The Capture of the Public Health Community by the Litigation Industry

The American Public Health Association (APHA) is a significant organization ostensibly committed to the improvement of public health. Among its many activities, the APHA publishes a journal, the American Journal of Public Health.  Here is how the APHA describes itself and its activities to advance public health:

“The American Public Health Association champions the health of all people and all communities. We strengthen the profession of public health, share the latest research and information, promote best practices and advocate for public health issues and policies grounded in research. We are the only organization that combines a 140-plus year perspective, a broad-based member community and the ability to influence federal policy to improve the public’s health.”

How could anyone be against the APHA?

A dubious development in the APHA’s history was its evolution as a tool of the litigation industry.  In 2004, after several years of lobbying, agents of the litigation industry managed to push a policy statement past the Association’s leadership, to condemn the requirement of evidence-based reasoning in federal courts in the United States.

The litigation industry’s victory is memorialized in the “Final Minutes of Meetings of the APHA Governing Council, ” held in November 2004, when the industry’s attack on evidence-based science and data transparency, known as “Policy Number: 2004-11 Threats to Public Health Science,” was adopted as an APHA policy statement.

“2004-11” was published in the American Journal of Public Health and is still available on the APHA website, as Policy Number: 2004-11 Threats to Public Health Science.  I have excerpted contentions and recommendations from the APHA policy, in the left column of the chart, below.  My comments are on the right.


APHA Policy


“Acknowledging that within science, absolute proof and perfect information are rare;” Notice the false dichotomy between absolute proof and perfect information and the entire remaining spectrum of scientific information.  This dichotomization has been part of the litigation strategy of passing off hypotheses, preliminary conclusions, unreplicated findings, etc., as though they were acceptable bases for causal conclusions.
“Recognizing that special interests have exploited the nature of science, specifically scientific uncertainty, to delay protective legal and/or regulatory action;” Notice the asymmetry of the accusations; the APHA apparently has no concern for “special interests” that exploit the nature of science by passing off hypotheses as conclusions, and seek to accelerate protective legal and regulatory action by manufacturing faux scientific conclusions.
“Acknowledging that some public health decisions must be made in the absence of perfect scientific information;” “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.” But isn’t the good also the enemy of the shabby, dodgy, and fraudulent? Notice again the false dichotomy between “perfect” information and everything else, as though our failing to achieve the perfect opens the door to the worst. True, of course, that sometimes action is needed on incomplete records, but such action is rarely needed for compensation claims.
“Recognizing that special interests, under the guise of a call for “sound science” have sponsored and promoted changes in public policy that have weakened and continue to threaten public health protections;” If the call for sound science cannot be sustained, then this rhetorical gambit will blowback hard on those “special interests.”  Why are these putative scientists, at APHA, so afraid of sound science?
“Recognizing that special interests have challenged highly regarded public health research and researchers, and inappropriately characterized established scientific methods as ‘junk science’;” Mon Dieu!  How cheeky of those special interests.  See the discussion of Dr. Barry S. Levy, below.
“Recognizing that the Daubert decision has propagated misinterpretations and misapplications of scientific principles relied upon throughout the public health sciences, such as insisting that any epidemiologic study that is relied on to support causation demonstrate a twofold increase in risk as well as a reliance on significance testing to determine which scientific findings are to be allowed as evidence;” This contention misunderstands the basic nature of evidence law. Studies, whether they have statistically significant results, or not, are rarely admissible in evidence.  What is admissible, or not, are opinions of duly qualified expert witnesses, who explain and justify the epistemic warrant for their opinions.  With respect to general causation opinions, expert witnesses will often have to show that they have properly ruled out chance, bias, and confounding to arrive at a causal conclusions.  Significance testing can be abused, in both directions, but the APHA ignores the need for having some quantitative approach to assess random variability. As for relative risks greater than two, the APHA is correct that general causation may often be found with small relative risks, but the attribution of causation in an individual claimant often can be made only on probabilistic inferences that will require relative risks greater than two, or even larger.
“Recognizing that special interests are engaged in a campaign to extend Daubert’s reach to those states that have not embraced prescriptive definitions of scientific reliability.” So the APHA makes common cause with those “special interests,” which would abolish all limits on the admissibility of expert witness opinions, and all normative assessments of scientific research.  This position ignores the prescriptive aspect of methodology, and the nature of epistemic warrant in a methodology.


What follows from these contentions? 

