Wells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. Reconsidered – Part 6

In 1984, before Judge Shoob gave his verdict in the Wells case, another firm filed a birth defects case against Ortho for failure to warn in connection with its non-ionic surfactant spermicides, in the same federal district court, the Northern District of Georgia. The mother in Smith used Ortho’s product about the same time as the mother in Wells (in 1980).  The case was assigned to Judge Shoob, who recused himself.  Smith v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 770 F. Supp. 1561, 1562 n.1 (N.D. Ga. 1991) (no reasons for the recusal provided).  The Smith case was reassigned to Judge Horace Ward, who entertained Ortho’s motion for summary judgment in July 1988.  Two and one-half years later, Judge Ward granted summary judgment to Ortho on grounds that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ testimony was not based upon the type of data reasonably relied upon by experts in the field, and was thus inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 703. 770 F. Supp. at 1681.

A prevalent interpretation of the split between Wells and Smith is that the scientific evidence developed with new studies, and that the scientific community’s views matured in the five years between the two district court opinions. The discussion in Modern Scientific Evidence is typical:

“As epidemiological evidence develops over time, courts may change their view as to whether testimony based on other evidence is admissible. In this regard it is worth comparing Wells v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 788 F.2d 741 (11th Cir. 1986), with Smith v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 770 F. Supp. 1561 (N.D. Ga. 1991). Both involve allegations that the use of spermicide caused a birth defect. At the time of the Wells case there was limited epidemiological evidence and this type of claim was relatively novel.  In a bench trial the court found for the plaintiff.  *** The Smith court, writing five years later, noted that, ‘The issue of causation with respect to spermicide and birth defects has been extensively researched since the Wells decision.’ Smith v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 770 F. Supp. 1561, 1563 (N.D. Ga. 1991).”

1 David L. Faigman, Michael J. Saks, Joseph Sanders, and Edward K. Cheng, Modern Scientific Evidence:  The Law and Science of Expert Testimony, “Chapter 23 – Epidemiology,” § 23:4, at 213 n.12 (West 2011) (internal citations omitted).

Although Judge Ward was being charitable to his judicial colleague, this attempt to reconcile Wells and Smith does a disservice to Judge Ward’s hard work in Smith, and Judge Shoob’s errors in Wells.

Even a casual reading of Smith and Wells reveals that the injuries were completely differently.  Plaintiff Crystal Smith was born with a chromosomal defect known as Trisomy-18; Plaintiff Katie Wells was born with limb reduction deficits.   Some studies relevant to one injury had no information about the other.  Other studies, which addressed both injuries, yielded different results for the different injuries.  Although some additional studies were available to Judge Ward in 1988, this difference is hardly the compelling difference between the two cases.

Perhaps the most important difference between the cases is that in Smith, the biologically plausibility that spermicides could cause a Trisomy-18 was completely absent.  The chromosomal defect arises from a meiotic disjunction, an error in meiosis that is part of the process in which germ cells are formed.  Simply put, spermicides arrive on the scene too late to cause a Trisomy-18.  Notwithstanding the profound differences between the injuries involved in Wells and Smith, the Smith plaintiffs sought the application of collateral estoppel.  Judge Ward refused this motion, on the basis of the factual differences in the cases, as well as the availability of new evidence.  770 F.Supp. at 1562.

The difference in injuries, however, was not the only important difference between these two cases.  Wells was actually tried, apparently without any challenge under Frye, or Rules 702 or 703, to the admissibility of expert witness testimony.  There is little to no discussion of scientific validity of studies, or analysis of the requisites for evaluating associations for causality.  It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Judge Shoob decided the Wells case on the basis of superficial appearances, and that he frequently ignored validity concerns in drawing invidious distinctions between plaintiffs’ and defendant’s expert witnesses and their “credibility.”  Smith, on the other hand, was never tried.  Judge Ward entertained and granted dispositive motions for summary judgment, on grounds that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ testimony was inadmissible. Legally, the cases are light years apart.

