United States: New Jersey Appellate Court Very "Relaxed" About Expert Testimony in Accutane Litigation

Last Updated: August 2 2017
Article by Michelle Yeary

The court may have taken a relaxed approach, but its decision has done nothing but raise blood pressures over at that DDL blog. The course of the Accutane litigation in New Jersey has been labored and we've posted about the whole journey. For years, we were pretty riled up. The news from the coordinated proceeding in the trial court had been very bad, including a few large plaintiff verdicts. Then the litigation got reassigned and under new management the tide began to turn. We could feel our pulse returning to normal. The new judge's look at old issues has been more balanced (from our view), as has the Appellate Division's review of old decisions. Indeed, the Appellate Division has vacated at least a half dozen plaintiff verdicts. After so many tortuous years, defendants in the New Jersey Accutane litigation finally had a reason to smile (actually thousands of reasons if reasons are dismissals). So we definitively can say we were unpleasantly surprised when last week the Appellate Division reversed the trial court's order excluding certain plaintiff causation expert witnesses resulting in reviving over 2000 cases.

The to-be-published decision can currently be found at In re Accutane Litigation, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 116 (App. Div. Jul. 28, 2017). It's a long opinion with a lengthy discussion of epidemiology in general and the epidemiologic evidence pertaining to Accutane specifically. We'll try to just hit the relevant highlights.

First a quick primer on New Jersey law on the admissibility of expert evidence. New Jersey has adopted a "relaxed" general acceptance standard for toxic tort and pharmaceutical cases. See Rubanick v. Witco Chemical Corp., 125 N.J. 421, 449 (1991). That means that if the expert's theory is not generally accepted, it may still be admissible if it is "based on a sound, adequately-founded scientific methodology involving data and information of the type reasonably relied on by experts in the scientific field." In re Accutane, at *47. Further, specifically in regard to reliance on epidemiology as evidence of causation, the court must address not just methodology but also the expert's reasoning in applying or relying on that methodology to reach his/her conclusions. Id. The court should not only review the studies and other information to determine if they are the type of data experts ordinarily rely on but also "examine the manner in which experts reason from the studies and other information to a conclusion." Id. at *51.

As we mentioned, the litigation has been handled by two different trial judges. The first judge allowed the opinions of plaintiffs' experts based on the same type of evidence relied on by plaintiffs' experts here. Id. at *5. But this litigation has been pending for 14 years. The science has not been stagnant during that time. From 2003 to 2009, there were no epidemiological studies regarding Accutane and irritable bowel disease (IBD) or Crohn's disease. Id. at *8. Epidemiological studies are considered at the top of the scientific hierarchy. Experimental studies (double-blind randomized control trials) are the gold standard and observational studies (case-control or cohort studies) are the next best available evidence. Without those, plaintiffs' experts were permitted to rely on "animal studies, human clinical studies, case reports, class effects, published scientific literature, causality assessments, and biological plausibility." Id. In other words, they were permitted to use less reliable evidence because that is all there was.

But in 2009 and 2010, the first epidemiological studies were published – both of which found no statistically significant increased risk for developing Crohn's disease from the use of Accutane. Id. Six more epidemiological studies followed and while the results vary, "with one exception, none of them demonstrates a statistically significant increased risk of developing Crohn's disease." Id. at *9. Despite the evolving state of the science, plaintiffs' experts chose to discount the epidemiology in favor of the "other information" on which they had previously relied.

Applying even the New Jersey "relaxed" standard, the trial court found that plaintiffs' experts reasoning and methodology "slanted away from objective science and in the direction of advocacy." Id. at *53-54. After reviewing the evidence and conducting a full Kemp hearing (New Jersey's version of a Daubert hearing), the trial court concluded that the epidemiologic evidence did not support a reasonable inference of a causal link between Accutane and Crohn's disease. Plaintiff's experts ignored the studies' authors own conclusions, excluded the larger population based studies, and made assumptions to "bridge an analytical gap in his methodology." Id. at *54-55.

We've blogged before about the risk of allowing litigation to march ahead of science. As the United States Supreme Court explained in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 597 (1993), the goal of "reaching a quick, final, and binding legal judgment" on matters that are "often of great consequence" is not advanced by accepting hypotheses and conjectures in the place of reliable scientific evidence. But that is exactly what the New Jersey Appellate Division seems determined to do. The court announced its guiding principle as the antithesis of Daubert: "legal decision making in toxic tort and similar cases may vary from scientific decision making."  Id. at *69. This doesn't even reconcile with the New Jersey standard that requires general acceptance in the scientific community of an expert's methodology and reasoning.

And what happens when "legal decision making" supplants the scientific process? Experts get to do things differently in the courtroom than in practice. They can ignore big epidemiologic studies not finding a statistically significant relationship for little ones that do, as long as they come up with some critique of the larger studies that lets them.  They can use data further down the "hierarchy" even though top tier evidence is against them.  They can rely upon their clinical experience in deciding what evidence accords with it. Precisely the types of things Daubert, Rubanick, and Kemp say should not be permitted.

Further, while giving lip service to the fact that "science is constantly evolving" and that "legal decisions need to be made based on the best evidence available at the time of the decision" – the court seems to be mired in the past. Id. at *69. It concludes that despite the overwhelming epidemiological evidence that demonstrates no statistically significant increase in the risk of Crohn's disease from taking Accutane, plaintiffs' experts can continue to rely on "other types" of evidence – "which in this same MCL docket they were previously permitted to use." Id. at *70. Why is that part of the equation? As much as litigation shouldn't lead science, it shouldn't lag it either. It should move with it. The state of the science is vastly different than it was 14 years ago, and the court seems to be willing to overlook those developments. The opinion states that the decision "must be viewed in the context of this particular MCL litigation" and "concern[s] the survival of plaintiffs' cause of action in the face of new scientific information." Id. at *68-69. Exactly. Plaintiffs' claims need to be assessed on the basis of the new scientific evidence. And if the claims can no longer survive based on the evolving scientific evidence, then that is the result. Ultimately, however, what seemed to matter more than accurately applying the law to the current state of the science, was "[t]he opportunity of thousands of plaintiffs, claiming injury from Accutane, to have their day in court." Id. at *69.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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