Class Certification Denied In Beryllium Exposure Case

A California appellate court last week affirmed a trial court ruling denying class certification to a group of Boeing employees suing over alleged exposure to harmful levels of beryllium. Marin v. Brush Wellman Inc.,  No. B208202 (Calif. Ct. App., 2nd Dist. Aug. 24, 2009).

The plaintiffs alleged that Brush Wellman, a contractor of their employer, misrepresented the permissible limit for beryllium exposure. Beryllium is a potentially toxic metal that is used in aircraft construction and other industrial applications because of its light weight and great strength. However, some exposed persons are beryllium sensitization, which can be a precursor to chronic beryllium disease, which is a serious illness. 

The court of appeals agreed with the trial court that common issues did not predominate. In a toxic tort case, the plaintiff must first establish some threshold exposure to the defendant's defective, toxic products, and must also establish to a reasonable medical probability that a particular exposure or series of exposures was a legal cause of his injury, i.e., a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. This typically requires expert testimony about the level of exposure that is unsafe, and expert testimony that exposure above a certain level will cause injury or disease. The significance of this is  that when individual claimants differ both in their makeup and in the amount of their exposure to the substance, the evidence of their injuries will differ from individual to individual.

Here, each of the class members would have to show where he worked, when he worked within each location or facility, what the beryllium levels were at these locations, and how much of the beryllium was Wellman's.  It is patent that each such package of facts will be largely unique to each claimant.  The six named plaintiffs worked at six different facilities, some of which had multiple buildings, over differing periods covering up to 40 years. Boeing's air monitoring and industrial hygiene records showed non-uniform results. In other words, the levels of exposure varied widely among the facilities over time, and even within a single facility. The sales and use evidence that could be used to trace the beryllium to Wellman implicated a necessarily individualized inquiry, not a common one.

In an effort to salvage a class, plaintiffs' counsel explained at oral argument that the proposed class was only for those who required medical monitoring. Those persons who actually contracted illness would be excluded from the class as their claims would be necessarily unique and individualized.  Even assuming this issue was properly presented to the trial court, the plan to certify a class of persons requiring medical monitoring and, in addition to such a class, allowing the more serious cases to proceed individually and separately, was to the court "an invitation to a litigation disaster."   Recourse to such a class would do nothing to streamline this litigation but would most probably convert it into a nightmare.

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