The New York City Asbestos Litigation Just Became More Complicated

Pursuant to the Decision and Order of the Hon. Sherry Klein Heitler, dated April 8, 2014, asbestos plaintiffs for the first time since 1996 may seek permission from the New York City trial judges to charge the jury on the issue of punitive damages. Until Judge Heitler’s ruling, the New York City Asbestos Litigation (“NYCAL”) Case Management Order, as amended May 26, 2011 (“CMO”), provided that counts for punitive damages were to be “deferred” until such time as the Court deemed otherwise, upon notice and hearing. Therefore, punitive damages still could be sought, but only after a hearing to determine if it was appropriate to award them.

The importance of Justice Heitler’s ruling cannot be understated. As she notes, “tens of thousands of complex, time-consuming asbestos personal injury actions have been filed in New York County Supreme Court alone.” Her ruling is likely to have an impact on the thousands of future or presently pending cases.

Justice Helen E. Freedman, who oversaw the creation of the CMO in 1988, which governs all NYCAL cases, explained in a well-reasoned Southwestern Law Review article published in 2012, why she added the provision in 1996 that punitive damages claims should be deferred. According to Justice Freedman:

1. Punitive damages have little or no place in asbestos litigation. To charge companies with punitive damages for wrongs committed twenty or thirty or more years before, serves no correct purpose. In many cases, the wrong was committed by a predecessor company, not even the company now charged, and the responsible individuals are long gone;

2. Punitive damages only deplete financial resources that are better used to compensate injured parties;

3. Since some states do not permit punitive damages, and the federal MDL, precludes them, disparate treatment among plaintiffs would result if permitted in New York City; and

4. No company should be punished repeatedly for the same wrong.

Justice Freedman’s rationale is as valid today as it was in 1996. The only thing that has changed is that multiple bankruptcies, oftentimes involving companies whose only wrongdoing was to acquire the stock of another entity with some asbestos involvement, continue to corrode the fiber of American industry and plaintiffs have look farther and farther afield to find “fresh” defendants, many of whom have only de minimis relationship to asbestos.

Although Justice Heitler contends that the defendants, in opposing the motion, failed to provide empirical proof that punitive damages awards have contributed to bankruptcies, she overlooks the reality that defendants make oversized settlements based upon their potential exposure and that the threat of punitive damages increases that exposure calculus exponentially. One only need read the Garlock decision written by the Hon. George R. Hodges, United States Bankruptcy Judge for the Western District of North Carolina, to appreciate how settlement negotiation leverage in asbestos litigation can contribute to corporate insolvency.

Justice Heitler bases her ruling on constitutional equal protection grounds. And yet, paradoxically, she seeks to minimize the potential repercussions of her ruling (and reassure defendants) by demonstrating how other New York asbestos courts have been restrained in awarding punitive damages due to both New York’s “heavy burden” for seeking punitives and federal due process standards. If the award of punitives in New York courts outside NYCAL’s jurisdiction is so difficult to obtain, where is the loss of equal protection by requiring the filing of a notice and conducting a hearing in NYCAL?

Justice Heitler was reassured by the plaintiff asbestos lawyers that, if punitives were to be permitted, they would not abuse this long sought after opportunity and only seek punitives in the most egregious cases. However, after giving the foxes the keys to the hen house, what leverage did she retain to ensure restraint? The Decision and Order seems to suggest that these particular foxes would be content to take one plump hen and be content. She writes:

“While Plaintiffs have evinced their intention not to abuse this opportunity, it is appropriate for the court to caution the plaintiffs’ bar not to overstep this permission by attempting to seek punitive damages indiscriminately. Punitive damages should only be sought in the most serious cases to correct for the most egregious conduct, and must present a valid reference to corrective action.”

Every plaintiff lawyer has a duty to maximize his client’s recovery in a personal injury action, particularly when the client is suffering from a horrific illness like mesothelioma. If the lawyer believes he can elicit a more attractive offer from a defendant by threatening to seek punitive damages, how could he not do so within the bounds of ethical conduct? Justice Heitler notes that the use of asbestos peaked in the 1960’s and 1970’s when asbestos was used in the more than 3,000 industrial applications. Today, there are probably none. If that is the case, how can a plaintiff make a “valid reference to corrective action” in any demand for punitive damages?

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Exposes Plaintiff Scheme To Suppress Asbestos Exposure Evidence

On January 10, 2014, the Hon. George R. Hodges, United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of North Carolina, handed down a decision that promises to be a “game changer” for asbestos manufacturers facing potentially crushing mesothelioma death claims. Top Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law reporter, Perry Cooper, discussed the decision and its potential ramifications in her recent article titled, “Sides Fiercely Divided Over Impact of Garlock Asbestos Bankruptcy Court Order” (2/26/14).

The issue before the Bankruptcy Court was how to determine a reasonable and reliable estimate of Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC’s (“Garlock”) liability for present and future mesothelioma claims. The court rejected the asbestos claimants’ $1.3 billion liability estimate in favor of Garlock’s $125 million estimate, an order of magnitude less.  Why did it do so?

The court initially determined that Garlock’s products resulted in a relatively low exposure to asbestos to only a limited population and that its legal responsibility for causing mesothelioma was relatively de minimis. During the early phase of the asbestos litigation in the 1980’s – when Garlock was generally named in complaints naming 20-50 more defendants – Garlock was very successful in settling its cases.

However, things changed for the worse by the early 2000’s, by which time large thermal insulation defendants had filed for bankruptcy and were no longer participants in the tort system. As the focus of plaintiffs’ attention turned to Garlock, as one of the remaining solvent defendants, evidence of plaintiffs’ exposure to other asbestos products often disappeared. As a result, plaintiffs’ law firms used their control over the evidence to drive up the settlements demanded of Garlock.

The crux of the court’s determination was that plaintiffs routinely denied exposure to other [bankrupt] companies’ asbestos products in pre-trial discovery and at trial, while often shortly thereafter filing multiple claims under oath with asbestos bankruptcy trusts. The “double-dipping” described by Judge Hodges where, for example, a plaintiff denies any exposure to insulation products, but after the case is settled, files 23 Trust claims, appears to be a widespread practice.

This conduct violates court rules and should be severely sanctioned if and when it comes to light. This decision shines a bright light on unethical practices in the plaintiff asbestos bar that may be a game changer particularly for manufacturers whose legal responsibility for causing mesothelioma, like Garlock, is relatively de minimis. It is the small players who are being pummeled by the lack of disclosure provided in these cases who should be seeking relief.

Garlock was able to demonstrate that in cases where it was able to obtain evidence of filed Trust claims and use them at trial, it generally had a successful trial result. In contrast, the thermal insulation defendants’ exodus from the tort system and the subsequent “disappearance” of evidence of exposure to their products, necessitated a sea change in Garlock’s negotiating and trial strategy.

Garlock demonstrated that the availability of comprehensive asbestos exposure information was often the difference between winning and losing at trial. If plaintiffs’ suppression of exposure evidence occurred in litigation against other defendants besides Garlock, it has likely resulted in higher asbestos settlements and judgments by as much as several hundred millions of dollars. At the same time, the contingency fees harvested by plaintiff lawyers in the asbestos litigation are staggering. But we should not assume that every plaintiff law firm improperly withholds exposure evidence. Cases should be examined on a case-by-case basis.

