Building up to the publication of the Restatement (Third) of Torts and now reaching what must surely be a crescendo has come one law review article after another assailing various courts’ (re)adoption of the Enlightenment’s view of causation and their (re)embrace of empiricism. Last Friday for example we posted a link to a recent paper making the case that loose causation standards (as opposed to those of "classical liberalism") in toxic tort cases are vital to the consolidation and empowerment of "the administrative state". And a couple of days before that we wrote about another new article that attempts to provide intellectual support for the proposition that the consequence of courts’ application of strict causation standards has been to tip the scales in favor of defendants. Today we’ll address an assertion from the second article.
On page 107 author Gold makes the following claim: "To the extent courts treat general and specific causation as separate elements requiring distinct proof, plaintiffs who already confront scientific uncertainty may be required to jump two hurdles instead of one – increasing the likelihood of false negative adjudications on causation." What he’s done is to confuse what happens when we estimate the probability of the conjunction of two events (here: e.g. the likelihood that tetra-methyl death (TMD) can cause prostate cancer and the likelihood that plaintiff’s prostate cancer was actually caused by TMD) with the manner in which false positives and negatives are identified and the manner in which the odds of being false negative or false positive are estimated. A simple illustration will hopefully suffice.
On chromosome 19, carried by both men and women, is a gene, KLK3, a variant of which is highly correlated with prostate cancer. There’s a test for prostate cancer that looks for the KLK3 variant. Since both men and women carry the gene what happens to the number of false negatives (the KLK3 test shows they don’t have the variant but later they’re found to have prostate cancer after all) and false positives (the test says they have it but they really don’t) if a general causation "hurdle" like "can women even get prostate cancer?" is placed before the KLK3 test? The number of false negatives is unchanged (good) and the number of false positives is cut in half (great).
What we suspect Gold is trying to complain about is the following: If we’re 51% sure that TMD is a cause of toe cancer and 51% sure that of the possible causes of plaintiff’s toe cancer TMD was actually the cause of it then across the set of toe cancer plaintiffs there will be some who recover nothing because of the extreme uncertainty in the science. But that’s really just proof that the law is far too lenient towards plaintiffs in toxic tort cases.
What are the odds that our hypothetical toe cancer plaintiff actually got his toe cancer from TMD? Only 26.01% (51% x 51%) – hardly "more likely than not". Yet every court in the country will let a toxic tort plaintiff stack uncertainty upon uncertainty, "more likely than not" upon "more likely than not" to get to a cumulative "more likely than not" in spite of the fact that mathematically that ain’t how it works. Furthermore, given the fact that courts will allow plaintiffs to establish both general and specific causation with a single study demonstrating a relative risk (RR) of 2.0 and given the fact that most published research findings with low (less than 4-ish) RRs are false anyway the odds that our toe cancer plaintiff waving his toe cancer – TMD peer reviewed paper actually got his cancer from TMD is no more than 13% (51% x 51% x 51%) and likely much lower – yet he’ll get to a jury, meaning he’ll be offered a settlement, in every courthouse in the land.
At the end of the day the "Reshapement" of toxic torts won’t increase the odds of truly wronged plaintiffs being compensated but it will, where adopted, swamp unfavored companies with meritless claims – perhaps that’s the whole point of it.