In Smith, Judge Ward evaluated the same FDA reports and decisions seen by Judge Shoob.  Judge Ward did not, however, dismiss these agency materials simply because one or two of dozens of independent scientists involved had some fleeting connection with industry. 770 F.Supp. at 1563-64.

Judge Ward engaged with the structure and bases of the expert witnesses’ opinions, under Rules 702 and 703.  The Smith case thus turned on whether expert witness opinions were admissible, an issue not considered or discussed in Wells.  As was often the case before the Supreme Court decided Daubert in 1993, Judge Ward paid little attention to Rule 702’s requirement of helpfulness or knowledge.  The court’s 702 analysis was limited to qualifications.  Id. at 1566-67.  The qualifications of the plaintiffs’ witnesses were rather marginal.  They relied upon genetic and epidemiologic studies, but they had little training or experience in these disciplines. Finding the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses to meet the low threshold for qualification to offer an opinion in court, Judge Ward focused on Rule 703’s requirement that expert witnesses reasonably rely upon facts and data that are not otherwise admissible.

The trial court in Smith struggled with how it should analyze the underpinnings of plaintiffs’ witnesses’ proffered testimony.  The court acknowledged that conflicts between expert witnesses typically raise questions of weight, not admissibility.  Id. at 1569.  Ortho had, however, challenged plaintiffs’ witnesses for having given opinions that lacked a “sound underlying methodology.” Id.  The trial court found at least one Fifth Circuit case that suggested that Rule 703 requires trial courts to evaluate the reliability of expert witnesses’ sources.  Id. (citing Soden v. Freightliner Corp., 714 F.2d 498, 505 (5th Cir. 1983). Elsewhere, the trial court also found precedent from Judge Weinstein’s opinion in Agent Orange, as well as Court of Appeals decisions involving Bendectin, all of which turned to Rule 703 as the legal basis for reviewing, and in some cases limiting or excluding expert witness opinion testimony.  Id.

The defendant’s argument under Rule 703 was strained; Ortho argued that the plaintiffs’

“experts’ selection and use of the epidemiological data is faulty and thus provides an insufficient basis upon which experts in the field of diagnosing the source of birth defects normally form their opinions. The defendant also contends that the plaintiffs’ experts’ data on genetics is not of the kind reasonably relied upon by experts in field of determining causation of birth defects.”

Id. at 1572.  Nothing in Rule 703 addresses the completeness or thoroughness of expert witnesses in their consideration of facts and data; nor does Rule 703 address the sufficiency of data or the validity vel non of inferences drawn from facts and data considered.  Nonetheless, the trial court in Smith took Rule 703 as its legal basis for exploring the epistemic warrant for plaintiffs’ witnesses’ causation opinions.

Although plaintiffs’ expert witnesses stated that they had relied upon epidemiologic studies and method, the trial court in Smith went beyond their asseverations.  The Smith trial court explored the credibility of these witnesses at a whole other level.  The court reviewed and discussed the basic structure of epidemiologic studies, and noted that the objective of such studies is to provide a statistical analysis:

“The objective of both case-control and cohort studies is to determine whether the difference observed in the two groups, if any, is ‘statistically significant’, (that is whether the difference found in the particular study did not occur by chance alone).40 However, statistical methods alone, or the finding of a statistically significant association in one study, do not establish a causal relationship.41 As one authority states:

‘Statistical methods alone cannot establish proof of a causal relationship in an association’.42

As a result, once a statistical association is found in an epidemiological study, that data must then be evaluated in a systematic manner to determine causation. If such an association is present, then the researcher looks for ‘bias’ in the study.  Bias refers to the existence of factors in the design of a study or in the manner in which the study was carried out which might distort the result.43

If a statistically significant association is found and there is no apparent ‘bias’, an inference is created that there may be a cause-and-effect relationship between the agent and the medical effect. To confirm or rebut that inference, an epidemiologist must apply five criteria in making judgments as to whether the associations found reflect a cause-and-effect relationship.44 The five criteria are:

1. The consistency of the association;

2. The strength of the association;

3. The specificity of the association;

4. The temporal relationship of the association; and,

5. The coherence of the association.

Assuming there is some statistical association, it is these five criteria that provide the generally accepted method of establishing causation between drugs or chemicals and birth defects.45

The Smith court acknowledged that there were differences of opinion in weighting these five factors, but that some of them were very important to drawing a reliable inference of causality.  Id. at 1775.

