Specious Claiming in Multi-District Litigation

In a recent article in an American Bar Association newsletter, Paul Rheingold notes with some concern that, in the last two years or so, there has been a rash of dismissals of entire multi-district litigations (MDLs) based upon plaintiffs’ failure to produce expert witnesses who can survive Rule 702 gatekeeping.[1]  Paul D. Rheingold, “Multidistrict Litigation Mass Terminations for Failure to Prove Causation,” A.B.A. Mass Tort Litig. Newsletter (April 24, 2019) [cited as Rheingold]. According to Rheingold, judges historically involved in the MDL processing of products liability cases did not grant summary judgments across the board. In other words, federal judges felt that if plaintiffs’ lawyers aggregated a sufficient number of cases, then their judicial responsibility was to push settlements or to remand the cases to the transferor courts for trial.

Missing from Rheingold’s account is the prevalent judicial view, in the early going of MDL of products cases, which held that judges lacked the authority to consider Rule 702 motions for all cases in the MDL. Gatekeeping motions were considered extreme and best avoided by pushing them off to the transferor courts upon remand. In MDL 926, involving silicone gel breast implants, the late Judge Sam Pointer, who was a member of the Rules Advisory Committee, expressed the view that Rule 702 gatekeeping was a trial court function, for the trial judge who received the case on remand from the MDL.[2] Judge Pointer’s view was a commonplace in the 1990s. As mass tort litigation moved into MDL “camps,” judges more frequently adopted a managerial rather than a judicial role, and exerted great pressure on the parties, and the defense in particular, to settle cases. These judges frequently expressed their view that the two sides so stridently disagreed on causation that the truth must be somewhere in between, and even with “a little causation,” the defendants should offer a little compensation. These litigation managers thus eschewed dispositive motion practice, or gave it short shrift.

Rheingold cites five recent MDL terminations based upon “Daubert failure,” and he acknowledges other MDLs collapsed because of federal pre-emption issues (Eliquis, Incretins, and possibly Fosamax), and that other fatally weak causal MDL claims settled for nominal compensation (NuvaRing). He omits other MDLs, such as In re Silica, in which an entire MDL collapsed because of prevalent fraud in the screening and diagnosing of silicosis claimants by plaintiffs’ counsel and their expert witnesses.[3] Also absent from his reckoning is the collapse of MDL cases against Celebrex[4] and Viagra[5].

Rheingold does concede that the recent across-the-board dismissals of MDLs were due to very weak causal claims.[6] He softens his judgment by suggesting that the weaknesses were apparent “at least in retrospect,” but the weaknesses were clearly discernible before litigation by the refusal of regulatory agencies, such as the FDA, to accept the litigation-driven causal claims. Rheingold also tries to assuage fellow plaintiffs’ counsel by suggesting that plaintiffs’ lawyers somehow fell prey to the pressure to file cases because of internet advertising and the encouragement of records collection and analysis firms. This attribution of naiveté to Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee (PSC) members does not ring true given the wealth and resources of lawyers on PSCs. Furthermore, the suggestion that PSC member may be newcomers to the MDL playing fields does not hold water given that most of the lawyers involved are “repeat players,” with substantial experience and financial incentives to sort out invalid expert witness opinions.[7]

Rheingold offers the wise counsel that plaintiffs’ lawyers “should take [their] time and investigate for [themselves] the potential proof available for causation and adequacy of labeling.” If history is any guide, his advice will not be followed.


[1] Rheingold cites five MDLs that were “Daubert failures” in the recent times: (1) In re Lipitor (Atorvastatin Calcium) Marketing, Sales Practices & Prods. Liab.  Litig. (MDL 2502), 892 F.3d 624 (4th Cir. 2018) (affirming Rule 702 dismissal of claims that atorvastatin use caused diabetes); (2) In re Mirena IUD Products Liab. Litig. (Mirena II, MDL 2767), 713 F. App’x 11 (2d Cir. 2017) (excluding expert witnesses’ opinion testimony that the intrauterine device caused embedment and perforation); (3) In re Mirena Ius Levonorgestrel-Related Prods. Liab. Litig., (Mirena II), 341 F. Supp. 3d 213 (S.D.N.Y. 2018) (affirming Rule 702 dismissal of claims that product caused pseudotumor cerebri); (4) In re Zoloft (Sertraline Hydrochloride) Prods. Liab. Litig., 858 F.3d 787 (3d Cir. 2017) (affirming MDL trial court’s Rule 702 exclusions of opinions that Zoloft is teratogenic); (5) Jones v. SmithKline Beecham, 652 F. App’x 848 (11th Cir. 2016) (affirming MDL court’s Rule 702 exclusions of expert witness opinions that denture adhesive creams caused metal deficiencies).

[2]  Not only was Judge Pointer a member of the Rules committee, he was the principal author of the 1993 Amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, as well as the editor-in-chief of the Federal Judicial Center’s Manual for Complex. At an ALI-ABA conference in 1997, Judge Pointer complained about the burden of gatekeeping. 3 Federal Discovery News 1 (Aug. 1997). He further opined that, under Rule 104(a), he could “look to decisions from the Southern District of New York and Eastern District of New York, where the same expert’s opinion has been offered and ruled upon by those judges. Their rulings are hearsay, but hearsay is acceptable. So I may use their rulings as a basis for my decision on whether to allow it or not.” Id. at 4. Even after Judge Jack Weinstein excluded plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ causal opinions in the silicone litigation, however, Judge Pointer avoided having to make an MDL-wide decision with the scope of one of the leading judges from the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. See In re Breast Implant Cases, 942 F. Supp. 958 (E. & S.D.N.Y. 1996). Judge Pointer repeated his anti-Daubert views three years later at a symposium on expert witness opinion testimony. See Sam C. Pointer, Jr., “Response to Edward J. Imwinkelried, the Taxonomy of Testimony Post-Kumho: Refocusing on the Bottom Lines of Reliability and Necessity,” 30 Cumberland L. Rev. 235 (2000).

[3]  In re Silica Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1553, 398 F. Supp. 2d 563 (S.D. Tex. 2005).

[4]  In re Bextra & Celebrex Marketing Sales Practices & Prod. Liab. Litig., 524 F. Supp. 2d 1166 (N.D. Calif. 2007) (excluding virtually all relevant expert witness testimony proffered to support claims that ordinary dosages of these COX-2 inhibitors caused cardiovascular events).

[5]  In re Viagra Products Liab. Litig., 572 F. Supp. 2d 1071 (D. Minn. 2008) (addressing claims that sildenafil causes vision loss from non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION)).

[6]  Rheingold (“Examining these five mass terminations, at least in retrospect[,] it is apparent that they were very weak on causation.”)

[7] See Elizabeth Chamblee Burch & Margaret S. Williams, “Repeat Players in Multidistrict Litigation: The Social Network,” 102 Cornell L. Rev. 1445 (2017); Margaret S. Williams, Emery G. Lee III & Catherine R. Borden, “Repeat Players in Federal Multidistrict Litigation,” 5 J. Tort L. 141, 149–60 (2014).

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