The Knowledge Remedy Proposal

Alexandra D. Lahav is the Ellen Ash Peters Professor of Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law. This year’s symposium issue of the Texas Law Review has published Professor Lahav’s article, “The Knowledge Remedy,” which calls for the imposition of a duty to conduct studies by defendants, to provide evidence relevant to plaintiffs’ product liability claims. Alexandra D. Lahav, “The Knowledge Remedy,” 98 Texas L. Rev. 1361 (2020) [cited as Lahav].

Professor Lahav’s advocated reform is based upon the premises that (1) the requisite studies needed for causal assessment “are too costly for plaintiffs to fund,” (2) are not done by manufacturers, or (3) are not done in good faith, and (4) are not conducted or adequately funded by government. Lahav believes that plaintiffs are injured by exposure to chemicals but they cannot establish causation in court because the defendant “hid its head in the sand,” or worse, “engaged in misconduct to prevent or hide research into its products.”[1] Lahav thus argues that when defendants have been found to have engaged in misconduct, courts should order them to fund studies into risks posed by their products.

Lahav’s claims are either empty or non-factual. The suggestion that plaintiffs are injured by products but cannot “prove” causation begs the question how she knows that these people were injured by the products at issue. In law professors’ language, Lahav has committed the fallacy of petitio principia.

Lahav’s poor-mouthing on behalf of claimants is factually unsupported in this article. Lahav tells us that:

“studies are too expensive for individuals or even groups to fund.”

This is assertion is never backed up with any data or evidence about the expense involved. Case-control studies for rare outcomes suffer from potential threats to their validity, but they can be assembled relatively quickly and inexpensively. Perhaps a more dramatic refutation of Lahav’s assertions come from the cohort studies done in administrative databases, such as the national healthcare databases of Denmark or Sweden, or the Veterans’ Administration database in the United States. These studies involve querying existing databases for the exposures and outcomes of interest, with appropriate controls; such studies are frequently of as high quality and validity as can be had in observational analytical epidemiology.

There are, of course, examples of corporate defendants’ misconduct in sponsoring or conducting studies. There is also evidence of misconduct in plaintiffs’ sponsorship of studies,[2] and outright fraud.[3] And certainly there is evidence of misconduct or misdirection in governmentally funded and sponsored research, sometimes done in cahoots with plaintiffs’ counsel.[4]

Perhaps more important for the intended audience of the Texas Law Review, Lahav’s assertion is demonstrably false. Plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ counsel, and plaintiffs’ advocacy groups have funded studies, often surreptitiously, in many litigations, including those involving claims of harm from Bair Hugger, asbestos, silicone gel breast implants, welding fume, Zofran, isotretinoin, and others. Lahav’s repetition of the claim does not make it true.[5] Plaintiffs and their proxies, including scientific advocates, can and do conduct studies, very much with a view toward supporting litigation claims. Mass tort litigation is a big business, often run by lawyer oligarchs of the plaintiffs’ bar. Ignorantia facti is not an excuse for someone who argues for a radical re-ordering of an already fragile litigation system.

Lahav also complains that studies take so long that the statute of limitations will run on the injury claims before the scientific studies can be completed. There is a germ of truth in this complaint, but the issue could be resolved with minor procedural modifications. Plaintiffs could be allowed a procedure to propound a simple interrogatory to manufacturing firms to ask whether they believe that causality exists between their product and a specific kind of harm, or whether a claimant should reasonably know that such causality exists to warrant pursuing a legal claim. If the manufacturers answer in the negative, then the firms would not be able to assert a limitations defense for any injury that arose on or before the date of its answer. Perhaps the court could allow the matter to stay on its docket and require that the defendant answer the question annually. Plaintiffs and their proxies would be able to sponsor studies necessary to support their claims, and putative defendants would be on notice that such studies are underway.

Without any serious consideration of the extant regulations, Lahav even extends her claims of inadequate testing and lax regulation to pharmaceutical products, which are subject to extensive requirements of showing safety and efficacy, both before and after approval for marketing. Lahav’s advocacy ignores that an individual epidemiologic study rarely “demonstrates” causation, and many such studies are required before the scientific community can accept the causal hypothesis as “disproven.” Lahav’s knowledge remedy is mostly an ignorance ruse.

[1]  Lahav at 1361.

[2]  For a recent, egregious example, see In re Zofran Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1:15-md-2657-FDS, Order on Defendant’s Motion to De-Designate Certain Documents as Confidential Under the Protective Order (D.Mass. Apr. 1, 2020) (uncovering dark data and dark money behind April Zambelli‐Weiner, Christina Via, Matt Yuen, Daniel Weiner, and Russell S. Kirby, “First Trimester Pregnancy Exposure to Ondansetron and Risk of Structural Birth Defects,” 83 Reproductive Toxicology 14 (2019)). See also In re Zofran (Ondansetron) Prod. Liab. Litig., 392 F. Supp. 3d 179, 182-84 (D. Mass. 2019) (MDL 2657);  “April Fool – Zambelli-Weiner Must Disclose” (April 2, 2020); “Litigation Science – In re Zambelli-Weiner” (April 8, 2019); “Mass Torts Made Less Bad – The Zambelli-Weiner Affair in the Zofran MDL” (July 30, 2019). See also Nate Raymond, “GSK accuses Zofran plaintiffs’ law firms of funding academic study,” Reuters (Mar. 5, 2019).

[3]  See Hon. Jack B. Weinstein, “Preliminary Reflections on Administration of Complex Litigation” 2009 Cardozo L. Rev. de novo 1, 14 (2009) (“[t]he breast implant litigation was largely based on a litigation fraud. …  Claims—supported by medical charlatans—that enormous damages to women’s systems resulted could not be supported.”) (emphasis added).

[4]  See, e.g., Robert M. Park, Paul A. Schulte, Joseph D. Bowman, James T. Walker, Stephen C. Bondy, Michael G. Yost, Jennifer A. Touchstone, and Mustafa Dosemeci, “Potential Occupational Risks for Neurodegenerative Diseases,” 48 Am. J. Ind. Med. 63, 65 (2005).

[5]  Lahav at 1369-70.

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