Fifth Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment: Exposure and Risk Are Not Injury

The Fifth Circuit has affirmed a trial court decision that a group of space center workers in Mississippi cannot pursue personal injury claims for their alleged exposure to beryllium-containing products because they could not show any “compensable injury.” Paz v. Brush Engineered Materials Inc., 2009 WL 73874 (5th Cir. 2009).


Pursuant to Mississippi law, claims of negligence, products liability, and breach of warranty all require an identifiable injury. Plaintiffs alleged that they had beryllium sensitization (BeS), i.e., an increased sensitivity to the potentially toxic substance. According to their expert, BeS is by definition the demonstration of an abnormal immune response to beryllium, usually, though not always based on an abnormal challenge test.

The issue was whether the BeS was a compensable injury pursuant to Mississippi law. The employees argued BeS is a present injury and “the beginning of an actual disease process,” specifically the beginning stage of Chronic Beryllium Disease;  therefore there is a reasonable probability of future consequences from BeS. Plaintiff experts’ published work, however, stated that “BeS precedes the formation of … clinical illness.”  And it indicates that individuals with BeS exhibit evidence of an immune response to beryllium but have no evidence of lung pathology or impairment. Further, there was no dispute that the rate of progression from BeS to CBD is unknown to any degree of reasonable medical certainty.

The expert evidence from both sides clearly established that excessive exposure to beryllium provokes a physical change in the body, causing BeS. The quintessential issue, said the 5th Circuit, is whether any or every physiologic change in the body rises to the level of compensable injury pursuant to Mississippi law. The federal court found guidance in the state court’s recent decision in this same case on medical monitoring, which we have mentioned before. In answering the 5th Circuit's certified question, the Mississippi Supreme Court stated “a claim for medical monitoring, as Plaintiffs present it, lacks an injury.” 949 So.2d at 3. The Mississippi Supreme Court concluded that because “Mississippi requires the traditional elements of proof in a tort action, it has refused to recognize a category of potential illness actions.” The Mississippi Supreme Court noted “[n]one of the plaintiffs ha[d] suffered physical injury from the alleged exposure.” Pursuant to Mississippi law, “exposure” is “a claim for harm which is not compensable under Mississippi law.”

The sub-clinical and sub-cellular changes, which none of the parties disputed, are akin to what the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to recognize as physical injuries. Thus, the logical conclusion is BeS is not a compensable injury pursuant to Mississippi law. This seems to be the Mississippi Supreme Court's “line in the sand" for a plaintiff's legally protected interest.  Summary judgment affirmed.

While states vary on the point, this is an important issue: as medical technology advances, the ability to show some sub-clinical or sub-cellular impact on the body becomes increasingly common.  Will every such change, what traditionally has been seen as mere exposure lacking sufficient impact, impairment, symptom, be an injury?  Plaintiffs may like to think so in some cases, but won't the single injury rule and statute of limitations bite them in others?
 

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