Passing Hypotheses Off as Causal Conclusions – Allen v. Martin Surfacing

The November 2018 issue of the American Bar Association Journal (ABAJ) featured an exposé-style article on the hazards of our chemical environment, worthy of Mother Jones, or the International Journal of Health Nostrums, by a lawyer, Alan Bell.1 Alan Bell, according to his website, is a self-described “environmental health warrior.” Channeling Chuck McGill, Bell also describes himself as a:

[v]ictim, survivor, advocate and avenger. This former organized crime prosecutor almost died from an environmentally linked illness. He now devotes his life to giving a voice for those too weak or sick to fight for themselves.”

Bell apparently is not so ill that he cannot also serve as “a fierce advocate” for victims of chemicals. Here is how Mr. Bell described his own “environmentally linked illness” (emphasis added):

Over the following months, Alan developed high fevers, sore throats, swollen glands and impaired breathing. Eventually, he experienced seizures and could barely walk. His health continued to worsen until he became so ill he was forced to stop working. Despite being examined and tested by numerous world-renowned doctors, none of them could help. Finally, a doctor diagnosed him with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a devastating illness caused by exposure to environmental toxins. The medical profession had no treatment to offer Alan: no cure, and no hope. Doctors could only advise him to avoid all synthetic chemicals and live in complete isolation within a totally organic environment.”

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)? Does anyone still remember “clinical ecology”? Despite the strident advocacy of support groups and self-proclaimed victims, MCS is not recognized as a chemically caused illness by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, and the American College of Physicians.2 Double-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trials have shown that putative MCS patients respond to placebo as strongly as they react to chemicals.3

Still, Bell’s claims must be true; Bell has written a book, Poisoned, about his ordeal and that of others.4 After recounting his bizarre medical symptoms, he describes his miraculous cure in a sterile bubble in the Arizona desert. From safe within his bubble, Bell has managed to create the “Environmental Health Foundation,” which is difficult if not impossible to find on the internet, although there are some cheesy endorsements to be found on YouTube.

According to Bell’s narrative, Daniel Allen, the football coach of the College of the Holy Cross was experiencing neurological signs and symptoms that could not be explained by physicians in the Boston area, home to some of the greatest teaching hospitals in the world. Allen and his wife, Laura, reached out Bell through his Foundation. Bell describes how he put the Allens in touch with Marcia Ratner, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Board of his Environmental Health Foundation. Bell sent the Allens to see “the world renown” Marcia Ratner, who diagnosed Mr. Allen with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Bell’s story may strike some as odd, considering that Ratner is not a physician. Ratner could not provide a cure for Mr. Allen’s tragic disease, but she could help provide the Allens with a lawsuit.

According to Bell:

Testimony from a sympathetic widow, combined with powerful evidence that the chemicals Dan was exposed to caused him to die long before his time, would smash their case to bits. The defense opted to seek a settlement. The case settled in 2009.5

The ABAJ article on the Allen case is a reprise of chapter 15 of Bell’s book “Chemicals Take Down a Football Coach.” Shame on the A.B.A. for not marking the article as unpaid advertising. More shame on the A.B.A. for not fact checking the glib causal claims made in the article, some of which have been the subject of a recently published “case report” in the red journal, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, by Dr. Ratner and some, but not all, of the other expert witnesses for Mr. Allen’s litigation team.6 Had the editors of the ABAJ compared Mr. Bell’s statements and claims about the Allen case, they would have seen that Dr. Ratner, et al., ten years after beating back the defendants’ Daubert motion in the Allen case, described their literature review and assessment of Mr. Allen’s case, as merely “hypothesis generating”:

This literature review and clinical case report about a 45-year-old man with no family history of motor neuron disease who developed overt symptoms of a neuromuscular disorder in close temporal association with his unwitting occupational exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) puts forth the hypothesis that exposure to VOCs such as toluene, which disrupt motor function and increase oxidative stress, can unmask latent ALS type neuromuscular disorder in susceptible individuals.”7

         * * * * * * *

In conclusion, this hypothesis generating case report provides additional support for the suggestion that exposure to chemicals that share common mechanisms of action with those implicated in the pathogenesis of ALS type neuromuscular disorders can unmask latent disease in susceptible persons. Further research is needed to elucidate these relationships.”8

So in 2018, the Allen case was merely a “hypothesis generating” case report. Ten years earlier, however, in 2008, when Ratner, Abou-Donia, Oliver, Ewing, and Clapp gave solemn oaths and testified under penalty of perjury to a federal district judge, the facts of the same case warranted a claim to scientific knowledge, under Rule 702. Judges, lawyers, and legal reformers should take note of how expert witnesses will characterize facile opinions as causal conclusions when speaking as paid witnesses, and as mere hypotheses in need of evidentiary support when speaking in professional journals to scientists. You’re shocked; eh?

