PHILADELPHIA — The state Superior Court recently upheld a lower court's decision to exclude expert testimony in a lawsuit filed by a Philadelphia couple against pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline who claimed that the anti-depressant drug Zoloft led to their son's birth defect.
Robert and Katherine Porter filed a complaint in 2012 against Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Wolters Kluwer Health, alleging the anti-depressant drug Zoloft caused the birth defect of their son Robert T. “Bo” Porter. The Superior Court's opinion was issued May 8.
The couple settled with Wolters Kluwer Health prior to the trial, and the case against GlaxoSmithKline was dismissed in 2014.
The Porters appealed the lower court's decision to exclude expert testimony under the Frye standard.
The Porters contend that Katherine’s ingestion of Zoloft during her pregnancy led to their son being born with the birth defect omphalocele - a midline abdominal wall birth defect that allows intestines and potentially other visceral organs to protrude outside the body through the umbilical opening.
Zoloft is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) used to treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Porters appealed the lower court’s dismissal, arguing that their case should not have been dismissed based on the Frye motion, which gives trial courts discretion in allowing scientific evidence to be presented to the jury during the trial.
The Frye standard says expert opinion based on a scientific technique is admissible "only where the technique is generally accepted as reliable in the relevant scientific community."
Both Dr. Michael Freeman and Dr. Robert Cabrera concluded that Bo Porter's giant omphalocele birth defect was caused by exposure to Zoloft in utero, using primarily peer-reviewed studies.
Pfizer argued before the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County that Freedman's and Cabrera’s conclusions were not permissible in court because their methods did not meet the Frye standard.
The lower court agreed, and on Oct. 8, 2015, the motion for summary judgment was granted to the Pfizer.
On appeal, the Superior Court agreed with the lower court's ruling, saying the court was permitted to exclude the experts' testimony under the Frye standard.
According to the ruling, Cabrera's opinions relied upon peer-reviewed articles that did not confirm an association between the use of SSRIs and omphalocele and contained methodological defects that precluded the expert testimony of Freeman.
"We agree that Appellants failed to prove the methodology Dr. Cabrerra (sic) employed was generally accepted in the relevant scientific community,” the court ruled. "Accordingly, we discern no abuse of discretion by the trial court in precluding Dr. Cabrera from testifying on Frye grounds."