Legal Theory 17 (4):237-278 (2011)

Alex Broadbent
University of Johannesburg
This paper seeks to determine the significance, if any, of epidemiological evidence to prove the specific causation element of liability in negligence or other relevant torts—in particular, what importance can be attached to a relative risk > 2, where that figure represents a sound causal inference at the general level. The paper discusses increased risk approaches to epidemiological evidence and concludes that they are a last resort. The paper also criticizes the proposal that the probability of causation can be estimated with reference to the RR, such that RR > 2 is necessary and sufficient for causation. It is argued, following arguments by Sander Greenland and others, that RR > 2 is not necessary for proof of specific causation, except under restrictive biological assumptions that are not known to be satisfied for any important disease, and therefore must never be required. However, the paper argues that in some circumstances RR > 2 can be sufficient to prove causation at law. This position is defended against the widely held judicial and academic view that epidemiological evidence must be accompanied by something else, particular to the case at hand, if it is to have probative force for specific causation. It is argued that far from being epistemically irrelevant, to achieve correct and just outcomes it is in fact mandatory to take epidemiological evidence into account in deciding specific causation. Failing to consider such evidence when it is available leads to error and injustice. The conclusion is that in certain circumstances epidemiological evidence of RR > 2 is not necessary to prove specific causation but that it is sufficient. This “sufficiency” is confined to circumstances where there is no other evidence, as a way of getting clear on what the epidemiological evidence says. Once we have worked out what it says, this must be weighed against the other relevant evidence, if there is any
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DOI 10.1017/s1352325211000206
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