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The following confidential memo has been sent to Dr. G. Odnose:
THE QUISLING INSTITUTE OF COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH
P.O. Box 69
Date: July 2, 1998 To: Dr. G. Odnose From: Dr. D. Cottenpurg, Interim Head, Toxicology Divn. Re: "Expert Witness"
Thank you for your memo informing me about the invitation to act as an "expert witness" in a case involving aspartame. I am sorry that I cannot talk to you personally as I am rushing to catch my flight to Stockholm.
I am still puzzled as to why you were contacted. I am fully aware of your exciting studies on the effects of aspartame on glutamate binding sites in synaptic membranes, though that expertise may not be strictly relevant for the case at hand. I understand from your brief memo that the plaintiff has had both panic attacks and seizures following ingestion of aspartame containing soft drinks. I'm not sure from the material you sent me whether the patient was also a diabetic and/or was heterozygous for phenylketonuria? In any case, I feel that the plaintiff's lawyers should have contacted someone knowledgeable about epidemiological issues rather than a biochemical pharmacologist.
From the few cases that I know of, the experience of scientists in law courts has not been particularly happy. Toxic tort cases are particularly messy. Worse, the notion of causation that we have may not entirely coincide with that held by the legal profession. I have asked Brenda to pull together some material in a binder that is available in my office.
I hope that you have not committed yourself. I know that you are an avid reader of mystery stories, but real life is quite messy. Perhaps you could gather the relevant background information and talk to the group before you decide to participate in this exercise. I would prefer that you forestall any possible embarrassment for the division.
(Dictated but not read)
This problem, written in the form of a letter, serves to introduce students to the legal aspects of drug use. Toxic tort cases serve as an appropriate vehicle for discussing the contrasting perspectives of the scientific and legal professions towards causality. In addition the problem serves to introduce students to the complexities involved in assessing the value of food additives, which normally bypass the drug regulatory process.