Subject: Causation

Peer Review Can’t Save “Junk Science” from FRE 702 Judicial Gatekeeping – In re: Roundup Court Excludes Expert Whose Opinions Had Been Published in Peer-Reviewed Literature

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When tasked with assessing the admissibility of expert testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, courts often cite the so-called Daubert factors as criteria that guide the inquiry.  Among those factors is “whether the [expert’s] theory or technique has been subjected to peer review and publication.”  Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharms., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993).  The Daubert Court observed that, although publication “is not a sine qua non of admissibility,” peer review “increases the likelihood that substantive flaws in methodology will be detected.”  But peer review is not coterminous with the Rule 702 inquiry that federal courts are called upon to make, especially with the rise of so-called predatory publishing and journals with relaxed (or absent) peer review processes.  As one court recently observed, “a court can’t wave junk science through the Daubert gate simply because it survived some prepublication peer-review process.”  In re: Roundup Products Liability Litigation, 2024 WL 3074376 (N.D. Cal. June 20, 2024).

In In re: Roundup, the plaintiff claimed to have developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) as a result of using the defendant’s herbicide.  In support of that claim, he offered a single expert on the issue of whether glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide, can cause NHL in humans.  The expert’s opinions were all contained in two peer-reviewed and published articles that the expert had co-authored.  But only one of the two—a 2019 meta-analysis of six epidemiological studies addressing the link between glyphosate and NHL, which had been published before the expert became involved in the litigation—grappled with the available epidemiological evidence.  The defendant attacked that paper on multiple grounds, and the court agreed that it constituted “junk science” with several flaws each independently justifying its exclusion.

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Northern District of Illinois Holds that Seventh Circuit Precedent is Incompatible with Rule 702 as Amended

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In explaining the December 2023 amendments to Federal Rule of Evidence 702, the Advisory Committee called out several ways in which “many courts” had “incorrectly” applied Rule 702 and failed to adequately discharge their duty as gatekeepers with regard to expert witness testimony.  The import of those comments is that existing precedent on Rule 702 may be “incorrect” and must be re-examined.

A case pending in the Northern District of Illinois serves as a fine illustration of how this re-examination should work in practice.  In West v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., 2024 WL 1834112 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 26, 2024), the plaintiff alleged that she was injured when portions of a store display fell on her.  She offered a trio of experts to opine that her claimed injuries had been caused by the incident, but none of them “were aware of, let alone reviewed, [her] highly salient medical history prior to issuing their causation opinions.”  Rather, they were treating physicians who based their opinions solely on their post-incident treatment of the plaintiff.

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Expert’s Results-Driven Methodology Leads to Exclusion and Summary Judgment in Paraquat MDL

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An expert witness is not supposed to pick a desired result and then reverse engineer inputs and methods that reach that result.  As the Ninth Circuit observed 30 years ago, “[c]oming to a firm conclusion first and then doing research to support it is the antithesis of [the scientific] method.”  Claar v. Burlington Northern R.R. Co., 29 F.3d 499, 502-03 (9th Cir. 1994).  A recent opinion from the Southern District of Illinois offers a fine example of an expert with a results-driven approach and a court that called him out on it.

In re Paraquat Products Liability Litigation, 2024 WL 1659687 (S.D. Ill. Apr. 17, 2024), arises from a multidistrict litigation (“MDL”) in which the plaintiffs claim to have developed Parkinson’s disease as a result of exposure to an herbicide, paraquat.  Four plaintiffs whose cases had been chosen for the MDL’s first trials offered a statistician (the parties disputed whether he also qualified as an epidemiologist) as their sole expert to establish general causation.  He had a difficult task, as no peer-reviewed literature established a link between paraquat exposure and Parkinson’s disease.  Indeed, when the court asked the plaintiffs to identify such literature, the plaintiffs could cite only a single opinion article.  That article had been shared with another of the plaintiffs’ experts before it was published, leading the court to conclude in deciding a prior discovery dispute that there was reason to investigate “whether counsel for the MDL plaintiffs, their experts, or other third parties may have influenced the contents of the article for the benefit of one side in the MDL.”  2023 WL 8372819 (S.D. Ill. Dec. 4, 2023).

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EU Reaches Legislative Deal on Proposed ‘Digital Age’ Updates to Product Liability Directive

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Last week, the European Union made a significant breakthrough towards its goal of overhauling the 40-year-old Product Liability Directive for the demands of the “digital” age and modern economy. To amend the directive, the elected European Parliament and the European Council (comprised of government representatives of the 28 member states) must agree on final language and separately pass the draft legislation through their respective bodies. After extensive legislative efforts and negotiations, the European Council (currently led by the Government of Spain) and the European Parliament issued press releases announcing that they have reached a political agreement regarding the proposed updates to the directive.

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Amended FRE 702 Arrives in MDL Practice: S.D.N.Y. Excludes Plaintiffs’ Experts in Acetaminophen MDL

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The Committee Notes to the newly implemented amendments to Federal Rule of Evidence 702 make clear that the “[j]udicial gatekeeping” of expert evidence is “essential.”  Federal courts in New York have played an important role in pioneering and developing this concept.  Indeed, the idea of courts as gatekeepers in the expert context finds its roots in the Eastern District of New York, with the late Chief Judge Weinstein coining the term in a 1985 opinion in In re Agent Orange Product Liability Litigation.  Three decades later, the Southern District of New York offered one of the most thorough illustrations of careful judicial gatekeeping in In re Mirena IUS Levonorgestrel-Related Prod. Liab. Litig. (No. II).  Now, New York can also call itself home to the first MDL-wide decision to exclude experts under Rule 702’s new formulation.

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Can a Treating Physician Opine on Causation? Eleventh Circuit Says It’s About Intent, not Content

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Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(a)(2) outlines two different sets of pretrial disclosure requirements, imposing more onerous requirements on “retained” than “non-retained” experts.  Relatedly, when non-retained expert witnesses offer opinions based on information obtained outside the scope of their personal involvement in the facts of the case, most courts require them to submit a full Rule 26(a)(2)(B) report.  See, e.g., Goodman v. Staples The Office Superstore LLC, 644 F.3d 817, 826 (9th Cir. 2011).  Thus, for example, a physician who provided care to a personal injury plaintiff is treated as a retained expert for disclosure purposes when he or she bases a causation opinion on materials provided by an attorney and reviewed as part of the litigation.  Some courts, taking this rationale a step further, have required all experts who opine on certain topics – for example, causation – to submit a full Rule 26(a)(2)(B) report.  See, e.g., Muzaffarr v. Ross Dress for Less, Inc., 2013 WL 3850848 (S.D. Fla. July 26, 2013).  But according to the Eleventh Circuit’s recent opinion in Cedant v. United States, — F.4th —, 2023 WL 4986402 (11th Cir. 2023), such rules invert the Rule 26(a)(2) analysis.

The Plaintiff in Cedant alleged that he was injured in an accident with a U.S. Postal Service truck.  The parties agreed that, under applicable Florida law, Plaintiff had to support his claim with expert testimony showing that the accident caused his harm.  He proposed to satisfy that requirement solely by offering testimony from several doctors who treated him after the accident.  The district court, holding that experts who offer opinions on causation must satisfy Rule 26(a)(2)(B)’s disclosure requirements (including, inter alia, a Rule 26 report) and observing that none of Plaintiff’s treating physicians had satisfied those requirements, excluded the experts under Rule 37(c)(1).  Then, because Plaintiff had no admissible expert testimony to support causation, the court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.  Plaintiff appealed.

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