The New Jersey Superior Court issued an interesting decision in the Accutane litigation last week. See McCarrell v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., And Roche Laboratories, Inc., 2009 WL 614484 (N.J.Super.A.D.) (March 12, 2009).
Plaintiff alleged that as a result of taking Accutane for an acne condition, he developed inflammatory bowel disease (“IBD”). The IBD allegedly led to the surgical removal of his colon and other serious medical complications. A jury returned a verdict in plaintiff’s favor on his product liability claim against Roche, but not on his consumer fraud claim, and awarded him compensatory damages.
By order dated May 2, 2005, the state Supreme Court had designated all pending and future statewide actions involving Accutane as a mass tort. Thus, all Accutane cases, including plaintiff’s lawsuit, were transferred to Atlantic County to be heard on a coordinated basis. Discovery in the state cases proceeded in tandem with discovery in the federal Accutane multidistrict (“MDL”) litigation.
On appeal from the jury verdict, Roche specifically argued, inter alia, that the trial court erred in admitting the opinion testimony of plaintiff’s causation expert Dr. Sachar because his methodology was unreliable and thus improper under N.J.R.E. 702; and that the trial court denied Roche a fair trial in admitting the testimony about causality assessments based on Accutane ADEs, but in restricting the defense in presenting competing quantitative proofs to put the ADEs in context, including the actual number of Accutane users.
On the issue whether Dr. Sachar’s causation testimony was sufficiently reliable in the field of scientific research to be admitted, the court noted that in New Jersey the standard of review of such
rulings under Rule 702 is a narrow one. “In reviewing a trial court’s evidential ruling, an appellate court is limited to examining the decision for abuse of discretion.”
On the merits, the defendant objected to the expert’s heavy reliance on animal studies. The NJ Supreme Court has previously recognized that animal studies can be an accepted scientific method to study the safety and efficacy of drugs. Even though the dose administered in the animal studies was far different than the medicinal dose, “trained experts commonly extrapolate from existing data.” Gen. Elec. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146 (1997). In assessing the results of animal studies, which frequently involve high doses, experts should be careful to consider the dose-response differential between animals and humans. Magistrini v. One Hour Martinizing
Dry Cleaning, 180 F. Supp. 2d 584, 593 (D.N.J. 2002), aff’d, 68 Fed. App’x. 356 (3d Cir. 2003). (Readers also know that the biological differences between commonly used animals such as rats and humans make the models inappropriate for many comparisons, regardless of dose.)
Defendants also challenged the use of anecdotal case reports as a basis for the causation opinion. The court recognized that “[c]ausal attribution based on case studies must be regarded with caution.” Federal Judicial Center, Reference Manual on Sci. Evidence 497 (2d ed. 2000).
That is so because case reports typically reflect reported observations, and do not themselves contain scientific analyses. For instance, case reports may lack controls, may fail to screen out alternative causes, and may omit relevant facts about the patient’s condition that can be pertinent to a causation assessment. Consequently, a number of courts have concluded that anecdotal case reports are not a scientifically reliable basis for an expert’s opinion on causation.
Nevertheless, some other courts have allowed consideration of case reports as an acceptable basis for trying to show causation, particularly when accompanied by other reliable scientific evidence. New Jersey courts have previously upheld the admission of expert testimony that has relied, at least in part, upon case reports or comparable anecdotal evidence. The court also found significant that the case reports here included dechallenge and rechallenge reports. Dechallenge and rechallenge reports are a type of case report. Dunn v. Sandoz Pharms. Corp., 275 F. Supp. 2d 672, 682 (M.D.N.C. 2003). Such reports have limitations, but have been considered useful in some contexts in ascertaining causation because they measure a patient’s reaction to a drug, said the appellate court. (Readers will note that the dechallenge/rechallenge concept appears to make little sense when the effect of the drug is supposedly a permanent disease!)
The New Jersey court recognized it was issuing a causation decision contrary to the ruling in the Accutane MDL. The state court declined to follow the federal court’s decision because (1) the causation expert in the federal case was not Dr. Sachar, and that particular expert’s methodology was not as “demonstrably sound” as that of Dr. Sachar; (2) the standards for expert admissibility under N.J.R.E. 702 are not identical to F.R.E. 702; and (3) the testimonial record in this case, having proceeded to trial, was more developed than it was in the Florida case on a pretrial motion, lending greater confidence to a conclusion to sustain the trial judge’s decision to admit Dr. Sachar’s testimony.
Defendant also challenged the expert’s testimony about the company’s alleged intent and motive and mind-set, a typical plaintiffs’ tactic in mass torts. Totally improper, highly prejudicial, and ignored by some courts because they seem overwhelmed by the plaintiff’s characterization of the defendant’s conduct. Well-reasoned opinions exclude such testimony. See In re Baycol Prods. Litig., 532 F. Supp. 2d 1029, 1053 (D.Minn. 2007) (observing that “[p]ersonal views on corporate ethics and morality are not expert opinions”); In re Rezulin Prods. Liab. Litig., 309 F. Supp. 2d 531, 546 (S.D.N.Y. 2004) (holding that the objected-to opinions of expert witnesses on intent, motives, or state of mind of a corporation had no basis in any relevant body of knowledge or expertise). Here, the court seemed not to understand the impact and purpose of this improper testimony, finding that although Dr. Sachar’s testimony sharply criticized Roche, his criticisms did not rise to “such an inflammatory level” that would cause the appeals court to find an abuse of discretion by the trial court in not excluding it. The issue is not only a Rule 403 prejudice issue; there is a fundamental relevance issue, and a serious issue about fit, foundation, and reliability.
Finally, there was what has been described as the “numbers” issue. The issue refers to the fact that the trial court allowed plaintiff’s witnesses and counsel to refer, on repeated occasions, to the number of adverse incidents reported from Accutane users or from other sources while, at the same time, the court restricted Roche’s attempt at trial to place those adverse numbers into any larger quantitative context. Specifically, the judge precluded Roche witnesses from more
fully informing the jury about the large number of persons who had taken Accutane before it was prescribed to plaintiff in 1995, and the comparative significance of those figures.
The court ultimately concludes that it was unfair to Roche for the trial court to have precluded such “numbers” counter-proof and that the court abused its discretion on this evidentiary issue. Had Roche been allowed to present the statistics showing five million Accutane users and other related counter-proofs, the jury would have had a fuller and more balanced picture of the data bearing upon the company’s actions in changing its label. “Principles of completeness and fairness warranted the presentation of this contextual information to the fact-finder.”