Oncology and Pathology Expert Witness Testimony Allowed, Says Ninth Circuit

A district court excluded the testimony of an oncology and pathology expert witness and granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant.  The plaintiff appealed and the circuit court reversed the district court opinion.

Facts:  This case (Wendell v. GlaxoSmithKline LLC – United States Court of Appeals For the Ninth Circuit – June 2nd, 2017), an appeal from a decision of the district court, involves the death of Maxx Wendell of Hepatosplenic T-cell lymphoma (HSTCL).  Wendell’s parents sued the manufacturer of drugs that Maxx was taking to treat inflammatory bowel disease.  The plaintiffs argued that the drugs caused Maxx to develop HSTCL and that the drug manufacturers and distributors did not provide adequate warnings of the risks of these drugs.  To help prove their case, the plaintiffs hired Dr. Andrei Shustov (Oncology Expert Witness) and Dr. Dennis Weisenburger (Pathology Expert Witness).  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants because the testimony from these experts was not reliable and, therefore, not admissible.  The plaintiffs have appealed the decision of the district court.

Discussion:  The district court first opined that the experts developed their opinions for the litigation only and did not conduct any independent research on the connection between 6-MP and anti-TNF drugs and HSTCL .  In addition, the court indicated that the experts conceded that their opinions would not satisfy the standards needed to publish their findings in a peer reviewed medical journal.  These issues were pieces of the reasoning behind the court’s exclusion of their expert witness testimony.

In addition, the district court ruled that the absence of epidemiological or animal studies showing a link between HSTCK and 6MP and anti-TNF drugs undermined the methodology used by the experts.  The court went on to say that without reliable evidence of a link between the drugs and the disease, the experts could not eliminate other possible causes of Maxx’s HSTCL.

Last, the district court opined that the studies cited by both experts did not show that the combination of drugs taken by Maxx actually causes HSTCL.

The appeals court, however, concluded that the district court erred when it excluded the testimony of the two experts.  The court stated that the court looked too narrowly and at each individual issue and did not look at a broader picture of the overall methodology.  In addition, the district court ignored the experience of the experts, their citation of a variety of literature, and a review of Maxx’s medical history and records.  In addition, the district court did not look at the fundamental importance of utilizing differential diagnosis.  Also, the court overemphasized the following:  1) That the experts did not base their opinions on independent research and 2) That the experts did not cite any epidemiological studies.

The current court stated that the experts are highly qualified doctors, employed sound methods to reach their conclusions, and their proposed testimony was sufficiently reliable in that that the should have been allowed to testify under Daubert.

Last, the court maintained that any arguments on the reliability of the testimony should be determined my a jury.

Conclusion:  The opinion of the district court excluding the expert witness testimony of Drs. Shustov and Weisenburger was reversed.