However, asbestos manufacturers are likely to bring increasing pressure on asbestos courts to compel plaintiffs to produce comprehensive evidence of asbestos exposure. The cookie-cutter management of large asbestos dockets often sweeps the legitimate concerns of asbestos defendants, particularly the smaller players, under the rug.

Trial courts should be encouraged to come up with creative means of ensuring judicial fairness. Depending upon the jurisdiction, this may involve having the trial court retain jurisdiction to reduce a verdict or settlement to account for post-verdict claims brought against other entities, who were not identified in the trial court. Alternatively, plaintiffs should be required to file Trust claims forms before trial or be judicially estopped from doing so after settlement.

RICO claims have been successfully brought against plaintiff law firms for fraud in the past. Judge Hodges’ decision, and the underlying evidence upon which it is based, provides Garlock with strong ammunition to pursue RICO claims. Additionally, the law firms identified by Judge Hodges may be subject to increasing scrutiny by the asbestos courts in the jurisdictions where they practice. Like the asbestos defendants of yesteryear, these well-heeled plaintiff law firms make for deep-pocketed defendants.

Applying The Brakes To "Take-Home" Asbestos Claims

The typical “take-home” plaintiff is a bystander such as the child who claims she was exposed to asbestos while playing in the basement where her father’s work clothes covered with asbestos dust were laundered. Across the United States, the battle lines are being drawn in these “take-home” or “household” asbestos cases.  In a prior article, we examined how various courts around the country analyzed the issues of "duty" and "forseeability" presented by these cases. 

On July 8, 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals, in a case titled Georgia-Pacific LLC v. Farrar, reversed a lower court judgment in a case involving “take-home” for “household” asbestos exposure. The court rejected the trial court’s use of a broad foreseeability standard to identify the scope of a product manufacturer’s duty. Rather, the appeals court adopted a standard that examined foreseeability based on scientific knowledge about the potential harm to non-users at the time the product was used. At the same time, the court also offered a healthy dose of skepticism whether it was even feasible to warn non-users of product dangers.

The Maryland high court relied, in part, upon a 2005 New York State Court of Appeals holding in Matter of NYC Asbestos Litigation.  In that case, the plaintiff John Holdampf was employed by the Port Authority from 1960-1996 in various blue collar positions, during which time Holdampf was exposed to asbestos. Although the Port Authority offered laundry service, much of the time he opted to bring his dirty work clothes home for cleaning for reasons of convenience and because there were no showers available at work.

Elizabeth Holdampf, who washed her husband’s soiled uniforms, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2001. In ruling on behalf of the Port Authority, the Court of Appeals rejected her argument that the Port Authority’s status as an employer placed it in a position to control or prevent John Holdampf from going home with asbestos-contaminated work clothes or to provide warnings to him and other employees and through them, to household members such as her.

The New York high court was also skeptical of plaintiff’s assurances that a ruling in favor of Elizabeth Holdampf would not result in “limitless liability” finding that drawing a line, once a precedent was established, would not be so easy to draw.  The Court of Appeals' cautionary  language concerning the risk of  potentially "limitless liability" is instructive. 

In sum, plaintiffs are, in effect, asking us to upset our long-settled common-law notions of an employer’s and landowner’s duties. Plaintiffs assure us that this will not lead to ‘limitless liability’ because the new duty may be confined to members of the household of the employer’s employee, or to members of the household of those who come onto the landlord’s premises.

This line is not so easy to draw, however. For example, an employer would certainly owe the new duty to an employee’s spouse (assuming the spouse lives with the employee), but probably would not owe the duty to a babysitter who takes care of children in the employee’s home five days a week. But the spouse may not have more exposure than the babysitter to whatever hazardous substances the employee may have introduced into the home from the workplace. Perhaps, for example, the babysitter (or maybe an employee of a neighborhood laundry) launders the family members’ clothes. In short … the specter of limitless liability is banished only when the class of potential plaintiffs to whom the duty is owed is circumscribed by the relationship. Here, there is no relationship between the Port Authority and [plaintiff].

Finally, we must consider the likely consequences of adopting the expanded duty urged by plaintiffs. While logic might suggest (and plaintiffs maintain) that the incidence of asbestos-related disease allegedly caused by the kind of secondhand exposure at issue in this case is rather low, experience counsels that the number of new plaintiffs’ claims would not necessarily reflect that reality

Despite the cautionary alarm sounded by the New York Court of Appeals concerning the danger of "limitless liability", New York trial courts continue to distinguish cases on their facts to permit recovery for "take-home" claimants. 

On May 13, 2013, Justice Sherry Klein Heitler, the presiding judge for the New York City Asbestos Litigation, denied a motion for summary judgment brought by the Long Island Railroad (“LIRR”) in Frieder v. Long Island Railroad,  a case in which the injured party, Morton Frieder, was diagnosed with mesothelioma despite having never worked hands-on with asbestos-containing materials. Frieder spent seven years working in a diner (appropriately named, as any LIRR commuter would agree, the "'Dashing Dan Diner) located within the gated premises of the LIRR’s Morris Park train repair yard, where asbestos-containing materials were used “routinely” by the LIRR. 

Judge Heitler determined that while Mr. Frieder never worked hands-on with asbestos, he testified that a “couple hundred” LIRR workers would dine at the diner during breakfast, coffee breaks and lunch daily. These LIRR workers never changed out of their work clothes before eating at the diner. When they came into the diner “they would bang off their boots, take their gloves off and throw them on the counter. If they had a coat or jacket on, they would just shake it off” causing “dust all over the place” that required Mr. Frieder and other diner workers to perform “really heavy sweeping and cleanup of the diner.”

Judge Heitler ruled that the Court of Appeals holding in Holdampf could not be relied upon by the LIRR because the facts presented in Frieder were different, to wit, LIRR had control of the workplace where the dinner was located (inside the walls of the rail yard).   Under this unique set of facts, she reasoned, her ruling would neither run afoul of Holdampf nor open the floodgates of "limitless liability".  Based upon her discussion of the "take-home" case law, Judge Heitler appears prepared to apply the brakes to "take-home" asbestos claims in New York City. 

When Should Data Underlying Scientific Studies Be Discoverable?

There is significant tension between the goals of scientific research and the demands of litigation. For scientific researchers, the amount of time required to respond to discovery takes away valuable time that might be otherwise devoted to research. Injustice and unfairness may result when a scientist, who has taken no part in a litigation, is served with a lengthy subpoena requiring him to devote large chunks of time to produce the required information. 

