The Appeal of the Learned Treatise

In many states, the so-called “learned treatise” doctrine creates a pseudo-exception to the rule against hearsay. The contents of such a treatise can be read to the jury, not for its truth, but for the jury to consider against the credibility of an expert witness who denies the truth of the treatise. Supposedly, some lawyers can understand the distinction between the treatise’s content’s being admitted for its truth as opposed to the credibility of an expert witness who denies its truth. Under the Federal Rules of Evidence, and in some states, the language of the treatise may be considered for its truth as well, but the physical treatise may not be entered into evidence. There are several serious problems with both the state and the federal versions of the doctrine.1

Legal on-line media recently reported about an appeal in the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which heard arguments in a case that apparently turned on allegations of trial court error in refusing to allow learned treatise cross-examination of a plaintiff’s expert witness in Pledger v. Janssen Pharms., Inc., Phila. Cty. Ct. C.P., April Term 2012, No. 1997. See Matt Fair, “J&J Urges Pa. Appeals Court To Undo $2.5M Risperdal Verdict,” Law360 (Aug. 8, 2018) (reporting on defendants’ appeal in Pledger, Pa. Super. Ct. nos. 2088 EDA 2016 and 2187 EDA 2016).

In Pledger, plaintiff claimed that he developed gynecomastia after taking the defendants’ antipsychotic medication Risperdal. Defendants warned about gynecomastia, but the plaintiff claimed that the defendants had not accurately quantified the rate of gynecomastia in its package insert.

From Mr. Fair’s reporting, readers can discern only one ground for appeal, namely whether the “trial judge improperly barred it from using a scientific article to challenge an expert’s opinion that the antipsychotic drug Risperdal caused an adolescent boy to grow breasts.” Without having heard the full oral argument, or having read the briefs, the reader cannot tell whether there were other grounds. According to Mr. Fair, defense counsel contended that the trial court’s refusal to allow the learned treatise “had allowed the [plaintiff’s] expert’s opinion to go uncountered during cross-examination.” The argument, according to Mr. Fair, continued:

Instead of being able to confront the medical causation expert with an article that absolutely contradicted and undermined his opinion, the court instead admonished counsel in front of the jury and said, ‘In Pennsylvania, we don’t try cases by books, we try them by live witnesses’.”

The cross-examination at issue, on the other hand, related to whether gynecomastia could occur naturally in pre-pubertal boys. Plaintiffs’ expert witness, Dr. Mark Solomon, a plastic surgeon, opined that gynecomastia did not occur naturally, and the defense counsel attempted to confront him with a “learned treatise,” an article from the Journal of Endocrinology, which apparently stated to the contrary. Solomon, following the usual expert witness playbook, testified that he had not read the article (and why would a surgeon have read this endocrinology journal?) Defense counsel pressed, and according to Mr. Fair, the trial judge disallowed further inquiry on cross-examination. On appeal, the defendants argued that the trial judge violated the learned treatise rule that allows “scholarly articles to be used as evidence.” The plaintiffs contended, in defense of their judgment below, that the “learned treatise rule” does not allow “scholarly articles to simply be read verbatim into the record,” and that the defense had the chance to raise the article in the direct examination of its own expert witnesses.

The Law360 reporting is curious on several fronts. The assigned error would have only been in support of a challenge to the denial of a new trial, and in a Risperdal case, the defense would likely have made a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, as well as for new trial. Although the appellate briefs are not posted online, the defense’s post-trial motions in Pledger v. Janssen Pharms., Inc., Phila. Cty. Ct. C.P., April Term 2012, No. 1997, are available. See Defendants’ Motions for Post-Trial Relief Pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 227.1 (Mar. 6, 2015).

At least at the post-trial motion stage, the defendants clearly made both motions for judgment and for a new trial, as expected.

As for the preservation of the “learned treatise” issue, the entire assignment of error is described in a single paragraph (out of 116 paragraphs) in the post-trial motion, as follows:

27. Moreover, appearing to rely on Aldridge v. Edmunds, 750 A.2d 292 (Pa. 2000), the Court prevented Janssen from cross-examining Dr. Solomon with scientific authority that would undermine his position. See, e.g., Tr. 60:9-63:2 (p.m.). Aldridge, however, addresses the use of learned treatises in the direct examination, and it cites with approval the case of Cummings v. Borough of Nazareth, 242 A.2d 460, 466 (Pa. 1968) (plurality op.), which stated that “[i]t is entirely proper in examination and cross-examination for counsel to call the witness’s attention to published works on the matter which is the subject of the witness’s testimony.” Janssen should not have been so limited in its cross examination of Dr. Solomon.

