Our weekly search for new drug/medical device cases for 1/13/17 turned up something unusual – not of particular substantive significance, but unusual. Two of the opinions included citations to Wikipedia.
Wikipedia? You mean the comprehensive online encyclopedia that is crowd-sourced, so that anybody – even us – can edit/alter the information contained on the entries (at least, most of them)? That’s it. Since the provenance of the information on Wikipedia is unknown, as lawyers we’ve been taught never, ever to cite to it as authoritative in filed papers (we often cite to it on the blog). After all, given the high stakes of most of our litigation, an attorney citing to Wikipedia could have just added the information to which s/he is citing.
[I]f Wikipedia were regarded as an authoritative source, an unscrupulous lawyer (or client) could edit the Web site entry to frame the facts in a light favorable to the client’s cause. Likewise, an opposing lawyer critical of the Wikipedia reference could edit the entry, reframing the facts and creating the appearance that the first lawyer was misrepresenting or falsifying the source’s content.
Peoples, “The Citation of Wikipedia in Judicial Opinions,” 12 Yale J. L. & Tech. 1, 24 (2010) (quoting Richards, “Courting Wikipedia,” Trial, at (April 2008)). Obviously, that kind of bootstrapping oneself into authority isn’t allowed. If lawyers want to cite ourselves, we should at least have to write law review articles.
So we thought it would be fun to see what we could find in the way of Wikipedia references in judicial opinions involving product liability litigation or prescription medical products, and even both. This post details what we found.
First, courts (or masters) have gotten in trouble for excessive reliance on Wikipedia. In a Vaccine Act case, a special master declined to hold a hearing, and instead relied on internet sources such as Wikipedia. That produced a reversal. As to Wikipedia, the court stated:
[T]he exhibit introduced by the Special Master indicates that its information was drawn from Wikipedia.com, a website that allows virtually anyone to upload an article into what is essentially a free, online encyclopedia. A review of the Wikipedia website reveals a pervasive and, for our purposes, disturbing series of disclaimers, among them, that: (i) any given Wikipedia article “may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized;” (ii) Wikipedia articles are “also subject to remarkable oversights and omissions;” (iii) “Wikipedia articles (or series of related articles) are liable to be incomplete in ways that would be less usual in a more tightly controlled reference work;” (iv) “[a]nother problem with a lot of content on Wikipedia is that many contributors do not cite their sources, something that makes it hard for the reader to judge the credibility of what is written;” and (v) “many articles commence their lives as partisan drafts” and may be “caught up in a heavily unbalanced viewpoint.”
Campbell v. Sec’y HHS, 69 Fed. Cl. 775, 781 (2006). But see Keeler v. Colvin, 2014 WL 4394467, at *3 (D. Colo. Sept. 4, 2014) (allowing administrative law judge to cite Wikipedia in vaccine case; “[t]his Court finds no per se prohibition on citing Wikipedia in judicial opinions”).