In an article published in the journal Neurology by Brad A. Racette, MD; Ann Bradley, JD; Carrie A. Wrisberg, JD; and Joel S. Perlmutter, MD, titled “The Impact of Litigation on Neurologic Research,” Neurology 67(12):2124 (Dec. 2006), the authors complain about the burden of time responding to discovery demands:  

"Any hint of scientific data that support such a cause and effect relationship often encourages plaintiffs' attorneys to file suits against corporations alleging harm to their clients forcing corporations and employers to defend themselves. Both plaintiff and defendant teams hire expert witnesses who are frequently active investigators in relevant fields to bolster their positions. These legal proceedings can influence investigators and hamper research. Interactions with researchers can lead to personal financial or career gain that may bias research findings or impugn other investigators. Even researchers who have not been retained by either side of a legal dispute may be forced to respond to subpoenas for research data causing a substantial loss of research time for investigators and financial burdens on universities. Courts may require release of research records containing personal health information that could sully the trust research participants have in investigators. Litigation and its peripheral effects may bias investigators, impede research efforts, and harm research participants, thereby undermining efforts to understand the cause of neurologic disease."

In a rejoinder to this article, defendant’s counsel in the Welding Fume  Products Liability Litigation, Nathan A. Schachtman, wrote in a reply titled, “Response: The Impact of Litigation on Neurologic Research,Neurology 69(5):495 (Apr. 2007), that the Racette article offered a one-sided, incomplete picture of the interaction between scientific research and the law. 

Schachtman observes that the authors failed to disclose that the welder screenings for their study were funded by plaintiffs as part of an effort to solicit personal injury clients. Defendants served subpoenas to obtain the study’s underlying data only after plaintiffs’ counsel heavily relied on the authors’ study. Thus, Schachtman argues, the authors were not disinterested researchers inadvertently caught up in litigation. He states, “the authors collaborated with plaintiffs’ counsel so closely that counsel invoked litigation privileges to cloak the work in secrecy.” 

 In what might be characterized as a sur-reply, Dr. Racette responded that his early collaboration with the plaintiffs had been greatly overstated.  Perhaps the best advice, albeit cynical,  to scientific researchers may be to steer completely clear of lawyers at all costs and to avoid the temptation to be "helpful" to lawyers involved in litigation. Of course, the legal profession is the worse off if the best scientists are fearful of becoming involved in the judicial system. 

How then  is a court to balance the competing needs for transparency in litigation and permitting scientific researchers, often unrepresented by counsel, with the peace and tranquility necessary to perform their research?  As the court observed in In Re Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation, 534 F.Supp.2d 761 (2008), Dr. Racette had performed some assessments for plaintiffs’ counsel during the nascent stages of the MDL, but later severed his ties with plaintiffs and took no more payments from them. Under these circumstances, the MDL court opted in favor of disclosure. The MDL court reasoned that where an author publishes an article with a view toward litigation, a probability of bias exists which undermines the logic supporting the admission of this material through the “learned treatise” exception to the hearsay rule. In some cases, the “learned treatise” is excluded from evidence due to the taint of suspected bias. On other occasions, the treatise is admitted but subject to impeachment on cross-examination. 

The difficulty arises when a party’s expert reaches his expert opinions by relying on a study performed by a scientific researcher who is completely disinterested in the litigation. In this instance, what intrusion into this scientist’s life will be permitted? Merely because an author has reached a conclusion that dissatisfies one side or the other in litigation should not make that scientific researcher a “target” of a burdensome subpoena.

Pursuant to a very different set of facts, the Appellate Division, First Department, recently ruled in Weitz & Luxenberg v. Georgia-Pacific LLC, 2013 N.Y. Slip.Op. 04127 (6/6/13), that Georgia-Pacific must turn over for in camera review by the Court internal communications related to scientific studies it commissioned into the safety of its products. This discovery dispute arose in the context of the Weitz & Luxenberg  New York City Asbestos Litigation (“NYCAL”) cases in which Georgia-Pacific is a defendant. 

In 2005, Georgia-Pacific funded eight published research studies to aid in its defense of asbestos-related litigation. To facilitate this endeavor, Georgia-Pacific entered into a special employment relationship with Stewart Holm, its Director of Toxicology and Chemical Management, to perform expert consulting services under the auspices of in-house counsel, whom the Court found was significantly involved in the pre-publication process. 

The studies at issue were designed to cast doubt on the capability of chrysotile asbestos to cause cancer. The Court observed that despite the extensive participation of in-house counsel, none of the articles disclosed in-house counsel’s involvement. Citing the In Re Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation,  the Appellate Division determined that, “large corporations often invest strategically in research agendas whose objective is to develop a body of scientific knowledge favorable to a particular economic interest or useful for defending against particular claims of legal liability.” 

In determining that the studies and related documents should be subject to in camera scrutiny, the Court stated that the trial court was rightfully wary of prejudicing plaintiffs by permitting the sudden introduction of the studies or experts on the eve of trial, or in the many other pending asbestos cases. Therefore, the principles of fairness, as well as the spirit of the Case Management Order, required more complete disclosure. The Court held that it would be inappropriate to permit Georgia-Pacific to use its expert’s conclusions as a sword by seeding the scientific literature with Georgia-Pacific-funded studies, while at the same time using the privilege as a shield, by withholding the underlying raw data that might be prone to scrutiny by the opposing party which may affect the veracity of its expert’s conclusions. In its in camera review, the court will evaluate whether the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege applies to certain of the client communications in dispute. 

In high stakes toxic tort litigation, such as the NYCAL or Welding Fume litigations, it is not unusual for both well-heeled plaintiffs and defendants to fund studies to support their positions in litigation. In such instances, most courts will require extensive disclosure of the data underlying these studies’ findings. 

However, this is very different from the situation  where an independent scientist, who is uninvolved in any litigation, finds that his scientific research and underlying data is the subject of litigation scrutiny. Although some discovery may be appropriate in these instances, forcing scientific researchers to devote an inordinate amount of their time complying with litigation requests may have a chilling effect on the research community’s willingness to take on scientific challenges relating to important public health issues. 

MDL Asbestos Judge Holds Navy Ship Not A "Product" Under Strict Liability Law

Guest bloggers David M. Governo and Corey M. Dennis are attorneys at Governo Law Firm in Boston, where they focus on the defense of toxic tort, product liability, environmental, and insurance coverage claims. Mr. Governo is the immediate past Chairman of the Toxic Tort and Environmental Law Section of the Federation of Defense & Corporate Counsel (FDCC).

Earlier this month, Judge Robreno of the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who presides over the federal Asbestos Products Liability Litigation consolidated Multidistrict Litigation docket (MDL 875), considered an issue of first impression under maritime law in Mack v. General Electric Company, MDL-875, No. 2:10-78940-ER, 2012 WL 4717918 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 3, 2012): whether a Navy ship is a “product” under strict product liability law.

The defendants were Navy ship builders—General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, and Todd Pacific Shipyards—who moved for summary judgment on the ground that a Navy ship is not a product for which strict product liability applies and that the sophisticated user defense relieved them of liability. Judge Robreno agreed that a Navy ship is not a “product” for purposes of strict product liability law, reasoning that: (1) the role of a Navy ship builder is “more like a provider of a service” than “a manufacturer or supplier of a product”; and (2) imposing liability on a Navy shipbuilder for thousands of products would be an undue burden likely to discourage shipbuilding. He concluded, therefore, that the manufacturers of the various asbestos-containing products aboard the ships, rather than the ship builders, should “bear the burden of preventing harm” to Navy seamen.

