Canavan v. Brigham and Women’s Hospital


Summary: Although the Supreme Court established firm and clear standards for admissibility for expert testimony in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), state courts have been slow to grasp the principles of sound science underpinning that decision. This slowness has been especially obvious–and ironic–in cases involving medical causation. Though Daubert was itself a medical causation case in which it was alleged that a child’s birth defects were caused by medication the mother took while pregnant, state courts have repeatedly exempted medical causation cases from Daubert standards of evidence. Likewise, as courts continue to struggle to apply the Daubert principle fairly and responsibly, Atlantic Legal continues to clarify that principle persistently and successfully.

It is imperative that tort cases alleging medical causation rest on sound scientific premises. Too often, however, courts are confused as to what constitutes a sound scientific premise. Canavan v. Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in which a surgical nurse claimed to have developed "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity" syndrome as a result of exposure to various chemicals, is a case in point.

Theresa Canavan filed a worker’s compensation claim alleging that exposure to low levels of numerous chemicals at work had caused symptoms ranging from headaches to sinusitis to arthritis. The hospital compensated Canavan for her sinusitis, but refused to credit her claim of complete disability. In court, Canavan’s physician testified that in his opinion, Canavan’s symptoms arose from "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (or MCS) secondary to chemical poisoning." He claimed that Canavan had been poisoned at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the course of her job. Canavan won. The hospital appealed, arguing that Canavan’s physician’s testimony was not admissible because it did not meet the principles of scientific validity established in Commonwealth v. Lanigan, 419 Mass. 15 (1994). In Lanigan, the Massachusetts court used the Daubert principle to rule that an "expert’s opinion must have a reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of his discipline."

The intermediate appeals court expressed concern about the standard of evidence employed in the Canavan case, but it nevertheless upheld the original ruling, stating that the physician’s "experience" qualified him to make an epidemiological judgment as to the origins of Canavan’s symptoms. Upon further appeal, the case came before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. It was at this point that Atlantic Legal became involved.

Atlantic Legal filed an amicus brief in the name of fifteen distinguished scientists, among them Nobel Laureate James Watson (the co-discoverer of DNA), a Nobel Laureate in chemistry, the chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at Yale Medical School, the director of the Environmental Medical Service at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine. Several of the amici were also amici in the path breaking and standard-bearing brief Atlantic Legal filed in the Daubert case.

Atlantic Legal argued that "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity" syndrome is not a recognized disease, and that it is therefore irrelevant to postulate about what caused the syndrome to develop in Theresa Canavan. We also argued that Canavan’s sole "expert" witness, her physician, had no evidence to corroborate his claim–there is no medical literature supporting his attempt to attribute Canavan’s symptoms to this non-existent syndrome, nor had he himself conducted epidemiological studies that would give a scientific basis to his claim that Canavan’s symptoms were caused by chemical exposure in the workplace.

At Atlantic Legal’s urging, the court recognized that the Canavan ruling, if allowed to stand, would render both Lanigan and Daubert meaningless. Relying heavily on our brief, the court found for the defendant, overturning the original ruling and thereby upholding the hard-won standards of expert testimony that Atlantic Legal has been so instrumental in helping to establish and maintain.

Although the Supreme Court established firm and clear standards for admissibility for expert testimony in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993), state courts have been slow to grasp the principles of sound science underpinning that decision. This slowness has been especially obvious–and ironic–in cases involving medical causation. Though Daubert was itself a medical causation case in which it was alleged that a child’s birth defects were caused by medication the mother took while pregnant, state courts have repeatedly exempted medical causation cases from Daubert standards of evidence. Likewise, as courts continue to struggle to apply the Daubert principle fairly and responsibly, Atlantic Legal continues to clarify that principle persistently and successfully.

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Filed: 2000-01-03
Decided: 2000-11-27