Samuel Tarry’s Protreptic for Litigation-Sponsored Publications

Litigation-related research has been the punching bag of self-appointed public health advocates for some time. Remarkably, and perhaps not surprising to readers of this blog, many of the most strident critics have deep ties to the lawsuit industry, and have served the plaintiffs’ bar loyally and zealously for many years.1,2,3,4 And many of these critics have ignored or feigned ignorance of the litigation provenance of much research that they hold dear, such as Irving Selikoff’s asbestos research undertaken for the asbestos workers’ union and its legal advocates. These critics’ campaign is an exquisite study in hypocrisy.

For some time, I have argued that the standards for conflict-of-interest disclosures should be applied symmetrically and comprehensively to include positional conflicts, public health and environmental advocacy, as well as litigation consulting or testifying for any party. Conflicts should be disclosed, but they should not become a facile excuse or false justification for dismissing research, regardless of the party that sponsored it.5 Scientific studies should be interpreted scientifically – that is carefully, thoroughly, and rigorously – regardless whether they are conducted and published by industry-sponsored, union-sponsored, or Lord help us, even lawyer-sponsored scientists.

Several years ago, a defense lawyer, Samuel Tarry, published a case series of industry-sponsored research or analysis, which grew out of litigation, but made substantial contributions to the scientific understanding of claimed health risks. See Samuel L. Tarry, Jr., “Can Litigation-Generated Science Promote Public Health?” 33 Am. J. Trial Advocacy 315 (2009). Tarry’s paper is a helpful corrective to the biased (and often conflicted) criticisms of industry-sponsored research and analysis by the lawsuit industry and its scientific allies and consultants. It an ocean of uninformative papers about “Daubert,” Tarry’s paper stands out and should be required reading for all lawyers who practice in the area of “health effects litigation.”

Tarry presented a brief summary of the litigation context for three publications that deserve to remembered and used as exemplars of important, sound, scientific publications that helped changed the course of litigations, as well as the scientific community’s appreciation of prior misleading contentions and publications. His three case studies grew out of the silicone-gel breast implant litigation, the latex allergy litigation, and the never-ending asbestos litigation.

1. Silicone

There are some glib characterizations of the silicone gel breast implant litigation as having had no evidentiary basis. A more careful assessment would allow that there was some evidence, much of it fraudulent and irrelevant. See, e.g., Hon. Jack B. Weinstein, “Preliminary Reflections on Administration of Complex Litigation” 2009 Cardozo L. Rev. de novo 1, 14 (2009) (describing plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in the silicone gel breast implant litigation as “charlatans” and the litigation as largely based upon fraud). The lawsuit industry worked primarily through so-called support groups, which in turn funded friendly, advocate physicians, who in turn testified for plaintiffs and their lawyers in personal injury cases.

When the defendants, such as Dow Corning, reacted by sponsoring serious epidemiologic analyses of the issue whether exposure to silicone gel was associated with specific autoimmune or connective tissue diseases, the plaintiffs’ bar mounted a conflict-of-interest witch hunt over industry funding.6 Ultimately, the source of funding became obviously irrelevant; the concordance between industry-funded and all high quality research on the litigation claims was undeniable. Obvious that is to court-appointed expert witnesses7, and to a blue-ribbon panel of experts in the Institute of Medicine8.

2. Latex Hypersensitivity

Tarry’s second example comes from the latex hypersensitivity litigation. Whatever evidentiary basis may have existed for isolated cases of latex allergy, the plaintiffs’ bar had taken and expanded into a full-scale mass tort. A defense expert witness, Dr. David Garabrant, a physician and an epidemiologist, published a meta-analysis and systematic review of the extant scientific evidence. David H. Garabrant & Sarah Schweitzer, “Epidemiology of latex sensitization and allergies in health care workers,” 110 J. Allergy & Clin. Immunol. S82 (2002). Garabrant’s formal, systematic review documented his litigation opinions that the risk of latex hypersensitivity was much lower than claimed and not the widespread hazard asserted by plaintiffs and their retained expert witnesses. Although Garabrant’s review did not totally end the litigation and public health debate about latex, it went a long way toward ending both.

3. Fraudulent Asbestos-Induced Radiography

I still recall, sitting at my desk, my secretary coming into my office to tell me excitedly that a recent crop of silicosis claimants had had previous asbestosis claims. When I asked how she knew, she showed me the computer print out for closed files for another client. Some of the names were so distinctive that the probability that there were two men with the same name was minuscule. When we obtained the closed files from storage, sure enough, the social security numbers matched, as did all other pertinent data, except that what had been called asbestosis previously was now called silicosis.

My secretary’s astute observation was mirrored in the judicial proceedings of Judge Janis Graham Jack, who presided over MDL 1553. Judge Jack, however, discovered something even more egregious: in some cases, a single physician interpreted a single chest radiograph as showing either asbestosis or silicosis, but not both. The two, alternative diagnoses were recorded in two, separate reports, for two different litigation cases against different defendants. This fraudulent practice, as well as others, are documented in Judge Jack’s extraordinary, thorough opinion. See In re Silica Prods. Liab. Litig., 398 F. Supp. 2d 563 (S.D. Tex. 2005)9.