Judge Robreno also adopted the “sophisticated user” defense under maritime law, which relieves a product manufacturer of its duty to warn end users who are “sophisticated” regarding the hazards of the product by virtue of their training, education, or employment. However, he rejected the defendants’ argument that the Navy’s sophistication regarding asbestos discharged their duty to warn the plaintiff, finding that the lack of evidence of the seaman plaintiff’s sophistication was fatal to the defense.

Judge Robreno limited the applicability of the sophisticated user defense under maritime law, concluding that the defense only applies: (1) to negligent failure to warn claims; and (2) where the end user himself (e.g., Navy seaman) was a sophisticated user of the product. As a result, the defendants’ motions for summary judgment were granted as to the plaintiff’s strict liability claims, but denied as to the plaintiff’s negligent failure to warn claims.

While not binding precedent, the Mack decision represents persuasive authority that Navy ship builders may rely on to establish that they should not be held liable, at least under strict liability, for Navy ships. However, Judge Robreno’s ruling on the sophisticated user defense, the applicability of which varies greatly by jurisdiction, is less helpful for defendants. Although he adopted the sophisticated user defense under maritime law, under his interpretation, the sophisticated user defense is very limited.

 This ruling is at odds with the laws of some states, including Massachusetts. See Carrel v. Nat'l Cord & Braid Corp., 447 Mass. 431, 441 (2006) (adopting sophisticated user doctrine as a defense to claims of negligent failure to warn and failure to warn under breach of warranty, as pertaining to end users or intermediaries); Taylor v. Am. Chemistry Council, 576 F.3d 16, 25 (1st Cir. 2009) (explaining sophisticated user defense applies to end users or intermediate parties, such as employers).

Toxic Tort Plaintiff's Feet Held To Fire On Causation Evidence In New York

New York’s appellate courts continue to hold toxic tort plaintiffs and their experts to rigorous standards when it comes to proof of causation. To escape an adverse summary judgment ruling, it is not enough for a plaintiff to merely allege, with the support of an expert, that she was exposed to a toxic substance, and that this exposure resulted in the illness alleged. Rather, the plaintiff must raise a triable issue of fact as to her “exposure to a specific toxin or allergen; quantify the level of exposure to some degree; and posit that such level of exposure was sufficient to produce the alleged injuries.” Such was the holding of the Appellate Division, First Department, in Cleghorne v. City of New York, (2012 NY Slip Op 06648), decided on October 4, 2012.

Cleghorne was a school teacher employed by the New York City Board of Education. She claims that after her school was relocated to the Bronx in 2000, she developed respiratory problems while cleaning her classroom at the new location. Thereafter, she was diagnosed with asthma and bronchitis. After returning to work about a month later, she had an asthma attack at the school and was hospitalized. At her General Municipal Law § 50-h examination in September 2001, Cleghorne testified that she developed a persistent cough while cleaning her classroom and a storage area in the new building and that afterward her condition deteriorated. In October 2001, she commenced an action against the Board of Education and others.

 In 2010, both sides moved for summary judgment. Each side presented their own experts’ medical affidavits. The defendants’ physician, Jack J. Adler, a pulmonologist, determined that plaintiff had developed asthma prior to moving to the new school location. Adler opined that the environmental contaminants at the school did not cause the condition. He reported that plaintiff suffered from atopic or allergic asthma and that she was allergic to several common allergens, including tree and ragweed pollen, dust mites, dogs, cats, cockroaches, mold, spores and mouse and rat antigens, none of which were exclusive to her school. Because these environmental contaminants are extremely prevalent, Dr. Adler opined that she would have similar symptoms in any urban environment.

Cleghorne stated in her affidavit (which the court noted was executed more than nine years after the relevant events) that the school premises “were replete with rodents, rodent carcases, rodent droppings, cobwebs, cockroaches, cockroach and other bug carcasses, mildew, thick-black dust, and excessive dirt, and had numerous ceiling tiles that were water damaged and broken.” In addition, mold was in the ceiling tiles by the vents, on the walls, and in the closets. Her daily routine was to clean out all of this material before starting class.

Based upon Cleghorne’s affidavit, her expert, Dr. Hugh Cassiere, opined that Cleghorne was exposed to a “high level” of daily inhalation of these allergens, which caused her to develop “airway hyperresponsiveness.” Faced with two sets of dueling summary judgment motions, the trial court determined that questions of fact required the denial of both motions.

 In its opinion, the Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously reversed, holding that the trial court should have dismissed plaintiff’s case. Relying on the Court of Appeals landmark case, Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., the First Department held that Cleghorne had failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to the specific toxin or allergen; that she had failed to quantify the level of exposure; and that she had failed to posit (through her expert) that such level of exposure was sufficient to produce the alleged injury.

In pertinent part, the Court held,

"While Parker recognizes that the level of exposure need not always be quantified “precisely,” it is still necessary that “whatever methods an expert uses to establish causation [they be] generally accepted in the [medical] community”… such methods include “mathematical modeling or comparing plaintiff’s exposure level to those of study subjects whose exposure levels were precisely determined."

In Cleghorne, the court found that the only so-called “method” plaintiff’s expert used to establish specific causation was to “accept, at face value, the anecdotal allegations of plaintiff’s uncorroborated affidavit that she was exposes to dust, bugs, rodent droppings and carcases in unspecified quantities and began experiencing asthma, purportedly for the first time, as a result.”
Although plaintiff’s expert characterized  Cleghorne’s exposure as “high level,” the Court found that this assessment was an insufficient basis for his causation theory and that plaintiff’s use of the term “replete” in her affidavit was a “meaningless and vague quantifying adjective.”

Significantly, the court held that an expert’s calculation of the level of exposure may not be based upon assumptions not supported by the record and faulted the plaintiff’s expert for not providing any scientific measurement or employing any accepted method of extrapolating such a measurement. Moreover, plaintiff offered no other evidence concerning the “level of allergens or toxins present in the school.” Although Dr. Cassiere did cite six studies in support of his theory of causation, he failed to compare plaintiff’s exposure level to those of any of the study subjects.

What lessons does Cleghorne provide?

1. Although New York state trial courts are generally reluctant to dismiss the personal injury claim of a sympathetic plaintiff, there is strong precedent in the appellate courts that favors dismissal of toxic tort lawsuits without appropriate scientific support. Therefore, making a strong appellate record below, either on summary judgment or at trial, is essential for achieving a successful outcome;

2. Although some commentators are critical of the Frye rule in New York state court (preferring instead the federal Daubert rule), New York has developed some rigorous Frye jurisprudence. Therefore, all is not lost if you are in New York state court and seek to exclude plaintiff’s expert;

 3. A rigorous analysis of plaintiff’s expert’s opinions, expressed either in his affidavit or CPLR 3101(d) expert witness disclosure, is essential. As reflected in Cleghorne, plaintiff’s expert must be able to quantify the level of exposure albeit not “precisely.” However, plaintiff’s methodology must include “mathematical modeling” or, alternatively, a comparison of plaintiff’s exposure level to the exposure level of study subjects in the scientific studies cited by the expert in support of his theory of causation. It is not sufficient to use words like “replete” or “daily” in quantifying an exposure to a toxin or allergen; and

4. The trial court should be cautioned that, in opposing a motion for summary judgment, it is not sufficient for plaintiff’s expert to rely solely on plaintiff’s "anecdotal" remarks seeking to link cause and injury.


Contradictory Testimony No Basis for Denial Of Summary Judgment

All too often, a defendant in a toxic tort case loses a motion for summary judgment because the court determines that imprecise witness testimony creates a triable issue of fact that warrants denial of the motion. Indeed, it is the rule in California that the task of deciphering the meaning of “ambiguous” witness testimony is a role reserved for the jury. Reid v. Google, Inc. (2010) 50 Cal.4th 512, 541, 113 Cal.Rptr. 3d 327, 235 P.3d.988

Thus, quoting from this oft-cited case, plaintiffs routinely argue that “the task of disambiguating ambiguous utterances is for trial, not for summary judgment.” Other California holdings suggest that an inconsistency in witness testimony does not require that the testimony be disregarded in its entirety; rather, it is for the trier of fact to determine what weight the testimony should be given. Clemmer v. Hartford Insurance Co. (1978) 22 Cal.3d 865.

On May 4, 2012, the Bloomberg BNA Toxic Law Reporter reported on the recent  decision in Davis v. Foster Wheeler Energy Corp., Cal. Ct. App., No. B226089, 4/26/12, where the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District drew a sharp distinction between testimony that was “ambiguous” and testimony that was “internally contradictory.”  In affirming summary judgment, the court found that no triable issue of fact was established where the witness testimony was contradictory. Here are the pertinent facts.

Ronald Davis worked at a chemical plant in Torrance, California in the 1960’s. He later developed mesothelioma, and died in 2009. Among others, the plaintiff sued Foster Wheeler, alleging negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and loss of consortium. Foster Wheeler moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not manufacture, sell, or distribute any asbestos-containing product, and that the decedent was not exposed to asbestos dust by any Foster Wheeler product. The trial court granted summary judgment and plaintiffs appealed.

The plaintiffs argued that there was a triable issue concerning whether Davis was exposed to asbestos dust when Foster Wheeler employees, such a decedent, stripped old asbestos-containing insulation from the outside of boilers during maintenance activity. Key to the plaintiffs’ appeal was the deposition of Claude Chabot, a witness who initially claimed that he observed a maintenance worker stripping insulation wearing a hat with “FW” on the brim. However, in a later deposition, Mr. Chabot testified that he had no information whether any Foster Wheeler personnel removed or installed insulation on the boilers at the plant.

Under these circumstances, the trial court decided that “no reasonable jury considering this opposing testimony would conclude that the [Foster Wheeler] workers are the workers who removed the asbestos insulation around the Foster Wheeler boiler.” The appeals court agreed that Mr. Chabot’s internally contradictory testimony did not establish the existence of a triable issue of fact.

I have not examined whether other jurisdictions draw a similar distinction between “ambiguous” and “contradictory” or “internally inconsistent” testimony, but if they do not, perhaps they should. In many toxic tort cases, defense counsel may be confronted with potentially adverse testimony from a witness who is testifying to recollections that may be decades old. (Did the witness see that FW hat at the plant or at a UCLA football game?)

One school of thought is to leave adverse testimony alone. Pursuant to this view, taking an expanded deposition of plaintiff’s witness would only make the “record” worse. The holding in Davis suggests that this view may be shortsighted. The adverse witness who provides an affidavit to plaintiff’s counsel may be doing so out of sympathy for a co-worker who has died or suffers from a serious illness. A witness’s recollection of events is often different when the witness is deposed, possibly on videotape, in a formal deposition setting. It is possible that the witness, who provided the unhelpful affidavit, may be willing to admit in deposition that his recollection of long past events may be faulty or possibly inaccurate.

Eliciting contradictory testimony from a witness may not necessarily mean that the witness is dishonest or hostile. Rather, it reflects the tendency in all of us to want to be helpful. Foster Wheeler’s counsel skillfully developed inconsistencies in the witness’s testimony and thereby obtained dismissal from the case. There is no reason why “inconsistent” or “internally contradictory” testimony from witnesses, perhaps originally adverse, should not be disregarded by trial courts in other jurisdictions besides California.

US Supreme Court Rules Asbestos Claim Preempted

Guest Blogger Nicolas S. Allison  is an Associate in Epstein Becker & Green's Asbestos Group in New York. A graduate of Princeton University and Boston University Law School, in addition to his mass tort asbestos work, Nick also represents firm clients in a wide variety of industries, including financial institutions, health care providers and health care insurers.  He also defends environmental claims brought under the New York State Navigation Law.  In discussing the Supreme Court's recent decision in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Products Corp, Nick and I examine the reasoning of  the majority opinon, the concurring opinion and the concurring/dissenting opinion and how the justices address plaintiff's failure to warn and design defect claims in light of the preemption under the Locomotive Inspection Act . 

On February 29, 2012, the Supreme Court issued a preemption decision in Kurns v. Railroad Friction Production Corp, an asbestos product liability case. The case is noteworthy for product liability and toxic tort practitioners because of the Court's split analysis concerning the potential preemptive effect of federal legislation on failure to warn claims.

Plaintiff's decedent, George Corson, was a machinist for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. As a machinist, his duties included the removal and replacement of asbestos-containing brake shoes and insulation on the company’s locomotives. In 2005,  Corson was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, after which Corson sued several dozen manufacturers, including  part suppliers of the railroad company's locomotives. The trial court granted summary judgment to the railroad supplier defendants on preemption grounds and the Third Circuit affirmed. The issue before the Supreme Court was whether federal preemption should result in dismissal not just of the design defect claim, but to the failure to warn claim as well 

Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Thomas summarily rejected Plaintiff’s argument that, as a distinct cause of action, her failure to warn claim was not preempted by federal law. Thomas reasoned that “the ‘gravamen’ of petitioners’ failure to warn claims ‘is still that [Corson] suffered harmful consequences as a result of his exposure to asbestos contained in the locomotive parts.” By summarily rejecting the argument and conflating failure to warn claims with defective design claims, Thomas does little to present a concrete roadmap for evaluating the preemptive effect of federal law involving product liability causes of action.

Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Justice Sotomayor more or less adopted plaintiff’s approach, drawing a distinction between failure to warn claims and design defect claims. Sotomayor reasoned that "a product may be flawlessly designed and still subject its manufacturer or seller to liability for lack of adequate instructions or warnings."  Despite  a scholarly analysis of product liability jurisprudence,  Sotomayor did not persuasively explain how the distinction precludes the preemptive effect of the federal legislation at issue. It is noteworthy that her analysis failed to persuade six other justices on the Court.  .

In practical terms, Justice Kagan’s concurring opinion possibly articulates the strongest underpinning of the majority opinion.  Her preemption analysis examined the broad regulatory authority granted under the Locomotive Inspection Act.  Kagan reasoned that “if an agency has the power to prohibit the use of locomotive equipment, it also has the power to condition the use of that equipment on proper warnings.” Under this reasoning, Kagan determined that because the agency could have required warnings about the equipment's use, the petitioner's failure to warn claim, no less than her defective design claims, was  preempted.  Thus, under Kagan’s preemptive analysis, regulatory silence has the same preemptive effect as explicit regulation.