“Therefore, APHA:”

“Opposes legislation or administrative policies that attempt to define the characteristics of valid public health science, or dictate prescriptive scientific methodologies; and” Admittedly, defining good science is very difficult, but the law often works like science as defining health as the absence of disease.  There are obviously some well-known pathologies of scientific method, and it hardly seems extravagant to urge courts to avoid flaws, fallacies, and fraud.  
“Supports the efforts of other scientific organizations to promote the government’s ability to utilize the best available science to protect the public’s health; and” Of course, sometimes the “best” available science is rather shabby. 
“Urges friend of the court briefs that address the problem inherent in the adoption of Daubert and Daubert-like court rulings, the application of Daubert in regulatory proceedings, and when judges misinterpret scientific evidence in their implementation of the Daubert ruling.” We do not see many APHA-types deploring jury verdicts that offend scientific sensibilities; and so the APHA’s urging here seems again rather one-sided and partisan.  The fact, however, that judges’ misinterpretations of scientific evidence can be criticized publicly is one of the key differences that separates judicial gatekeeping from the black box of jury determinations.

In 2005, the APHA published, in its journal, APJH, a special supplement, “Scientific Evidence and Public Policy,” with

“academic analysis of the conflicts arising in the use of science in regulatory, civil and criminal proceedings. This special issue examines how recent developments in the legal and regulatory arenas have emboldened corporations involved in civil litigation and regulatory proceedings to accuse adversaries of practicing ‘junk science’.”

Apparently, the APHA was not, and is not, concerned with the emboldening the  litigation industry and its efforts to subvert the truth-finding function of civil litigation. 

David Michaels served as the guest editor for the APJH supplement.  Michaels repeated many of the contentions of the 2004 Policy Statement, above, and he added some new ones of his own:

  • Judges are no better than juries in assessing scientific evidence.
  • Scientists evaluate all the evidence by applying a “weight-of-the-evidence” approach.
  • Uncertainty in science is normal and does not mean the underlying science flawed.

David Michaels, “Editorial: Scientific Evidence and Public Policy,” 95 (Supp. 1) Am. J. Pub. Health S5 (2005). These are all serious half truths.  Many judges are quite astute when evaluating scientific evidence, but even the lowest aptitude judges must give articulated reasons for their decisions, which opens up a public process of comment, correction, and criticism.  Juries vote in secret, without having to explain or justify their verdicts.  Scientists, metaphorically speaking, weigh evidence, as do non-scientists, but this opaque metaphor hardly explicates the process of how scientists arrive at conclusions about causal relationships.  And uncertainty is a condition of many scientific fields, but the error lies in trying to pass off tentative, uncertain, preliminary observations and findings as knowledge.

Michaels sees the development of judicial gatekeeping as favoring “the powerful,” and hurting “the weak and vulnerable.” Id. Michaels did not seem to mind if his editorial recommendations favored the litigation industry and hurt the truth.  He now heads up the Occupational Health & Safety Administration.

Here is how Michaels and the APHA described the funding for the AJPH supplement:

“Support for the supplement was provided through unrestricted funding to the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) from the Common Benefit Litigation Trust, a fund established by court order in the Silicone Gel Breast Implant Products Liability Litigation. SKAPP is an initiative of scholars that examines the application of scientific evidence in the legal and regulatory arenas. SKAPP is based at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services; more information is available at”

See APHA website <>, last visited on February 10, 2014.

This pseudo-disclosure is perhaps the most fraudulent aspect of the entire APHA enterprise.  The Common Benefit Trust was a fund that was held back from settlement monies paid by defendants in the silicone gel breast implant litigation.  The Trust was nothing more than the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee’s war chest, from which it could advance litigation goals within MDL 926 (silicone breast implant cases).  Ironically, the appointment of neutral, court-appointed expert witnesses led to the triumph of “sound science,” and the collapse of the plaintiffs’ counsel house of cards.  Rather than returning their litigation expense fund to the claimants, the plaintiffs’ counsel found a more worthwhile recipient — SKAPP — to advance their litigation goals, if not for MDL 926, then for the next MDL, and the next, and the next….  See SKAPP A LOT; and Conflicted Public Interest Groups.

* * * * * * *

The same year that the APHA published the SKAPP-inspired and funded challenges to Federal Rules of Evidence 702, the APHA awarded its most prestigious award, the Sedgwick Medal, to a physician whose opinions had routinely been found to be unreliable and irrelevant in various litigation industry efforts. “Barry Levy Wins APHA’s Oldest and Most Prestigious Award, the Sedgwick Medal.” (December 11, 2005).

Perhaps the APHA had Levy in mind when it complained that “special interests have challenged highly regarded public health … researchers….”  Dr. Levy seems to have less favorable accolades 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).[1] Interestingly, Judge Jack’s opinion was not mentioned in the APHA press release for Dr. Levy’s award ceremony.

[1] See 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). See also 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); Mallozzi v. Ecosmart Technologies, Inc., 2013 WL 2415677, No. 11-CV-2884 (SJF)(ARL) (E.D.N.Y. May 31, 2013).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.