(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL - Judges and juries face significant challenges when trying to unravel testimony of expert witnesses in courtroom trials. Highly paid consultants for both plaintiffs and defendants spar with one another, giving often-conflicting opinions aimed at swaying decisions that can involve millions or even billions of dollars.
How can the legal system cut through the verbal clutter and presumed scientific evidence to help those who decide make fair judgments?
In 1996, Sam C. Pointer Jr. of Alabama, the judge overseeing all federal cases involving silicone-gel-filled breast implants -- and alleged damage to the health of women who received them -- took a step unprecedented in scope. Pointer decided to create an independent, impartial panel of scientists to advise the court on scientific evidence pertaining to breast implants.
A report on that panel's work beginning in fall 1996 appears in Thursday's issue (March 16) of the New England Journal of Medicine. Authors are Drs. Barbara S. Hulka of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, Nancy L. Kerkvliet of Oregon State University and Peter Tugwell of Ottawa General Hospital. Respectively, they are experts in epidemiology, toxicology and rheumatology.
"On the basis of our experiences as members of the National Science Panel for the breast-implant litigation, we have made recommendations for use of similar panels in the future," the three wrote. "We believe that such panels should be used more frequently, because they can bring unbiased information about complex scientific and medical issues into the courtroom."
After many months work, which included finding, combining and analyzing data from the vast
scientific literature on silicone breast implants, the panel found no evidence that the implants
caused connective tissue diseases. Patients who developed rheumatoid arthritis, lupus ery
Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill