Mass Tort Defense

Federal Court Grants Daubert Motion and Summary Judgment in Toxic Tort Cases

A federal court last week dismissed consolidated toxic tort suits brought against Alcoa Inc. and other defendants brought by employees of Lockheed Martin Corp. who claimed they were exposed to beryllium used in the manufacture of airplanes. Neal Parker et al. v. Brush Wellman Inc. et al., No. 04-cv-606; Timothy Berube et al. v. Brush Wellman Inc. et al., No. 08-cv-2725(N.D. Ga. 9/17/10).

The dozen plaintiffs in the cases were current or former employees of Lockheed Martin Corp.at its Marietta, Georgia plant site; plaintiffs alleged they had a variety of job responsibilities, time periods of employment, and work areas at the Lockheed facility. Lockheed’s Marietta Facility was purchased by the U.S. Government in 1942 and is leased and operated by Lockheed. Since 1952, Lockheed has produced the beryllium-containing C-130 Hercules airlifter, the C-5 Galaxy, the C-141 Starlifter, and the F/A-22 Raptor Air Dominance Fighter at its Marietta location. Each defendant was alleged to have manufactured component parts for Lockheed using copper-beryllium or aluminum-beryllium alloys.  Plaintiffs alleged that defendants failed to provide Lockheed with sufficient and accurate warnings pertaining to the beryllium contained in the manufactured products. Specifically, plaintiffs asserted a failure to warn claim, arguing that the warning materials that the defendants provided did not adequately communicate the health risks associated with the use of beryllium nor did they describe the methods that would reduce such risks.

Defendants filed a Daubert motion to exclude the testimony of Dr. John Martyny, plaintiffs' causation expert, and a companion motion for summary judgment. The Court ordered a Daubert hearing to clarify the evidentiary and factual background for the expert witness’s opinion and an evidentiary hearing regarding the motions to compel and summary judgment.

Since beryllium is generally recognized in the medical community as being able to cause the type of harm plaintiffs alleged –beryllium-related sickness– the Daubert analysis here focused on specific or individual causation to the plaintiffs, the plaintiff-specific questions: was plaintiff exposed to the toxin, was plaintiff exposed to enough of the toxin to cause the alleged injury, and did the toxin in fact cause the injury? The Eleventh Circuit has recognized that in order to carry
this causation burden in a toxic tort case, a plaintiff must demonstrate the levels of exposure that are hazardous to human beings as well as the plaintiff’s actual level of exposure to the defendant’s toxic substances before he or she may recover.

Here, the link between the expert’s opinion and the dose relationship was a key element of the analysis. Indeed, the hallmark of the science of toxic torts is the dose-response  relationship.  Exposure is only the opportunity for contact. Dose is what enters the body. While Dr. Marytny indicated, based on his experience and anecdotal evidence, that plaintiffs may have been exposed to beryllium at the plant, he did not indicate the level, frequency, duration or particle size of this exposure which would indicate the dose from these defendants’ products.  Importantly, Dr. Marytny did not produce any evidence that even a low-dose exposure resulted from defendants’ products. In fact, Dr. Martyny admitted that he could not opine as to the individual product or products that were the source of the alleged exposure.

Secondly, Dr. Martyny’s theory had not been appropriately tested.  The company itself did some sampling, and every air sample indicated that airborne beryllium concentrations were below the analytical reporting limit (<0.001 μg/sample) and thus also less than the OSHA PEL for beryllium.  Theoretically, defendants’ products could have been placed in an environmental chamber and the various machining procedures could have been reenacted to determine the particle production and size. While clearly this would not be as conclusive as personal sampling data for each plaintiff, this evidence would at least minimally indicate that bio-available beryllium from defendants’ products was possible, said the court.  But plaintiffs did no such testing.  Furthermore, no published studies documented levels of beryllium released by workers working with beryllium-aluminum in the aircraft industry.

Without such data, the expert's opinion merely assumed that plaintiffs’ injuries must have been caused by defendants’ products because the defendants produced  beryllium parts which were sold to Lockheed. However, nothing in his opinion linked these products to the alleged exposure of the plaintiffs nor ruled out other manufacturers’ products that were also present at the Marietta facility. 

Thus, the expert's opinion was excluded, and absent a reliable causation opinion, summary judgment was also appropriate.

The court the offered an alternative basis for the summary judgment on the failure to warn claim -- the sophisticated user doctrine. If a sophisticated user’s employees have knowledge that a particular risk of harm exists and yet allow the harm to occur, this knowledge may bar other employees’ claims against the product manufacturer. The supervising employees’ knowledge –the knowledge of the sophisticated user– can bar other employee’s claims against the product manufacturer. And the user’s knowledge does not need to encompass the precise, physical nature of the hazard presented by his use of the product; it is sufficient if he is aware generally that the use being made of the product is dangerous.

Here, Lockheed was a sophisticated user of beryllium alloys. Lockheed, as a part of the beryllium
industry, had as much access to information regarding beryllium safety as anyone else. For more than forty years, Lockheed  used the Department of Defense’s “Handbook for Metallic Materials and Elements for Aerospace Vehicle Structures” which provides guidelines for proper beryllium use. Lockheed issued its own “Safety and Industrial Hygiene Standard" which recognized that beryllium dust and vapors can cause respiratory problems. Lockheed recognized that it should order “medical monitoring” for those within the exposed worker population. The record made clear that the employer was a sophisticated user; summary judgment was appropriate on this basis as well.

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Sean P. Wajert of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP