The Integrity of Facts in Judicial Decisions

One of the usual tasks of an appellate judge’s law clerk is to read the record – the entire record.  In my clerking experience, the law clerk who had the assignment for a case in which the judge was writing an opinion was responsible for knowing every detail of the record.  The judge believed that fidelity to the factual record was an absolute.

Not so for other appellate judges.  See, e.g., Jacoby, “Judicial Opinions as “Minefields of Misinformation: Antecedents, Consequences and Remedies,” University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers Paper 35 (N.Y. 2006).

Some important cases turn on facts misunderstood or misrepresented by appellate courts.  A few days ago, Kyle Graham blogged about a startling discovery in the Summers v. Tice case, which is covered in every first-year torts class.  Kyle Graham, “Summers v. Tice: The Rest of the Story” (Dec. 1, 2011).

Summers v. Tice, 33 Cal.2d 80, 199 P.2d 1 (1948), is a leading California tort law case that shifted the burden of proof on causation to the two defendants.  The rationale for shifting the burden was the gross negligence of both defendants, and the plaintiff’s faultless inability to identify which of the two defendants, Simonson or Tice, was responsible for shooting the plaintiff with a shotgun in their ill-fated quail hunt.

Professor Graham did something unusual:  he actually read the record of the bench trial.  It turns out that the facts were different from, and much more interesting than, those presented by the California Supreme Court.  Simonson admitted shooting Summers, and implicated Tice.  Tice denied shooting.  The trial judge resolved credibility issue against Tice, although it seems to have been a close issue.

More important, Tice testified that his gun was loaded with No. 6 shot, whereas Simonson had used No. 7.5 shot.  Summers admitted that the pellets had been given to him after his medical treatment, but he could not find them at the time of trial.  Had he kept the pellets, Summers would have been able to distinguish between the gunfeasors.

Spoliation anyone?  Missing evidence?  Adverse inference?

Even if the trial judge was unimpressed with Tice’s denial of having discharged his shotgun, Tice’s lack of credibility could not turn into affirmative evidence that he had used number 7.5 shot, as had Simonson.  This was a contested issue, on which the plaintiff could have adduced evidence.  The plaintiff’s failure to do so was the result of his own post-accident carelessness (or worse) in not keeping important evidence.  Tice’s testimony on the size of the shot in his gun was undisputed, even if the trial court thought that he was not a credible witness.

Thus, on the real facts, the shifting of the burden of proof, on the rationale that the plaintiff was without fault for his inability to produce evidence against Summers or Tice, was quite unjustified.  The plaintiff was culpable for the failure of proof, and there was no affirmative evidence that the two potential causative agents were indistinguishable. The defendants were not in a better position than the plaintiff to identify who had been the cause of plaintiff’s wounds.

The trial court’s credibility assessment of Tice, for having denied a role in shooting, did not turn the absence of evidence into affirmative evidence that both defendants used the same size pellets in their shotguns.  What makes for a great law school professor’s hypothetical was the result of an obviously fallacious inference, and a factual fabrication, borne of sloppy judicial decision making.

We can see a similar scenario play out in the New Jersey decisions that reversed directed verdicts in asbestos colorectal cancer cases.  Landrigan v. Celotex Corp., 127 NJ. 404, 605 A2d 1079 (1992); Caterinicchio v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 127 NJ. 428, 605 A.2d 1092 (1992). In both cases, the trial courts directed verdicts, assuming arguenda that asbestos can cause colorectal cancer (a dubious proposition), on the ground that the low relative risk cited by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses (about 1.5) was factually insufficient to support a verdict for plaintiffs on specific causation.  Indeed, the relative risk suggested that the odds were about 2 to 1 in defendants’ favor that the plaintiffs’ colorectal cancers were not caused by asbestos.

The intermediate appellate courts affirmed the directed verdicts, but the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed and remanded both judgments on curious grounds.  According to the Court, there were other probative factors that the juries could have used to make out specific causation:

“Dr. Wagoner did not rely exclusively on epidemiological studies in addressing that issue.   In addition to relying on such studies, he, like Dr. Sokolowski, reviewed specific evidence about decedent’s medical and occupational histories.   Both witnesses also excluded certain known risk factors for colon cancer, such as excessive alcohol consumption, a high-fat diet, and a positive family history.   From statistical population studies to the conclusion of causation in an individual, however, is a broad leap, particularly for a witness whose training, unlike that of a physician, is oriented toward the study of groups and not of individuals.   Nonetheless, proof of causation in toxic-tort cases depends largely on inferences derived from statistics about groups.”

Landrigan, 127 N.J. at 422.  The NJ Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs’ failure to show a relative risk in excess of 2.0 was not fatal to their cases, when there was other evidence that the jury could consider, in addition to the relative risks.

Well, actually there was no expert witness support for the assertion.  Completely absent from the evidentiary displays in both the Landrigan and Caterinicchio cases was any evidence, apart from plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ hand waving, that a higher relative risk existed among the subcohort of asbestos insulators who had had heavier exposure or who had concomitant pulmonary disease.  There was no evidence that those exposed workers who lacked “excessive alcohol consumption, a high-fat diet, and a positive family history” had any increase risk.  Indeed, the Selikoff study relied upon extensively by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses failed to make any adjustment for the noted risk factors, as well as for the greater prevalence of smoking histories among the insulators than among the unexposed comparator population.  The Court turned the absence of evidence into the factual predicate for its holding that defendants were not entitled to judgment.

Now that’s judicial activism.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments are closed.