This case represents an unusual application of field preemption--unusual because there is no indication that Congress intended to foreclose all state action concerning railroad safety rather than just the regulation of equipment used by the railroad.  Some commentators have sought to isolate the case from other preemption jurisprudence by arguing that the outcome of the case may have been different  if the Court did not feel bound by the precedent established in a 1926 Supreme Court case, Napier v. Atlantic Coast Line. Still others have argued that the case represents an usual  departure for Justice Thomas, who generally narrowly construes the scope of  federal power over the states.

What is intruiging for product liability defense counsel is the idea, impliedly advanced by Justice Kagan, that warnings and instructions (the part of the product conveyed in print) should be treated as just another part of a product's design and not as the basis for an independent cause of action.  For the past several decades, plaintiffs have always had two bites at the apple--defectiive design and failure to warn. If the product was flawlessly designed, they could retreat to their warning claim.  If the product had terrific warnings, they could argue in the alternative that the poor design of the product could not be cured by strong warnings.  If this case is interpreted by future trial courts (in a non-preemption context) to mean that a failure to warn claim should be considered as part and parcel of a defective design claim, rather than a separate claim, manufacturers will have obtained an important precedent in Kurns.  Only time will tell.





Fiber Type Crucial In Defending Asbestos Claims

Asbestos defendants are frequently faced with medical causation testimony from the plaintiff that asserts that, because there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure, any exposure above some ill-defined “background” level is a substantial contributing factor to the plaintiff’s asbestos-related injury. This theory has become the centerpiece of modern asbestos litigation and discourages minimal exposure cases from going to the jury. However, a strong defense can be mounted to a minimal exposure case, particularly if plaintiff alleges exposure to chrysotile asbestos fibers.

For the toxic tort defense lawyer, an understanding of the two major families of asbestos is critical. From a toxicity standpoint, amphibole asbestos fibers are more potentially toxic than fibers of the serpentine family. Amphiboles tend to: (1) be acid resistant; (2) be persistent in the body; (3) be straight fibers; and (4) contain iron. By comparison,chrysotile asbestos, a member of the serpentine family, has a much more lower toxicity profile, particularly in low exposure settings. Chrysotile: (1) breaks down in the body; (2) is acid soluble; (3) has a soft pliable curly shape; and (4) contains dissolvable magnesium. Because the body handles chrysotile fibers differently, chrysotile is much less potent than amphibole asbestos. An examination of the toxicological literature demonstrates that the mesothelioma mortality risk is much greater from amphibole exposure as compared to chrysotile exposure.

At a meeting of the IADC in February 2012, William G. Hughson, M.D., D.Phil., expressed criticism of the expert opinions commonly expressed by plaintiff experts in asbestos cases concerning chrysotile. Dr. Hughson is the Director of the University of California at San Diego Center for Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Dr. Hughson rejects the view that any exposure above background is a substantial contributing factor to disease and that dose has no bearing on causation. At the same meeting, Bob Manlowe, a lawyer with Seattle-based Williams Kastner, delivered a paper titled, “Literature Refuting Single-Fiber Theory and Zero-No-Threshold/Linear-Dose-Model.” For the asbestos practitioner, the two papers provide a valuable road map to cross-examining plaintiff experts and defending mesiothelioma cases involving chrysotile asbestos.

No Liability for Others' Asbestos Products

The Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law Reporter reported this morning concerning an important new decision from the Supreme Court of California in O'Neil v. Crane Co., Cal., No. S177401, 1/12/12
In summary, California's high court reaffirmed the principle that a product manufacturer may not be held strictly liable or negligent for harm caused by another maker's product, except where the defendant has some direct responsibility for the harm.  In so holding, California refused to open the floodgates in the asbestos litigation to permit suits against manufacturers that never manufacturer or marketed asbestos-containing products.

Joining the majority of other jurisdictions that have considered the issue, California's highest court held that California law did not impose liability on manufacturers of shipboard valves and pumps used in conjunction with asbestos-containing parts made by others.  In this case, the high court reversed the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, which ruled in favor of the family of Patrick O'Neil, a naval officer allegedly exposed to asbestos from 1965 to 1967. O'Neil died of mesothelioma, a disease caused by asbestos, at 62.                                                                                  
 “[A] product manufacturer generally may not be held strictly liable for harm caused by another manufacturer's product. The only exceptions to this rule arise when the defendant bears some direct responsibility for the harm,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The court rejected the family's argument that Crane Co. and Warren Pumps LLC, which made valves and pumps used on the ship, should be held strictly liable because they foresaw that their products would be used with replacement asbestos parts. The rationale for the Court's holding is that  “[T]he foreseeability of harm, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for imposing strict liability on the manufacturer of a nondefective product, or one whose arguably defective product does not actually cause harm.”   The Court left open the possibility for imposing liability for a non-manufacturer of asbestos in instances where it could be shown that “the defendant's own product contributed substantially to the harm” or “the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.”  However, that was clearly not the case here.

As to the plaintiff's negligence claims, the Court held that the defendants pump and valve companies owed no duty of care in the circumstances, based on “strong policy considerations.”
The companies' connection to O'Neil's injury was remote because they did not manufacture the asbestos-containing products; imposing a duty would be unlikely to prevent future harm; the Navy made its own purchasing choices and specifications; and consumers could potentially be harmed by too many product warnings, the court reasoned.

Increasingly, the plaintiff bar is seeking to impose strict product liabililty on manufacturers whose products did not cause the alleged harm.  This trend in asbestos cases is not dissimiliar from those pharmaceutical product  liability cases in which the plaintiffs seek to hold a brand name drug manufacturer liable, whose product was never taken by the injured party, for injuries allegedly caused by a generic manufacturer's product.  These lawsuits are offensive to longstanding product liability case law and policy and should be rejected by the courts. 

"Take-home" Toxic Tort Exposure Claims

The concepts of “duty” and “foreseeability” figure prominently in any discussion of “take-home” toxic tort exposure claims. In an insightful article appearing in BNA Toxics Law Reporter, dated November 3, 2011, Christine G. Rolph,Arthur F. Foerster andHans H. Grong of Latham & Watkins discuss “take-home” exposure claims in asbestos litigation. The typical “take-home” plaintiff is a bystander such as the child who claims she was exposed to asbestos while playing in the basement where her father’s work clothes were laundered.

Latham & Watkins performs a national survey of “take-home” exposure claims. They observe that a plaintiff’s success in these claims depends heavily on whether the court applies a “relationship” or “foreseeability” analysis. The defense-favorable “relationship” analysis focuses on the nexus between the plaintiff and the defendant company. Without the ability to show a close relationship, the article points out, the “relationship” courts have been unwilling to impose a duty. The plaintiff-favorable “foreseeability” test, on the other hand, focuses on whether a risk of harm reasonably could have been predicted. The application of these two approaches creates very different results. For example, in CSX Transportation, Inc. v. Williams, 608 S.E. 2d 208 (Ga. 2005), the Supreme Court of Georgia declined to impose liability on an employer as the result of the non-employee plaintiff coming into contact with asbestos-tainted work clothing at the employee’s home. Although the Georgia court recognized that “an employer owes a duty to his employee to furnish a reasonably safe place to work,” the court found that this duty did not extend to third-parties who came into contact with the asbestos-tainted work clothing away from the workplace. Clearly, if the George Supreme Court had applied a foreseeability analysis, the result would have been very different. Courts that apply a foreseeability analysis often infer that companies should have known of the risk of harm to secondarily exposed persons because of their knowledge that asbestos exposure is dangerous generally. For example, in Olivo v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 895 A.2d 1143 (N.J. 2006), the court found that a risk of injury to the employee’s spouse should have been foreseeable to the defendant because it was aware of the risk of injury due to an asbestos exposure of sufficient duration and intensity. The problem with this line of cases is the failure to examine whether the bystander risk was actually reasonably foreseeable as of the date of alleged exposure.

Recently, some “foreseeability” courts have been applying a more rigorous analysis in determining whether a “bystander exposure” risk was foreseeable. In Martin v. Cincinnati Gas & Elec. Co., 561 F.3d 439 (6th Cir. 2009) (applying Kentucky law), the Sixth Circuit held that no duty was owed by the defendant because there was no evidence that a “bystander exposure” risk was foreseeable during the 1951-1963 time frame, when the alleged negligence occurred. In Martin, and other recent cases, courts examined the scientific literature to determine precisely when the defendant “should have known” about any alleged harm. The Sixth Circuit observed that although studies existed regarding exposure of workers and neighbors to asbestos emissions in factories and mines, the first studies on family members of asbestos-exposed workers were not published until 1965. Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit determined that the risk to plaintiff Martin was not foreseeable. In June 2011, an Illinois appellate court dismissed a “take-home” exposure case in Estate of Holmes v. Pneumo Abex, 2011 WL 2517420 (Ill. App. Ct. 4th Dist. June 22, 2011), where the court made clear that the plaintiff, to prevail, had to show that the defendants were “aware of concrete evidence of take-home exposure as opposed to the more prevalent literature involving direct exposure.” Thus, these cases signal a willingness by some courts to more closely examine historical knowledge and scientific information when applying the “foreseeability” test to take-home claims.

Courts Reject "Single Fiber" Theory Of Asbestos Causation

A Sixth Circuit case, Moeller v. Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC, 2011 U.S.App.Lexis 19987 (6th Cir. Sept. 28, 2011), is the most recent in a series of judicial decisions that have rejected the opinions of plaintiffs’ experts in asbestos cases who espouse the “any exposure” or “any fiber” or “single fiber” theory of causation.  Pursuant to this specious line of reasoning, asbestos disease is a cumulative dose response process. Each and every exposure to asbestos during a person’s lifetime, no matter how small or trivial – even a single fiber – substantially contributes to the disease, whether it be asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. Using this theory of causation, plaintiffs have initiated a wave of new lawsuits against defendants far removed from the production of asbestos containing products.  As defense practitioners are well aware, successfully challenging weak causation expert opinions is key to winning any toxic exposure case, whether it involves asbestos or some other substance.

In a “must read” column in the New York Law Journal, dated October 19, 2011 titled "Courts Shoot Down Asbestos Causation Theory", Michael Hoenig, whose law firm defends asbestos case litigation, describes how plaintiff experts are promoting the “any fiber” or “any exposure” theory in courtrooms across the country and how a series of notable judicial decisions have begun to reject these theories as the underlying scientific methodology is subjected to scrutiny. In a recent amicus curiae brief filed by eleven distinguished scientists in a Pennsylvania asbestos case, none of whom received funding from or testified as experts for any of the parties in the case, the scientists attacked the methodological errors of the “any exposure” expert for:  (1) failing to consider the dose level of exposure and minimum threshold of asbestos fiber levels; (2) failing to consider the physical chemical and toxicological differences between various types of asbestos; (3) failing to distinguish between general causation and specific causation (and not even establishing general causation for chrysotile asbestos); (4) for suggesting that “every exposure” and “cumulative risk” theories are generally accepted when they are not; and (5) ignoring the large body of toxicological studies demonstrating that chrysotile asbestos is not potent as a cancer-causing agent. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court observed in Gregg v. V-J Auto Parts Co., 943 A.2d, 216, 223 (Pa. Sup. Ct. 2007), that although it was “common for plaintiffs to submit expert affidavits attesting that any exposure to asbestos, no matter how minimal, is a substantial contributing factor in asbestos disease,” such opinions are not “not couched within accepted scientific methodology.”  The court called the “willingness on the part of some experts” to offer such opinions “one of the difficulties” courts face in the mass tort cases.

As the plaintiff bar continues to look further and further afield in its “endless search for a solvent bystander,” as one well-known plaintiff’s lawyer described the litigation, successful challenges under Daubert and Frye should only increase.  The author thanks Mr. Hoenig for his thoughtful treatment of this important topic.

From a risk management perspective, peripheral toxic tort defendants often decline to mount  Daubert challenges due to the cost and time involved and the uncertainty of the result, particularly when the plaintiff presents them with seemingly  reasonable settlement demands.  As a result, hundreds of peripheral defendants continue to be named in these cases and often pay their "penny in tribute" just to get out of the case.  Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, judges responsible for large asbestos dockets are unwilling to give appropriate consideration to motions by "shade tree" defendants who might otherwise challenge plaintiffs' experts'  theories of causation.  Cynically, these judges know that the cases will most likely settle out if this type of motion is given short shrift.  There is little incentive for a peripheral defendant to risk an adverse  judgment at trial merely to earn the right to bring an appeal, no matter how strong the grounds may be.  Hopefully, cases like Moeller will have a trickle down effect and motivate the trial judges responsible for the asbestos dockets to re-think their approach. 

Lenient Asbestos Causation Standard Rejected In Toxic Tort Case

Guest Blogger M.C. Sungaila, one of California's most best known appellate advocates,  briefed and successfully argued the Molina appeal discussed here on behalf of Shell and Chevron. 

A California appeals court rejected the lenient increased risk causation standard used to establish causation in asbestos cases in a toxic tort case not involving asbestos.  The Second Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles upheld a defense verdict last month, in  Molina v. Shell Oil Company et al, determining that the trial court correctly refused to charge the Rutherford “increased risk” instruction applicable in asbestos cases because the ability of a product to cause the type of harm suffered by the plaintiff was hotly contested.

After a five-week trial and four days of deliberations in the trial court, a jury concluded that William Molina – who suffered from a variety of cancers and other ailments -- was not entitled to damages for his alleged exposure to defendants’ solvents during his 17-year career at a Firestone tire plant. The jury found that neither the solvents’ design nor any warning associated with them was a substantial factor in causing Molina’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL). Molina appealed, claiming among other things that the causation instruction used in California's asbestos litigation should have been given to the jury.