A major paradigm shift thus separates Wells and Smith.  The trial court in Wells contented itself with superficial and subjective indicia of witnesses’ personal credibility; the trial in Smith delved into the methodology of drawing an appropriate scientific conclusion about causation.  Telling was the Smith court’s citation to Moultrie v. Martin, 690 F.2d 1078, 1082 (4th Cir. 1982) (“In borrowing from another discipline. a litigant cannot be selective in which principles are applied.”).  770 F.Supp. at 1575 & n.45.  Gone is the Wells retreat from engagement with science, and the dodge that the court must make a legal, not a scientific decision.

Applying the relevant principles, the Smith court found that the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses had deviated from the scientific standards of reasoning and analysis:

“It is apparent to the court that the testimony of Doctors Bussey and Holbrook is insufficiently grounded in any reliable evidence. * * * The conclusions Doctors Bussey and Holbrook reach are also insufficient as a basis for a finding of causality because they fail to consider critical information, such as the most relevant epidemiologic studies and the other possible causes of disease.81

The court finds that the opinions of plaintiffs’ experts are not based upon the type of data reasonably relied upon by experts in determining the cause of birth defects. Experts in determining birth defects rely upon a consensus in genetic or epidemiological investigations or specific generally accepted studies in these fields. While a consensus in genetics or epidemiology is not a prerequisite to a finding of causation in any and all birth defect cases, Rule 703 requires some reliable evidence for the basis of an expert’s opinion.

Experts in determining birth defects also utilize methodologies and protocols not followed by plaintiffs’ experts. Without a well-founded methodology, opinions which run contrary to the consensus of the scientific community and are not supported by any reliable data are necessarily speculative and lacking in the type of foundation necessary to be admissible.

For the foregoing reasons, the court finds that plaintiffs have failed to produce admissible evidence sufficient to show that defendant’s product caused Crystal’s birth defects.”

Id. at 1581.  Rule 703 was forced into a service to filter out methodologically specious opinions.

Not all was smooth sailing for Judge Ward.  Like Judge Shoob, Judge Ward seemed to think that a physical examination of the plaintiff provided helpful, relevant evidence, but he never articulated what the basis for this opinion was. (His Honor did note that the parties agreed that the physical examination offered no probative evidence about causation.  Id. at 1572 n.32.) No harm came of this opinion.  Judge Ward wrestled with the lack of peer review in some unpublished studies, and the existence of a study only in abstract form.  See, e.g., id. at 1579 (“a scientific study not subject to peer review has little probative value”); id. at 1578 (insightfully noting that an abstract had insufficient data to permit a reader to evaluate its conclusions).  The Smith court recognized the importance of statistical analysis, but it confused Bayesian posterior probabilities with significance probabilities:

“Because epidemiology involves evidence on causation derived from group based information, rather than specific conclusions regarding causation in an individual case, epidemiology will not conclusively prove or disprove that an agent or chemical causes a particular birth defect. Instead, its probative value lies in the statistical likelihood of a specific agent causing a specific defect. If the statistical likelihood is negligible, it establishes a reasonable degree of medical certainty that there is no cause-and-effect relationship absent some other evidence.”

The confusion here is hardly unique, but ultimately it did not prevent Judge Ward from reaching a sound result in Smith.

What intervened between Wells and Smith was not any major change in the scientific evidence on spermicides and birth defects; the sea change came in the form of judicial attitudes toward the judge’s role in evaluating expert witness opinion testimony.  In 1986, for instance, after the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in Wells, Judge Higginbotham, speaking for a panel of the Fifth Circuit, declared:

“Our message to our able trial colleagues: it is time to take hold of expert testimony in federal trials.”

 In re Air Crash Disaster at New Orleans, 795 F.2d 1230, 1234 (5th Cir. 1986).  By the time the motion for summary judgment in Smith was decided, that time had come.

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