A plaintiff’s lawyer is suing a medical journal and two doctors for publishing a case report that makes it harder to win some birth-injury lawsuits.
Here are the details, as reported by Sheri Qualters of the National Law Journal. Some newborns are found to be suffering from brachial plexus injury, a type of harm to a child’s shoulder, arm, or hand that in a minority of cases results in permanent disability (so-called Erb’s palsy or a number of related conditions). A large volume of birth-injury litigation goes on as a result, in part because courts have tended to accept the idea that the only medically recognized cause of those conditions in newborns is excessive or traumatic use of physical force by clinicians (“traction”). In 2008, however, the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology published a case report of a delivery in which an infant was found to be suffering such injury although the physician by her own account had not applied any excessive traction during the birth. If instead natural forces of labor could cause the dislocation resulting in the condition, many lawsuits might rest on shakier ground. Since then, defense lawyers have cited the report — by Henry Lerner of Harvard Medical School and Eva Salamon of the Bond Clinic in Winter Park, Fla. — in litigation.
A Boston lawyer who claims to have debunked the Lerner-Salamon case study has proceeded to sue its two authors, Elsevier — which publishes AJOG and many other medical and scientific journals — and Dr. Salamon’s clinic for publishing and refusing to retract it. The damages are said to be $3 million each to two families of infant plaintiffs whose lawsuits did not succeed allegedly because of the case report. The lawsuit invokes a Massachusetts consumer protection law which allows treble damages, and also asks for a court order forbidding the report to be entered as evidence in future litigation. A trial court dismissed the case, in part on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not shown that the article was a material cause of the families’ failure to prevail in the suits. Now the case is on appeal to the First Circuit, where defense lawyers are arguing, inter alia, that if there are weaknesses in the article the remedy for plaintiffs is to introduce evidence to that effect to counter it in trials. “As for its own role, Elsevier argued that applying a state consumer protection law to its published material would violate its free-speech right under the First Amendment.”
First Amendment? Let’s not go to extremes. If we start applying the First Amendment, how are lawyers supposed to silence publications that inconvenience them?
Our “watch what you say about lawyers” tag — which perhaps we should rename as “watch what you say about lawyers or their cases” — is here (cross-posted at Cato at Liberty; & welcome readers from Jesse Walker, Reason, Prof. Bainbridge).