Nathan Schachtman on the Elite Defense Bar and Expert Evidence

Posted with permission from the SchachtmanLaw blog.

A couple of months ago, Professor David Bernstein posted to the Volokh Conspiracy, a short piece about some of the missteps and mistakes committed by “elite defense counsel” in litigating expert witness issues. Professor Bernstein makes some interesting points about questionable positions taken by “elite defense counsel” (read: “highly paid, large firm lawyers”). For instance, according to Bernstein:
1. elite defense lawyers missed the boat early on by arguing that statistical evidence (observational epidemiology) was inadmissible or insufficient to prove general or specific causation;
2. defense counsel missed the significance of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Daubert;
3. defense counsel continued to press for Frye rule in state courts, although the Frye rule had been shown inadequate and unavailing as a rule to control medical causation opinions; and
4. defense bar has grown soft on Rule 702.

Although the charges seem at points overstated, Bernstein has presented an important indictment of the defense bar. At the very least, the charges deserve a full exploration by a wider audience. Defense lawyers who are self-critical about their practice should certainly be concerned that someone as persistently pro-702 has taken aim at them.
On the first point, many of the early scientific causation battles were fought in tobacco litigation, in which defendants and their counsel were forced to deny and contest the obvious, the causal role for tobacco in carcinogenesis, at all costs. The tobacco defense bar, however, should not be confused with the defense bar, generally. Defense lawyers in Bendectin, silicone, and asbestos cases developed arguments against specious use of epidemiologic evidence, as well as sophisticated, affirmative use of epidemiologic evidence to show lack of association. Even so, we should keep in mind that it often requires a large body of epidemiologic evidence to show “no association,” and it is not the defense’s burden to do so.

The use of statistical or probabilistic evidence for inferring specific causation has been, and remains, problematic. See, e.g., Richard Doll, “Proof of Causality: Deduction from Epidemiological Observation,” 45 Perspectives in Biology & Medicine 499, 500 (2002) (“That asbestos is a cause of lung cancer in this practical sense is incontrovertible, but we can never say that asbestos was responsible for the production of the disease in a particular patient, as there are many other etiologically significant agents to which the individual may have been exposed, and we can speak only of the extent to which the risk of the disease was increased by the extent of his or her exposure.”) Notwithstanding the controversy, defense counsel and some astute judges have understood the indeterminate nature of statistical evidence for specific causation, and have advanced a pragmatic position of resolving specific causation controversies against plaintiffs when risk ratios failed to exceed two. See, e.g., In re Agent Orange Product Liab. Litig., 597 F. Supp. 740, 785, 836 (E.D.N.Y. 1984) (“A government administrative agency may regulate or prohibit the use of toxic substances through rulemaking, despite a very low probability of any causal relationship. A court, in contrast, must observe the tort law requirement that a plaintiff establish a probability of more than 50% that the defendant’s action injured him. … This means that at least a two-fold increase in incidence of the disease attributable to Agent Orange exposure is required to permit recovery if epidemiological studies alone are relied upon.”), aff’d 818 F.2d 145, 150-51 (2d Cir. 1987)(approving district court’s analysis),cert. denied sub nom. Pinkney v. Dow Chemical Co., 487 U.S. 1234 (1988).

Early use of meta-analysis by plaintiffs’ expert witnesses elicited generalized attacks on meta-analysis by defense counsel. See, e.g.,In re Paoli Railroad Yard PCB Litigation, 706 F. Supp. 358, 373 (E.D. Pa. 1988) (Kelly, R., J.) (excluding plaintiffs’ expert witness Dr. William Nicholson and his testimony based upon his unpublished meta-analysis of health outcomes among PCB-exposed workers), rev’d 916 F.2d 829, 856-57 (3d Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 961 (1991). Again, it took some time for the defense to understand the potency of meta-analysis in synthesizing and presenting a summary point estimate that essentially rules out any meaningful play of chance. In the silicone gel breast implant litigation, one defense expert witness conducted and published his meta-analysis of autoimmune disease outcomes. Otto Wong, “A Critical Assessment of the Relationship between Silicone Breast Implants and Connective Tissue Diseases,” 23 Regulatory Toxicol. & Pharmacol. 74 (1996). When the MDL 926 court got around to appointing court-appointed expert witnesses, they too picked up on the approach and made meta-analyses the hallmark of their reports. See Barbara Hulka, Betty Diamond, Nancy Kerkvliet & Peter Tugwell, “Silicone Breast Implants in Relation to Connective Tissue Diseases and Immunologic Dysfunction: A Report by a National Science Panel to the Hon. Sam Pointer Jr., MDL 926 (Nov. 30, 1998)”; Barbara Hulka, Nancy Kerkvliet & Peter Tugwell, “Experience of a Scientific Panel Formed to Advise the Federal Judiciary on Silicone Breast Implants,” 342 New Engl. J. Med. 812 (2000).

