engage in the common reductionism that has “all epidemiologic studies are flawed,” and which thus privileges cherry picking. Not all disagreements between expert witnesses can be framed as differences in interpretation. In re Accutane will likely stand as a bulwark against flawed expert witness opinion testimony in the Garden State for a long time.


1 Judge Nelson Johnson is also the author of Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2010), a spell-binding historical novel about political and personal corruption.

2 In support of the defendants’ positions, amicus briefs were filed by the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce; by law professors Kenneth S. Broun, Daniel J. Capra, Joanne A. Epps, David L. Faigman, Laird Kirkpatrick, Michael M. Martin, Liesa Richter, and Stephen A. Saltzburg; by medical associations the American Medical Association, Medical Society of New Jersey, American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology, American Acne and Rosacea Society, and Dermatological Society of New Jersey, by the Defense Research Institute; by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; and by New Jersey Civil Justice Institute. In support of the plaintiffs’ position and the intermediate appellate court’s determination, amicus briefs were filed by political action committee the New Jersey Association for Justice; by the Ironbound Community Corporation; and by plaintiffs’ lawyer Allan Kanner.

3 Nothing in the intervening scientific record called question upon Judge Johnson’s trial court judgment. See, e.g., I.A. Vallerand, R.T. Lewinson, M.S. Farris, C.D. Sibley, M.L. Ramien, A.G.M. Bulloch, and S.B. Patten, “Efficacy and adverse events of oral isotretinoin for acne: a systematic review,” 178 Brit. J. Dermatol. 76 (2018).

4 Slip op. at 9, 14-15, citing Landrigan v. Celotex Corp., 127 N.J. 404, 414 (1992); Rubanick v. Witco Chem. Corp., 125 N.J. 421, 447 (1991) (“We initially took that step to allow the parties in toxic tort civil matters to present novel scientific evidence of causation if, after the trial court engages in rigorous gatekeeping when reviewing for reliability, the proponent persuades the court of the soundness of the expert’s reasoning.”).

5 The Court did acknowledge that Federal Rule of Evidence 702 had been amended in 2000, to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert, Joiner, and Kumho Tire, but the Court did not deal with the inconsistencies between the present rule and the 1993 Daubert case. Slip op. at 64, citing Calhoun v. Yamaha Motor Corp., U.S.A., 350 F.3d 316, 320-21, 320 n.8 (3d Cir. 2003).

6 See Accutane slip op. at 12-18, 24, 73-74, 77-78. With respect to meta-analysis, the Reference Manual’s epidemiology chapter is still stuck in the 1980s and the prevalent resistance to poorly conducted, often meaningless meta-analyses. SeeThe Treatment of Meta-Analysis in the Third Edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence” (Nov. 14, 2011) (The Reference Manual fails to come to grips with the prevalence and importance of meta-analysis in litigation, and fails to provide meaningful guidance to trial judges).

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