Sympathy for the Diablo — Peppermint Barry vs Spicy Seafood Pasta

Barry S. Levy is a physician, author, performer, and political activist.   Dr. Levy is a past president of the American Public Health Association, which conferred upon him its oldest and most prestigious award, the Sedgwick Memorial Medal, in 2005, for his outstanding achievements in public health.

Levy has been received other, less favorable notice from trial and appellate judges.  For instance, one federal judge found Levy engaged in a dubious enterprise to manufacture silicosis claims in Mississippi.  In re Silica Products Liability Litigation, 398 F. Supp. 2d 563, 611-16, 622 & n.100 (S.D. Texas 2005) (expressing particular disappointment with Dr. Barry Levy, who although not the worst offender of a bad lot of physicians, betrayed his “sterling credentials” in a questionable enterprise to manufacture diagnoses of silicosis for litigation). See also Schachtman, Silica Litigation: Screening, Scheming & Suing; Washington Legal Foundation Critical Legal Issues Working Paper Series No. 135 (Dec. 2005) (exploring the ethical and legal implications of the entrepreneurial litigation in which Levy and others were involved).

Unfortunately, In re Silica was not an isolated case.  See, e.g., Lofgren v. Motorola, Inc., 1998 WL 299925, No. CV 93-05521 (Ariz. Super. Ct., Maricopa Cty. June 1, 1998); Harman v. Lipari, N.J. L. Div. GLO-L-1375-95, Order of Nov. 3, 2000 (Tomasello, J.) (barring the use of Barry Levy in class action for medical monitoring damages); Castellow v. Chevron USA, 97 F.Supp. 2d 780, 793-95 (S.D. Tex. 2000); Knight v. Kirby Inland Marine Inc., 482 F.3d 347 (5th Cir. 2007); Watts v. Radiator Specialty Co., 990 So. 2d 143 (Miss. 2008); Aurand v. Norfolk So. Ry., 802 F.Supp.2d 950 (2011).

Now, once again, right here in River City, Dr. Levy has stepped out of bounds, and has been stripped of his mantle of testifying expert witness.  Mallozzi v. Ecosmart Technologies, Inc., 2013 WL 2415677, No. 11-CV-2884 (SJF)(ARL) (E.D.N.Y. May 31, 2013).

Over the course of a few minutes, plaintiff Velio Mallozi applied a “couple of ounces” of EcoSmart Organic Home Pest Control product to the foundation of his home, and a few squirts inside.  The product used, EcoSmart, contains plant oils, including one percent peppermint oil.  Id. at *1.  Mallozi did not experience any acute ill effects from his organic pest control efforts, and later went to dinner at an [unidentified] Italian restaurant, where he enjoyed a meal of “spaghetti with seafood.”  Id. at *10.  Perhaps seafood diablo, but Judge Feuerstein doesn’t say.

After the seafood spaghetti meal, Mallozi experienced a serious bout of laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR).  With sympathy for the diablo, Mallozi sued only EcoSmart, on the claim that his inhaling some spray, with its 1% peppermint oil, caused his LPR.

The Mallozis sought out B.S. Levy to support the claimed relationship.  Levy did not disappoint.  He rendered a report that asserted that the few minutes of inhaling minor amounts of peppermint oil causes relaxation of the lower esophogeal sphincter, and consequently LPR.  Id. at *5.  Levy relied upon four articles to support this claim, but Judge Feuerstein refused to accept the claim of support, at face value.  Her Honor reviewed each study, only to find that the exposures that were associated with relaxation of G.I. smooth muscle, for a short period of about 20 minutes, were trials of ingested peppermint oil, at significantly greater doses, over lengthy periods of observation.  Id. at *6.  The studies individually and collectively did not support Levy’s opinion.

One of the papers on Levy’s reliance list was a case report of a patient that suffered burns in her mouth from ingestion of pure peppermint oil. The court found that this case report, involving large doses of pure peppermint oil, with an outcome different from claimed by Mallozi, was irrelevant.  Id. Even if it were construed to offer some support, the anecdotal nature of the case report, lacking controls, renders the report an unreliable basis for a causal conclusion.  Id.

The trial court found that B.S. Levy’s analysis ignored the crucial roles of dose, duration, route of exposure, and the nature of plaintiff’s condition, LPR.   Id. at *8.  The court held that Levy’s opinion did not satisfy the requirements of Rule 702.  The plaintiffs failed to show that Levy’s opinion was supported sufficiently by facts or data, and they failed to show that his opinion was the product of applying reliable methods and principles.  Id.

Judge Feuerstein, having found that Levy’s opinion on general causation between EcoSmart and LPR was bereft of validity, could have stopped without addressing specific causation.  Such an approach would have had the virtue of judicial economy, but would have left out some delicious facts.  Levy purportedly used some sort of differential etiology to infer the cause of plaintiff’s LPR, but he omitted meaningful consideration of plaintiff’s having had a history of severe severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which predated his bout of LPR.  Indeed, plaintiff’s GERD had been so severe that he had been previously hospitalized for GERD after ingesting coffee and donuts.   Judge Feuerstein found Levy’s iterative disjunctive syllogism invalid for having failed to address the prior history of GERD, and the intervening role of the pasta and seafood dinner, in bringing on the LPR.  Id. at *10-11.

The Material Safety Data Sheet Ploy

Judge Feuerstein also demonstrated a careful understanding of the meaning and role of the Material Data Safety Sheet (MSDS).  EcoSmart’s MSDS contained a warning that some sensitive persons may experience dizziness or irritation of their nasal passages, and that ingestion may cause GI irritation.  Id. at *13.  Dr. Levy had embraced this MSDS language as an “admission,” but he did not analyze the sources of information or their validity.  The MSDS warning, as required by law, addresses the potential hazard of the ingredient, peppermint oil, irrespective of dose, concentration, or route of administration.  Id., citing Moore v. Ashland Chem. Inc., 151 F.3d 269, 278 (5th Cir.1998); Turner v. Iowa Fire Equip. Co., 229 F.3d 1202, 1209 (8th Cir.2000); Ingram v. Solkatronic Chem., Inc., No. 04–CV–0287, 2005 WL 3544244, at *6 (N.D.Okla. Dec. 28, 2005)).

The Treating Physician Echo

Apparently one of Mr. Mallozzi’s treating physicians joined the fray with echoes of Levy’s opinion.  Judge Feuerstein recognized that treating physicians are subject to the requirements of Rule 702, and that a me-too opinion deserved the me-too result.  Id. at *13, citing Davids v. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 857 F.Supp. 2d 267, 280 (E.D.N.Y. 2012).

Pasta and Peppermints

Bad sense, innocence, cripplin’ my mind.
Old medical records I just can’t find.
Too much Cajun spice, and I forgot about GERD.
Incense and peppermints, haven’t you heard?
But who cares, it’s just litigation.
Lots to win, but nothing to lose.

Incense and peppermints, meaningless claims.
Turn on, drop in, toxins are all the same

Throw your pride to the side; it’s what you must do.

Daubert is politics; 702.
A yardstick for lunatics, your point of view.
The court cares what games you choose.
You have lots to win, but nothing to lose

(adapted from, and with apologies to, Strawberry Alarm Clock)

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