On the second charge, many defense lawyers missed, and continue to miss, the significance of a shift to evidence-based scientific testimony, as opposed to the authority-based worldview. When I first started trying cases, senior trial lawyers instructed me not to engage plaintiffs’ expert witnesses on substantive issues, but to limit cross-examination to “collateral attack” on bias and related issues. The problem that I saw was that when both sides limited the attack to the other side’s expert witness’s bias, the plaintiffs won because juries were often all too willing to think the worst of defense experts, and forgive plaintiffs’ experts. Nothing short of dramatically confronting the jury with the rubbish, inconsistencies, and incoherence spouted by the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses worked. I quickly learned to ignore the old timers’ advice, and most of them have now dropped off.
Bernstein gives the example of the Dow Corning lawyers’ declining the Ninth Circuit’s invitation to reframe their appeal in Hopkins v. Dow Corning, 33 F.3d 1116 (9th Cir. 1994), after the Supreme Court handed down Daubert. He may well be right about that case, but the lawyers may have been inhibited by positions that they had taken earlier in the case, before the Supreme Court breathed life into Rule 702. Still, the Hopkins decision remains a derelict on the jurisprudential sea of expert witness law. Truth be told, there are other cases that turned out badly because of overstated or poorly framed defense arguments.

As for their persistent affection for Frye, the defense lawyers referenced by Bernstein certainly lacked imagination, and maybe even a full measure of zeal. The Frye case had never proven itself to be an important defense against specious expert witness opinion testimony on medical causation issues. Daubert held out the promise that trial judges would actually have to engage with the evidence, rather than counting noses for “general acceptance,” or kicking the can, after hearing qualifications. I still recall how my colleagues and friends viewed Daubert, in 1993. Bristol Myers Squibb and other companies were inundated by silicone breast implant cases, and plaintiffs had managed to snucker a few juries into returning large verdicts against the defendants. Daubert was a lifeline, a way to focus trial judges’ attention on the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses and the fatally flawed, even fraudulent scientific studies that had found their way into the peer-reviewed journals, and into the courtroom.

What has happened to Daubert? Well, of course, it is no longer Daubert, but now a much more potent statutory rule, Federal Rule of Evidence 702, as amended in 2000, and recently “restylized.” Professor Bernstein may be on to something in calling out the hubris of big firm lawyers, who think that their prowess in litigating scientific issues comes from charging high fees. The sad truth is that the level of scientific and statistical acumen of lawyers generally, whether at the bench or at the bar, is low. There is much work for law schools to do to change this situation.

There are other forces at work in creating the phenomena described by Professor Bernstein. Many product liability cases involve multiple defendants. Defending such cases from the defense perspective is often like herding house cats. Every defense counsel thinks he or she knows the best course; no one wants to do anything that raises the profile of his client or increases the cost of defense. Furthermore, products liability defense work has become increasingly “commoditized” in the last two decades. Clients and third-party payors increasingly impose budgets that do not allow defense lawyers sufficient time to develop the necessary expertise and learning to discover, understand, and challenge plaintiffs’ scientific expert witnesses fully and effectively. There is, sadly and unfortunately, a contingent of defense lawyers who would rather see speculative claims flourish and mature into full-scale litigation, with lots of trials and appeals (and large fees), than to see specious claiming pretermitted by pre-trial judicial gatekeeping.

Another factor that may have stunted the gatekeeping process is the growth of federal (and state) multi-district litigation (MDL). By centralizing the pre-trial handling of large, multi-plaintiff tort litigation in the hands of a single judge, the MDL process has raised the stakes for the trial judge gatekeeping. The MDL judge is no longer deciding a single case, but the fate of thousands of claimants. The Rule 702 process suffers in several ways. First, many MDL judges are clearly intimidated by the life-or-death control they have over hundreds, if not thousands, of claims. These judges may well now be inclined to deny the Rule 702 challenges, in the fond hope that juries and appellate courts will take care of the problem. Second, there is no longer the incremental decision making of case-by-case exploration of the issues. There are economies of scale, to be sure, but the single MDL judge cannot learn from previous trial judges’ decisions and records. The evolutionary approach of the common-law is undermined by the efficiencies of MDL procedure. Third, the MDL process blunts one of the virtues of judicial gatekeeping in requiring the transparent statement of reasons for the grant or denial of a Rule 702 motion to exclude expert evidence. By the time the scientific, legal academic, and legal practitioner communities can weigh in on the gatekeeping process, the Rule 702 decision is a fait accompli, in the form of a single judicial decision. Compare In re Avandia Marketing, Sales Practices and Product Liability Litigation, 2011 WL 13576, *12 (E.D. Pa. 2011) (Rufe, J.) (denying defendant’s Rule 702 motions with respect to plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ opinions that Avandia causes heart attacks) with “FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA requires removal of some prescribing and dispensing restrictions for rosiglitazone-containing diabetes medicines” (Nov. 25, 2013) (re-evaluating evidence that Avandia does not increase risk of heart attacks). See also “Learning to Embrace Flawed Evidence – The Avandia MDL’s Daubert Opinion” (Jan. 10, 2011).

Not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ counsel have gotten better at dressing up weak and fatally flawed evidence as “inference to the best explanation,” or “weight of the evidence” evaluations that have the appearance without the reality of scientific conclusions. And as evidenced by the Third Edition of the Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, and many recent 702 decisions in the Circuits (and Matrixx Initiatives in the Supreme Court), the federal judiciary has lost its will and its way in applying Rule 702. An activist core of federal trial and appellate courts have shown increasing hostility and outright disregard for the gatekeeping process, and a willingness to disregard the language of the statute, Supreme Court precedent, and sound scientific and statistical methodology. Rule 702 in its present form is a strong rule, but unfortunately it is neutralized in the hands of weak judges who cannot or will not explore the intricate methodological issues raised by Rule 702 and 703 motions.

The phenomenon identified by Professor Bernstein may be real, but like many natural (and unnatural) phenomena, the causes are not always easily discerned. The phenomenon and its causes are worth a deeper exploration.