The revelations of fraud in Judge Jack’s opinion were not entirely surprising. As everyone involved in asbestos litigation has always known, there is a disturbing degree of subjectivity in the interpretation of chest radiographs for pneumoconiosis. The federal government has long been aware of this problem, and through the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, has tried to subdue extreme subjectivity by creating a pneumoconiosis classification schemed for chest radiographs known as the “B-reader” system. Unfortunately, B-reader certification meant only that physicians could achieve inter-observer and intra-observer reproducibility of interpretations on the examination, but they were free to peddle extreme interpretations for litigation. Indeed, the B-reader certification system exacerbated the problem by creating a credential that was marketed to advance the credibility of some of the most biased, over-reading physicians in asbestos, silica, and coal pneumoconiosis litigation.

Tarry’s third example is a study conducted under the leadership of the late Joseph Gitlin, at Johns Hopkins Medical School. With funding from defendants and insurers, Dr. Joseph Gitlin conducted a concordance study of films that had been read by predatory radiologists and physicians as showing pneumoconiosis. The readers in his study found a very low level of positive films (less than 5%), despite their having been interpreted as showing pneumoconiosis by the litigation physicians. See Joseph N. Gitlin, Leroy L. Cook, Otha W. Linton, and Elizabeth Garrett-Mayer, “Comparison of ‘B’ Readers’ Interpretations of Chest Radiographs for Asbestos Related Changes,” 11 Acad. Radiol. 843 (2004); Marjorie Centofanti, “With thousands of asbestos workers demanding compensation for lung disease, a radiology researcher here finds that most cases lack merit,” Hopkins Medicine (2006). As with the Sokol hoax, the practitioners of post-modern medicine cried “foul,” and decried industry sponsorship, but the disparity between courtroom and hospital medicine was sufficient proof for most disinterested observers that there was a need to fix the litigation process.

Meretricious Mensuration10 – Manganese Litigation Example

Tarry’s examples are important reminders that corporate sponsorship, whether from the plaintiffs’ lawsuit industry or from manufacturing industry, does not necessarily render research tainted or unreliable. Although lawyers often confront exaggerated or false claims, and witness important, helpful correctives in the form of litigation-sponsored studies, the demands of legal practice and “the next case” typically prevent lawyers from documenting the scientific depredations and their rebuttals. Sadly, unlike litigations such as those involving Bendectin and silicone, the chronicles of fraud and exaggeration are mostly closed books in closed files in closed offices. These examples need the light of day and a fresh breeze to disseminate them widely in both the scientific and legal communities, so that all may have a healthy appreciation for the value of appropriately conducted studies generated in litigation contexts.

As I have intimated elsewhere, the welding fume litigation is a great example of specious claiming, which ultimately was unhorsed by publications inspired or funded by the defense. In the typical welding fume case, plaintiff claimed that exposure to manganese in welding fume caused Parkinson’s disease or manganism. Although manganism sounds as though it must be a disease that can be caused only by manganese, in the hands of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, manganism became whatever ailment plaintiffs claimed to have suffered. Circularity and perfect definitional precision were achieved by semantic fiat.

The Sanchez-Ramos Meta-Analysis

Manganese Madness was largely the creation of the Litigation Industry, under the dubious leadership of Dickie Scruggs & Company. Although the plaintiffs enjoyed a strong tail wind in the courtroom of an empathetic judge, they had difficulties in persuading juries and ultimately decamped from MDL 1535, in favor of more lucrative targets. In their last hurrah, however, plaintiffs retained a neurologist, Juan Sanchez-Ramos, who proffered a biased, invalid synthesis, which he billed as a meta-analysis11.

Sanchez-Ramos’s meta-analysis, such as it was, provoked professional disapproval and criticism from the defense expert witness, Dr. James Mortimer. Because the work product of Sanchez-Ramos was first disclosed in deposition, and not in his Rule 26 report, Dr. Mortimer undertook belatedly a proper meta-analysis.12 Even though Dr. Mortimer’s meta-analysis was done in response to the Sanchez-Ramos’s improper, tardy disclosure, the MDL judge ruled that Mortimer’s meta-analysis was too late. The effect, however, of Mortimer’s meta-analysis was clear in showing that welding had no positive association with Parkinson’s disease outcomes. The MDL 1535 resolved quickly thereafter, and with only slight encouragement, Dr. Mortimer published a further refined meta-analysis with two other leading neuro-epidemiologists. See James Mortimer, Amy Borenstein, and Lorene Nelson, “Associations of welding and manganese exposure with Parkinson disease: Review and meta-analysis,” 79 Neurology 1174 (2012). See also Manganese Meta-Analysis Further Undermines Reference Manual’s Toxicology Chapter(Oct. 15, 2012).

1 See, e.g., David Michaels & Celeste Monforton, “Manufacturing Uncertainty Contested Science and the Protection ofthe Public’s Health and Environment,” 95 Am. J. Pub. Health S39, S40 (2005); David Michaels & Celeste Monforton, “How Litigation Shapes the Scientific Literature: Asbestos and Disease Among Automobile Mechanics,” 15 J. L. & Policy 1137, 1165 (2007). Michaels had served as a plaintiffs’ paid expert witness in chemical exposure litigation, and Monforton had been employed by labor unions before these papers were published, without disclosure of conflicts.

