Science and Law
21st October 2014

Is Your Adversary Navigating Toxic Tort Litigation Systematically?

The Navigation Guide Systematic Review Methodology is an approach developed by a group of scientists to objectively and transparently evaluate a set of data related to environmental and chemical exposures. 

Is Your Adversary Navigating Toxic Tort Litigation Systematically?

The Navigation Guide Systematic Review Methodology is an approach developed by a group of scientists to objectively and transparently evaluate a set of data related to environmental and chemical exposures. 

The authors explicitly address the value of their approach and compare it with previous “expert-based narrative reviews in environmentall health.” Some of the differences listed include:

  1. The application of a detailed protocol developed prior to undertaking the review
  2. Standardization and transparent documentation, including an expert judgment
  3. Assessment of “risk of bias”
  4. Comprehensive and efficient search strategy
  5. Separation of the science from values and preferences

There are some helpful quotes in the article that can be of great help to toxic tort lawyers looking for an authoritative source that describes the appropriate methodology to evaluate the scientific evidence. For example, the authors state:

  • “Government agencies can use the Navigation Guide methodology to craft evidence-based statements regarding the relationship between an environmental exposure and health (steps 1 – 3).” [highlights the importance of evidence-based methodologies]
  • …[p]redominant approaches in use for evaluating the evidence in environmental health are > 30 years old, based on expert opinion, and with notable exceptions generally do not provide strength of evidence summaries for outcomes other than cancer.” [highlights view that older methods are lacking]

Although not explicitly mentioned, the Navigation Guide methodology distinguishes itself from from so-called “weight of the evidence” approaches where an expert essentially provides his opinion without any objective, systematic, or reproducible method. As every seasoned toxic tort litigator knows, too often opposing experts rely upon anecdotal evidence, not supported by systematic evidence or transparent, reproducible methodologies.

The authors provide a comparison of the Navigation Guide method to previously published reviews of adverse health effects related to pefluoroctanoic acid (PFOA). Almost none of the previous publications specified inclusion/exclusion criteria, conducted reproducible searches, or assessed risk of bias. Thus, an expert in PFOA toxic tort litigation could essentially provide the basis for any opinion based on these earlier reviews. The Navigation Guide methodology provides a resource to challenge opinions based on these looser, less rigorous approaches.

Of interest to defense litigators, this piece was published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), a journal that has, in the recent past, published non-transparent reviews that have not systematically reviewed the science on specific topics related to the adverse health effects of chemical exposures (at least two of the PFOA articles in the authors’ table were published in EHP). Nevertheless, this piece appears to be a fairly rigorous assessment of the methodology that should form the basis for reliable evidence in in toxic tort litigation.

If both plaintiff and defense experts were held to the standards set forth in the Navigation Guide Systematic Review methodology, the science in toxic tort cases would be assessed in a more appropriate and reliable fashion.

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