A New Jersey appellate court recently affirmed a trial court’s decision that an Accutane plaintiff’s expert’s study must be excluded as unreliable. See Palazzolo v. Hoffmann La Roche Inc., 2010 WL 363834 (N.J. Super. Ct., 2/3/10).
Plaintiffs filed a product liability and consumer fraud complaint against defendants claiming that Accutane, a drug used to treat acne, caused their family member to develop depression which led to his suicide. They contended that at the time of his death in 1997, Accutane should have carried a warning label concerning the possibility that the drug could cause depression and suicide.
As one element of their product liability cause of action, plaintiffs needed to establish “general causation,” by showing that Accutane can cause depression and suicide. See Kemp v. State, 174 N.J. 412, 417 (2002); Coffman v. Keene Corp., 133 N.J. 581, 594 (1993). On that issue, plaintiffs retained Dr. James Bremner, as an expert. Plaintiffs paid Bremner to undertake a study of the issue; there was no dispute that the study was commissioned specifically for use in this litigation.
In the study at issue, Bremner and a team of other scientists used positron emission tomography (PET) technology to compare changes in brain metabolism between two groups of subjects being treated for acne. One group was receiving antibiotic treatment and the other group was being treated with Accutane. According to Bremner, the PET study demonstrated that the subjects treated with Accutane showed decreased metabolism in the orbital frontal cortex, a portion of the brain associated with depression. He published an article about the study in a scientific journal, describing his methodology and his conclusions. Based largely but not entirely on the PET study, he issued an expert report opining that Accutane can cause depression and suicide.
Defendants challenged the evidence. In deposition and at a hearing, Bremner was repeatedly confronted with potential problems in the PET study, including missing data, inaccurate data, and deviations from the methodology he claimed to have followed. As a result, in the middle of the Rule 104 hearing, the court permitted Bremner to re-work his study data and issue a supplemental expert report and allowed defendant to re-depose him. The trial court then excluded the evidence.
The court of appeals affirmed. First, Bremner did not actually use the methodology he claimed to have used. Although his PET scan article was peer-reviewed, he admitted that he did not in fact follow the steps described in the article. Significantly, contrary to representations made in the article, he did not get before-and-after questionnaires from many of the subjects. Those questionnaires were designed to elicit the extent to which the subjects might be worried about their acne. This was relevant because some scientists were of the view that worrying, as well as depression, could affect activity in the orbital frontal cortex.
Secondly, Bremner also could not document much of the data on which his published results were based. Third, he admitted that some of the statistical analysis was inaccurate. For example, in the hearing session, Bremner admitted that, for each study participant, comparing the activity in the orbital frontal cortex with the activity in the whole brain revealed no difference between the subjects who took Accutane and those who took antibiotics.
The court noted that an expert’s scientific peers cannot fairly judge the expert’s written work, including whether it is worthy of publication, if his article does not accurately represent either the underlying data or what the author did to produce his results. In essence, Bremner’s study was not soundly and reliably generated.
There also was no error in precluding Bremner from providing supplemental reports or information after the Rule 104 hearing record closed. The judge allowed Bremner multiple opportunities to correct errors in his study before the record closed. The orderly conduct of litigation demands that expert opinions reach closure. See Miller v. Pfizer, Inc., 356 F.3d 1326, 1334 (10th Cir.), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 917 (2004).
The court of appeals remanded the case for consideration whether, even without the PET study, Dr. Bremner can still offer an opinion that Accutane can affect the brain and produce depression.