In Cummings, the issue revolved around using manuals that contained industry standards for swimming pool construction, not the appropriateness of a learned scientific treatise. Cummings v. Nazareth Borough, 430 Pa. 255, 266-67 (Pa. 1968). The defense motion did not contend that the defense counsel had laid the appropriate foundation for the learned treatise to be used. In any event, the trial judge wrote an opinion on the post-trial motions, in which he did not appear to address the learned treatise issue at all. Pledger v Janssen Pharms, Inc., Phila. Ct. C.P., Op. sur post-trial motions (Aug. 10., 2017) (Djerassi, J.).

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has addressed the learned treatise exception to the rule against hearsay on several occasions. Perhaps the leading case described the law as:

well-settled that an expert witness may be cross-examined on the contents of a publication upon which he or she has relied in forming an opinion, and also with respect to any other publication which the expert acknowledges to be a standard work in the field. * * * In such cases, the publication or literature is not admitted for the truth of the matter asserted, but only to challenge the credibility of the witness’ opinion and the weight to be accorded thereto. * * * Learned writings which are offered to prove the truth of the matters therein are hearsay and may not properly be admitted into evidence for consideration by the jury.”

Majdic v. Cincinnati Mach. Co., 537 A. 2d 334, 621-22 (Pa. 1988) (internal citations omitted).

The Law360 report is difficult to assess. Perhaps the reporting by Mr. Fair was non-eponymously unfair? There is no discussion of how the defense had laid its foundation. Perhaps the defense had promised “to connect up” by establishing the foundation of the treatise through a defense expert witness. If there had been a foundation established, or promised to be established, the post-trial motion would have, in the normal course of events, cited the transcript for the proffer of a foundation. And why did Mr. Fair report on the oral argument as though the learned treatise issue was the only issue before the court? Inquiring minds want to know.

Judge Djerassi’s opinion on post-trial motions was perhaps more notable for embracing some testimony on statistical significance from Dr. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA, and now a frequent testifier for the lawsuit industry on regulatory matters. Judge Djerassi, in his opinion, stated:

This statistically significant measure is shown in Table 21 and was within a chi-square rate of .02, meaning within a 98% chance of certainty. In Dr. Kessler’s opinion this is a statistically significant finding. (N.T. 1/29/15, afternoon, pp. p. 27, ln. 2 10-11, p. 28, lns. 7-12).”

Post-trial opinion at p.11.2 Surely, the defense’s expert witnesses explained that the chi-square test did not yield a measure of certainty that the measured statistic was the correct value.

The trial court’s whopper was enough of a teaser to force me to track down Kessler’s testimony, which was posted to the internet by the plaintiffs’ law firm. Judge Djerassi’s erroneous interpretation of the p-value can indeed be traced to Kessler’s improvident testimony:

Q. And since 2003, what have you been doing at University of California San Francisco, sir?

A. Among other things, I am currently a professor of pediatrics, professor of epidemiology, professor of biostatistics.

Pledger Transcript, Thurs., Jan. 28, 2015, Vol. 3, Morning Session at 111:3-7.

A. What statistical significance means is it’s mathematical and scientific calculations, but when we say something is statistically significant, it’s unlikely to happen by chance. So that association is very likely to be real. If you redid this, general statistically significant says if I redid this and redid the analysis a hundred times, I would get the same result 95 of those times.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Morning Session at 80:18 – 81:2.

Q. So, sir, if we see on a study — and by the way, do the investigators of a study decided in their own criteria what is statistically significant? Do they assign what’s called a P value?

A. Exactly. So you can set it at 95, you can set it at 98, you can set it at 90. Generally, 95 significance level, for those of you who are mathematicians or scientifically inclined, it’s a P less than .05.

Q. As a general rule?

A. Yes.

Q. So if I see a number that is .0158, next to a dataset, that would mean that it occurs by chance less than two in 100. Correct?

A. Yes, that’s what the P value is saying.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Morning Session at 81:5-20

Q. … If someone — if something has a p-value of less than .02, the converse of it is that your 98 — .98, that would be 98 percent certain that the result is not by chance?

A. Yes. That’s a fair way of saying it.

Q. And if you have a p-value of .10, that means the converse of it is 90 percent, or 90 percent that it’s not by chance, correct?

A. Yes.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Afternoon Session at 7:14-22.

Q. Okay. And the last thing I’d like to ask about — sorry to keep going back and forth — is so if the jury saw a .0158, that’s of course less than .02, which means that it is 90 — almost 99 percent not by chance.

A. Yes. It’s statistically significant, as I would call it.

Pledger Transcript, Fri., Jan. 29, 2015, Vol. 4, Afternoon Session at 8:7-13.

2 See also Djerassi opinion at p.13 n. 13 (“P<0.02 is the chi—square rate reflecting a data outcome within a 98% chance of certainty.”).

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