2 Leslie Boden & David Ozonoff, “Litigation-Generated Science: Why Should We Care?” 116 Envt’l Health Persp. 121, 121 (2008) (arguing that systematic distortion of the scientific record will result from litigation-sponsored papers even with disclosure of conflicts of interest). Ozonoff had served as a hired plaintiffs’ expert witnesses on multiple occasion before the publication of this article, which was unadorned by disclosure.

3 Lennart Hardell, Martin J. Walker, Bo Walhjalt, Lee S. Friedman, and Elihu D. Richter, “Secret Ties to Industry and Conflicting Interest in Cancer Research,” 50 Am. J. Indus. Med. 227, 233 (2007) (criticizing “powerful industrial interests” for “undermining independent research on hazard and risk,” in a “red” journal that is controlled by allies of the lawsuit industry). Hardell was an expert witness for plaintiffs in mobile phone litigation in which plaintiffs claimed that non-ionizing radiation caused brain cancer. In federal litigation, Hardell was excluded as an expert witness when his proffered opinions were found to be scientifically unreliable. Newman v. Motorola, Inc., 218 F. Supp. 2d. 769, 777 (D. Md. 2002), aff’d, 78 Fed. Appx. 292 (4th Cir. 2003).

4 See David Egilman & Susanna Bohme, “IJOEH and the Critique of Bias,” 14 Internat’l J. Occup. & Envt’l Health 147, 148 (2008) (urging a Marxist critique that industry-sponsored research is necessarily motivated by profit considerations, and biased in favor of industry funders). Although Egilman usually gives a disclosure of his litigation activities, he typically characterizes those activities as having been for both plaintiffs and defendants, even though his testimonial work for defendants is minuscule.

5 Kenneth J. Rothman, “Conflict of Interest: The New McCarthyism in Science,” 269 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 2782 (1993).

6 See Charles H. Hennekens, I-Min Lee, Nancy R. Cook, Patricia R. Hebert, Elizabeth W. Karlson, Fran LaMotte; JoAnn E. Manson, and Julie E. Buring, “Self-reported Breast Implants and Connective- Tissue Diseases in Female Health Professionals: A Retrospective Cohort Study, 275 J. Am. Med. Ass’n 616-19 (1998) (analyzing established cohort for claimed associations, with funding from the National Institutes of Health and Dow Corning Corporation).

7 See Barbara Hulka, Betty Diamond, Nancy Kerkvliet & Peter Tugwell, “Silicone Breast Implants in Relation to Connective Tissue Diseases and Immunologic Dysfunction: A Report by a National Science Panel to the Hon. Sam Pointer Jr., MDL 926 (Nov. 30, 1998).” The court-appointed expert witnesses dedicated a great deal of their professional time to their task of evaluating the plaintiffs’ claims and the evidence. At the end of the process, they all published their litigation work in leading journals. See Barbara Hulka, Nancy Kerkvliet & Peter Tugwell, “Experience of a Scientific Panel Formed to Advise the Federal Judiciary on Silicone Breast Implants,” 342 New Engl. J. Med. 812 (2000); Esther C. Janowsky, Lawrence L. Kupper., and Barbara S. Hulka, “Meta-Analyses of the Relation between Silicone Breast Implants and the Risk of Connective-Tissue Diseases,” 342 New Engl. J. Med. 781 (2000); Peter Tugwell, George Wells, Joan Peterson, Vivian Welch, Jacqueline Page, Carolyn Davison, Jessie McGowan, David Ramroth, and Beverley Shea, “Do Silicone Breast Implants Cause Rheumatologic Disorders? A Systematic Review for a Court-Appointed National Science Panel,” 44 Arthritis & Rheumatism 2477 (2001).

8 Stuart Bondurant, Virginia Ernster, and Roger Herdman, eds., Safety of Silicone Breast Implants (Institute of Medicine) (Wash. D.C. 1999).

9 See also Lester Brickman, “On the Applicability of the Silica MDL Proceeding to Asbestos Litigation, 12 Conn. Insur. L. J. 289 (2006); Lester Brickman, “Disparities Between Asbestosis and Silicosis Claims Generated By Litigation Screenings and Clinical Studies,” 29 Cardozo L. Rev. 513 (2007).

10 This apt phraseology is due to the late Keith Morgan, whose wit, wisdom, and scientific acumen are greatly missed. See W. Keith C. Morgan, “Meretricious Mensuration,” 6 J. Eval. Clin. Practice 1 (2000).

11 See Deposition of Dr. Juan Sanchez-Ramos, in Street v. Lincoln Elec. Co., Case No. 1:06-cv-17026, 2011 WL 6008514 (N.D. Ohio May 17, 2011).

12 See Deposition of Dr. James Mortimer, in Street v. Lincoln Elec. Co., Case No. 1:06-cv-17026, 2011 WL 6008054 (N.D. Ohio June 29, 2011).

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