The appeals court court stopped short, however, of holding that the more liberal  Rutherford causation standard can never apply outside the asbestos context. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal addressed a question repeatedly posed to trial courts throughout the state over the last five years: should a more lenient causation standard adopted by the California Supreme Court in the asbestos context be extended to other types of toxic tort cases like benzene? The appellate court’s answer was a qualified "no".

Causation, of course, is an essential element of a tort action. California has definitively adopted the substantial factor test of the Restatement Second of Torts for cause-in-fact determinations. Implicit in the substantial factor causation standard in a toxic tort case is the requirement of proving both that a chemical can cause a particular adverse health effect and that it did cause that effect in the plaintiff.  In other words, proof of causation necessarily includes a threshold determination whether, in reasonable medical probability, a particular chemical is capable of causing in humans the type of harm suffered by the plaintiff (i.e., “general causation”).  If the chemical does not possess that capacity, the chemical cannot have caused the particular plaintiff’s claimed harm.  But if the chemical does have that capacity, then the causation inquiry shifts to whether the plaintiff’s exposure to the chemical in question was, in reasonable medical probability, a substantial factor in causing this particular plaintiff’s harm (i.e., “specific causation”). Toxic tort causation also involves a threshold element of exposure. In order to determine whether an exposure is a possible contributing factor to a plaintiff’s injury, ‘[f]requency of exposure, regularity of exposure, and proximity of the . . . product to [the] plaintiff are certainly relevant.” (Lineaweaver v. Plant Insulation Co. (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 1409, 1416.)

Molina contended that California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) No. 435, a relaxed “increased risk” causation instruction, should have been given because of the difficulties of proving cancer causation. The defendants successfully urged that the increased risk instruction under Rutherford should not apply where, as in Molina’s case, the ability of a chemical to cause a particular type of cancer is hotly disputed and far from well-established.

In Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 960, at the end of the first phase of trial, the jury concluded that exposure to asbestos fibers proximately caused the decedent’s lung cancer and awarded damages. After this phase, several defendants settled. In a second phase of trial, the jury was asked to apportion damages and allocate fault to the remaining defendant, Owens-Illinois. Owens-Illinois objected to the use of an instruction in the second phase of trial which stated that, once the plaintiff had established both that he was exposed to defendants’ asbestos and that his injuries were legally caused by asbestos exposure generally, the burden then shifted to the defendant to establish that its product was not a legal cause of the plaintiff’s harm.

The California Supreme Court rejected the use of the burden-shifting instruction as too “fundamental” a departure from traditional substantial factor causation. However, the Court concluded that, rather than be required to “trace the unknowable path of a given asbestos fiber,” a “plaintiff[] may prove causation in [an] asbestos-related cancer case[] by demonstrating that the plaintiff’s exposure to defendant’s asbestos-containing product in reasonable medical probability [fn. omitted] was a substantial factor in contributing to the aggregate dose of asbestos the plaintiff or decedent inhaled or ingested, and hence to the risk of developing asbestos-related cancer, without the need to demonstrate that fibers from the defendant’s particular product were the ones, or among the ones, that actually produced the malignant growth.”

Thus, in Rutherford, “it was already determined what caused the plaintiff’s illness—asbestos. The only remaining issue before the Court was the proper standard for determining who manufactured or supplied the asbestos that caused the plaintiff’s illness.” (Loewen, Causation in Toxic Tort Cases: Has the Bar Been Lowered? (Spring 2003) 17 Nat. Res. & Env’t 228, 229 (hereafter Loewen).) As one commentator observed: “This is undoubtedly the reason that the Rutherford court consistently and repeatedly limited its holding to ‘asbestos-related cancer cases’: its language linking risk to cause was expressly limited to cases where it has been determined that the cancer was ‘asbestos-related.’” (Ibid.) Accordingly, Rutherford does not apply in a case like this, where the ability of the defendants’ products to cause the plaintiff’s type of cancer is hotly disputed.

In Molina’s case, defendants’ toxicology expert testified that solvents do not cause NHL.  While one plaintiffs’ expert asserted that solvents could cause NHL, another plaintiffs’ expert testified that the evidence of a causal link between benzene and NHL was “weak” and therefore he could not state to a reasonable degree of medical probability that benzene could cause NHL.  Moreover, one of plaintiffs’ experts admitted that NHL is frequently idiopathic or of unknown origin.

The Court of Appeal agreed that the trial court correctly refused the Rutherford “increased risk” instruction applicable in asbestos cases. Rutherford involved a very different situation: in that case, a jury had already determined that the asbestos had caused the plaintiff’s lung cancer. The only remaining question was which manufacturers were responsible. The cause of Mr. Molina’s NHL, however, was not established.  In fact, the capability of defendants’ products to cause Mr. Molina’s injury was one of the most critical and hotly disputed issues in the case.

Component Part Manufacturer Asbestos Liability

The plaintiff's bar continues to look for fresh targets in the asbestos litigation, utilizing increasingly creative theories of liability, as the original targets of plaintiffs' lawsuits have been largely forced into bankruptcy.  One of the new asbestos battlegrounds centers around the liability of parts manufacturers, such as pump and valve manufacturers, who never manufactured or sold asbestos-containing materials ("ACM").  Plaintiffs typically argue that these manufacturers may be liable for asbestos-containing products manufactured by different companies that they can reasonably anticipate will be used with their equipment.  However, in recent months, there have been a handful of appellate decisions suggesting that liability will not be extended to equipment manufacturers that neither sold nor included with their equipment ACM.  At the end of last year, the Supreme Court of Washington issued two decisions that rejected plaintiffs' claim that defendants should be held liable for failing to warn of the hazards of another manufacturer's product that is applied to or incorporated into the defendants' products.  The Supreme Court of Washington articulated a blanket rule that a duty to warn under common law negligence "is limited to those in the chain of distribution of the hazardous product."  The court also concluded that the defendants were not strictly liable for manufacturing a defective product because, not being product sellers or manufacturers, they could not translate their knowledge of the product's dangerous aspects into a cost of production against which liability insurance could be obtained.  Thus, the court held, it would be manifestly unfair to hold a defendant liable for another party's product. There is a good discussion of these cases, Simonetta v. Vlad Corp. and Braaten v. Saberhagen, in a Metropolitan Corporate Counsel article written by John E. Heintz and Justin F. Lavella at Kelly Drye & Warren LLP. A great deal was at stake on the appeal of these cases.  On February 25, 2009, The California Court of Appeal decided Taylor v. Elliot Turbomachinery Co. Inc  2009 WL 458543, and reached the same result as the Washington Court.  In rejecting plaintiffs' theory that the defendant should be liable for exposure to ACM in replacement parts sold and manufactured by other companies, the California court relied upon the California's "chain of distribution" line of cases that culminated in Cadio v. Owens-Illinois Inc. These cases recognize that "legal nightmares" would result if one company was held liable for the products of other companies.  There is a discussion of both the California and Washington decisions in a March 17, 2009 Law360 article  In an August 21, 2009 blog post by Michael J. Pietrykowski of Gordon & Rees, LLP, the DRI Blog reported that the California Supreme Court has declined to accept an appeal of Taylor v. Elliot Turbomachinery Co. Inc.  In the world of asbestos litigation, defense victories like these in Washington and California are hard fought and few and far between.