Sometimes when federal courts permit dubious causation opinion testimony over Rule 702 objections, the culprit is bad lawyering by the opponent of the proffered testimony. The published case report by Ratner helps demonstrate that Allen v. Martin Surfacing, 263 F.R.D. 47 (D. Mass. 2009), was the result of litigation overreach by plaintiffs’ counsel and their paid expert witnesses, and a failure of organized skepticism by defense counsel and the judiciary.

Marcia H. Ratner, Ph.D.

I first encountered Dr. Ratner as an expert witness for the litigation industry in cases involving manganese-containing welding rods. Plaintiffs’ counsel, Dickie Scruggs, et al., withdrew her before the defense could conduct an examination before trial. When I came across the Daubert decision in the Allen case, I was intrigued because I had read Ratner’s dissertation9 and her welding litigation report, and saw what appeared to be fallacies10 similar to those that plagued the research of Dr. Brad Racette, who also had worked with Scruggs in conducting screenings, from which he extracted “data” for a study, which for a while became the center piece of Scruggs’ claims.11

The Allen case provoked some research on my part, and then a blog post about that case and Dr. Ratner.12 Dr. Ratner took umbrage to my blog post; and in email correspondence, she threatened to sue me for tortious interference with her prospective business opportunities. She also felt that the blog post had put her in a bad light by commenting upon her criminal conviction for unlawful gun possession.13 As a result of our correspondence, and seeing that Dr. Ratner was no stranger to the courtroom,14 I wrote a post-script to add some context and her perspective on my original post.15

One fact Dr Ratner wished me to include in the blog post-script was that plaintiffs’ counsel in the Allen case had pressured her to opine that toluene and isocyanates caused Mr. Allen’s ALS, and that she had refused. Dr. Ratner of course was making a virtue of necessity since there was, and is, a mountain of medical opinion, authoritative and well-supportive, that there is no known cause of sporadic ALS.16 Dr. Ratner was very proud, however, of having devised a work-around, by proffering an opinion that toluene caused the acceleration of Mr. Allen’s ALS. This causal claim about accelerated onset could have been tested with an observational study, but the litigation claim about earlier onset was as lacking in evidential support as the more straightforward claim of causation.

Bell’s article in the ABAJ – or rather his advertisement17 – cited an unpublished write up of the Allen case, by Ratner, The Allen Case: Our Daubert Strategy, Victory, and Its Legal and Medical Landmark Ramifications, in which she kvelled about how the Allen case was cited in the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence. The Manual’s citations, however, were about the admissibility of the industrial hygienist’s proffered testimony on exposure, based in turn on Mr. Allen’s account of acute-onset symptoms.18 The Manual does not address the dubious acceleration aspect of Ratner’s causal opinion in the Allen case.

The puff piece in the ABAJ caused me to look again at Dr. Ratner’s activities. According to the Better Business Bureau reports that Dr. Marcia Ratner is a medical consultant in occupational and environmental toxicology. Since early 2016, she has been the sole proprietor of a consulting firm, Neurotoxicants.com, located in Mendon, Vermont. The firm’s website advertises that:

The Principals and Consultants of Neurotoxicants.com provide expert consulting in neurotoxicology and the relationships between neurotoxic chemical exposures and neurodegenerative disease onset and progression.

Only Ratner is identified as working on consulting through the firm. According to the LinkedIn entry for Neurotoxicants.com, Ratner is the also founder and director of Medical-Legal Research at Neurotoxicants.com. Ratner’s website advertises her involvement in occupational exposure litigation as an expert witness for claimants.19 Previously, Ratner was the Vice President and Director of Research at Chemical Safety Net, Inc., another consulting firm that she had founded with the late Robert G. Feldman, MD.

Conflict of Interest

The authors of the published Allen case report gave a curious conflict-of-interest disclosure at the end of their article:

The authors have no current specific competing interests to declare. However, Drs. Ratner, Abou-Donia and Oliver, and Mr. Ewing all served as expert witnesses in this case which settled favorably for the patient over 10 years ago with an outcome that is a fully disclosed matter of public record. Drs. Ratner, Abou-Donia and Oliver and Mr. Ewing are occasionally asked to serve as expert witnesses and/or consultants in occupational and environmental chemical exposure injury cases.”20

The disclosure conveniently omitted that Dr. Ratner owns a business that she set up to provide medico-legal consulting, and that Dr. Oliver testifies with some frequency in asbestos cases. None of the authors was, or is, an expert in the neuroepidemiology of ALS. Dr. Ratner’s conflict-of-interest disclosure in the Allen case report was, however, better than her efforts in previous publications that touched on the subject matter of her commercial consulting practice.21


1 Alan Bell, “Devastated by office chemicals, an attorney helps others fight toxic torts,Am. Bar. Ass’n J. (Nov. 2018).

2 See, e.g., American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, “Idiopathic environmental intolerances,” 103 J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 36 (1999).

