Streaming Video Testimony Sheds Light on Role of Science in California Talc Litigation

Posted by and on June 5, 2017

Every February 28th, India celebrates National Science Day in honor the  Indian physicist Sir Chandrashekhara Venkata, who discovered the Raman effect. The United States has no equivalent celebration, but “Science Days” have become a commonplace in complex state and federal Litigations, around the country.

Background

The major impetus for science tutorials seems to have come from the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The holding of Daubert, now incorporated into, and extended by Federal Rule of Evidence 702, requires trial judges to act as gatekeepers of the relevance and reliability of expert witness opinion testimony in their courtrooms. One of the first tests of the judiciary’s performance to perform this role came in the silicone gel breast implant litigation. The federal silicone cases were consolidated before Judge Pointer Sam C. Pointer, Jr., in MDL 926. Judge Pointer believed that trial judges in the transferor courts should conduct whatever review of expert witness opinion was needed to satisfy the then recent Daubert decision.

Some of the first federal silicone lawsuits remanded from the MDL went to Judge Robert Jones in Portland Oregon. These cases involved complex issues of immunology, clinical rheumatology, epidemiology, toxicology, surgery, and polymer and analytical chemistry. At the outset of his case management of the remanded cases, plaintiffs’ counsel requested that Judge Jones schedule an all-day tutorial for counsel to present on these scientific issues. The parties’ tutorials, along with an avalanche of defense Daubert motions, persuaded Judge Jones to take the unusual step of appointing technical advisors to assist him in assessing the scientific evidence, inferences and claims in the silicone litigation. See Hall v. Baxter Healthcare Corp., 947 F. Supp. 1387, 1415 (D. Ore. 1996). Judge Jones’s technical advisors attended court throughout the Daubert hearings conducted in Portland, and they delivered advisory reports to Judge Jones to assist him in his gatekeeping function. Judge Jones ultimately granted the defense motions to exclude the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ claims of silicone causation of connective tissue diseases.

In large measure because of Judge Jones’s case management and exclusion of expert witness testimony, the silicone MDL court appointed a panel of neutral expert witnesses, in the fields of epidemiology, rheumatology, immunology, and toxicology.

One of the first requests received from the Science Panel in MDL 926 was for what turned out to be a series of Science Days in which the parties’ expert witnesses would present to them, and explain their interpretation of the vast array of evidence, from different disciplines. Each presenting party expert witness was allowed 15 to 20 minutes to present. The lawyers were not entirely reduced to potted plants; they had a chance to conduct a short cross-examination.  Given that the primary audience was a panel of four distinguished scientists, there was an emphasis for most of the lawyers, for the plaintiffs and the defendants, to ask pertinent, substantive questions.

The Science Panel was not entirely satisfied with the party expert witnesses, and requested a second Science Day, at which the Panel could call its own slate of scientists to address the scientific claims made in the litigation. These proceedings, along with extensive submissions of articles and briefings from the parties led to the Report of National Science Panel, on November 30, 1998.

Every Day is Science Day, Somewhere

Since the breast implant litigation, many MDL and other courts have faced complex causation claims in litigation involving pharmaceutical products, medical devices, consumer products and a host of chemical exposures. Appointment of independent, neutral expert witnesses remains unusual, but trial judges have welcomed tutorials in the form of “Science Days,” to help them learn the methodologies and vocabularies of the scientific disciplines that are involved in the litigations before them. For some reason, the parties, the judges, and the legal media often reference Science Days in scare quotes, signaling that perhaps other Science takes place in these proceedings. Whether the scare quotes are warranted remains to be determined.

“Science Days” have become a tradition in mass tort litigation. In the last few years, there is a Science Day somewhere, in some courtroom, going on, perhaps not daily, but with sufficient frequency that the phenomenon should receive more critical attention. Federal judges with multi-district litigation, or state judges with multi-county cases, set aside time to permit the parties a chance to educate them about the scientific and technical aspects of the litigations before them. Judges know that Daubert and Rule 702, or their state analogues, require them to act as gatekeepers. Furthermore, myriad motions in the discovery and trial phases of a case will require judges to make nuanced but accurate decisions about scope and content of discovery, and admissibility of documents and testimony,

Science Day – Have It Your Way

John Milton: We negotiating?
Kevin Lomax: Always.

The Devil’s Advocate (1997).

There are no federal or state rules that set out procedures for science tutorials for judges or their appointed expert. The form and substance of Science Days depend upon a three-say negotiation among the plaintiffs, defendants, and the trial judge.  Although the parties are often left to work out a plan for science day, most courts tend to weigh in by imposing time limits, and they may even rule in or rule out live witness testimony.

In 2007, the American Bar Association set out Civil Trial Practice Standards, which included an entire section on the use of tutorials to assist the court.

Talc Science Goes Bicoastal

This year, two trial judges have entertained Science Days in talc cases, on both coasts of the United States. In the federal talc litigation, MDL 2738, Judge Freda L. Wolfson conducted a Science Day on January 26, 2017. In the coordinated California state court talc cases, Judge Maren E. Nelson, of the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles County, conducted a Science Day, on March 7, 2017.

Download the full article to continue reading (full version is fully referenced and includes appendices).

The report was authored by David H. Schwartz, Ph.D. and Nathan Schachtman, Esq.

David is a founding partner of Innovative Science Solutions, LLC, a consulting firm that specializes in assisting counsel with litigation involving complex scientific issues, including toxic torts, pharmaceutical and medical device cases, consumer fraud cases, and patent disputes.

Nathan Schachtman, Esq., has lectured and published widely on expert evidence issues. His interests include access to underlying research data, the use of statistical and epidemiologic evidence in court, medico-legal causation and screenings, the reliability and admissibility of scientific evidence, and historian expert testimony. He is an elected member of the American Law Institute, a fellow of the American Bar Foundation, and a lecturer-in-law at the Columbia Law School.