3 See Susanne Bornschein, Constanze Hausteiner, Horst Römmelt, Dennis Nowak, Hans Förstl, and Thomas Zilker, “Double-blind placebo-controlled provocation study in patients with subjective Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and matched control subjects,” 46 Clin. Toxicol. 443 (2008); Susanne Bornschein, Hans Förstl, and Thomas Zilker, “Idiopathic environmental intolerances (formerly multiple chemical sensitivity) psychiatric perspectives,” 250 J. Intern. Med. 309 (2001).

4 Poisoned: How a Crime-Busting Prosecutor Turned His Medical Mystery into a Crusade for Environmental Victims (Skyhorse Publishing 2017).

5 Steven H. Foskett Jr., “Late Holy Cross coach’s family, insurers settle lawsuit for $681K,” Telegram & Gazette (Oct. 1, 2009). Obviously, the settlement amount represented a deep compromise over any plaintiff’s verdict.

6 Marcia H. Ratner, Joe F. Jabre, William M. Ewing, Mohamed Abou-Donia, and L. Christine Oliver, “Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—A case report and mechanistic review of the association with toluene and other volatile organic compounds,” 61 Am. J. Ind. Med. 251 (2018).

7 Id. at 251.

8 Id. at 258 (emphasis added).

9 Marcia Hillary Ratner, Age at Onset of Parkinson’s Disease Among Subjects Occupationally Exposed to Metals and Pesticides; Doctoral Dissertation, UMI Number 3125932, Boston University (2004). Neither Ratner’s dissertation supervisor nor her three readers were epidemiologists.

11 See Brad A. Racette, S.D. Tabbal, D. Jennings, L. Good, Joel S. Perlmutter, and Brad Evanoff, “Prevalence of parkinsonism and relationship to exposure in a large sample of Alabama welders,” 64 Neurology 230 (2005).

13 See Quincy District Court News,” Patriot Ledger June 09, 2010 (reporting that Ratner pleaded guilty to criminal possession of mace and a firearm).

14 Ratner v. Village Square at Pico Condominium Owners Ass’n, Inc., No. 91-2-11 Rdcv (Teachout, J., Aug. 28, 2012).

17 Bell is a client of the Worthy Marketing Group.

18 RMSE3d at 505-06 n.5, 512-13 n. 26, 540 n.88; see also Allen v. Martin Surfacing, 2009 WL 3461145, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 111658, 263 F.R.D. 47 (D. Mass. 2008) (holding that an industrial hygienist was qualified to testify about the concentration and duration of plaintiffs’ exposure to toluene and isocyanates).

20 Id. at 259. One of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Richard W. Clapp, opted out of co-author status on this publication.

21 See Marcia H. Ratner & Edward Fitzgerald, “Understanding of the role of manganese in parkinsonism and Parkinson disease,” 88 Neurology 338 (2017) (claiming no relevant conflicts of interest); Marcia H. Ratner, David H. Farb, Josef Ozer, Robert G. Feldman, and Raymon Durso, “Younger age at onset of sporadic Parkinson’s disease among subjects occupationally exposed to metals and pesticides,” 7 Interdiscip. Toxicol. 123 (2014) (failing to make any disclosure of conflicts of interest). In one short case report written with Dr. Jonathan Rutchik, another expert witness actively participated for the plaintiffs’ litigation industry in welding fume cases, Dr. Ratner let on that she “occasionally” is asked to serve as an expert witness, but she failed to disclose that she has a business enterprise set up to commercialize her expert witness work. Jonathan Rutchik & Marcia H. Ratner, “Is it Possible for Late-Onset Schizophrenia to Masquerade as Manganese Psychosis?” 60 J. Occup. & Envt’l Med. E207 (2018) (“The authors have no current specific competing interests to declare. However, Dr. Rutchik served as expert witnesses [sic] in this case. Drs. Rutchik and Ratner are occasionally asked to serve as expert witnesses and/or consultants in occupational and environmental chemical exposure injury cases.”)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.