Long-standing Case Arising from Hurricane Rejected

Readers know we don't have the resources here to update every case we post on, but here is an update on a case we posted about nearly six years ago.    See Henry v. St. Croix Alumina, LLC, No. 12-1844 (3rd Cir. 7/10/14)(unpublished).

The case arose out of the effects of Hurricane Georges, which hit the Virgin Islands in 1998. The plaintiffs filed suit in1999, alleging that during the storm two materials, bauxite and red mud, were distributed around the island. Bauxite is a red colored ore with the consistency of dirt or dust from which alumina is extracted and used to produce aluminum. A by-product of the alumina extraction process is a substance called red mud, which was stored in piles outside the refinery using a method known as dry-stacking.  Appellants allegedly sustained property damage and also mild illnesses/injuries as a result of contact with the red dust during and after the hurricane. Generally, Appellants experienced rashes, irritation of the eyes and skin, and itching. All but one of the seventeen Appellants had their symptoms disappear completely in the weeks and months following the hurricane.

The case had a long procedural history, with class certification, decertification, and partial certifications. Eventually the property damage claims settled, and the personal injury claims were dismissed. The dismissal of Appellants' personal injury claims was founded in large part on the court's rejection of their four proposed experts. The experts did not satisfy the requirements of Fed. R. Evid. 702 and the accompanying test enunciated in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Without any expert testimony as to the cause of Appellants' injuries, the District Court ruled that the personal injury claims could not proceed and granted summary judgment to Appellees on those counts.

Three of the experts had opined on the amount of red mud that escaped the refinery and reached Appellants. Tarr concluded that some 160,000 pounds of particulates escaped from the refinery, and experts Bock and Kleppinger each stated that red mud was a "preponderance" or large component of the red dust that contacted Appellants.  However, as the District Court noted, each of the experts relied upon unique, qualitative methodologies to reach these conclusions. The District Court properly found that none of these methods had any of the hallmarks of reliable expert testimony under Daubert. The experts did not utilize a peer-reviewed methodology, subject to any known rate of error, which is generally accepted in the scientific community, or has otherwise been utilized outside the judicial context.

Much of the remaining opinion submitted by these experts was then excluded by the District Court as it did not "fit" with the case. For instance, Kleppinger and Bock testified as to the pH and toxicity of red mud stored at the refinery. The District Court held that this did not bear on the danger posed by the material that actually came into contact with Appellants. Critically, as the Court pointed out, Appellants offered no reliable testimony as to the amount and toxicity of the red dust which came into contact with Appellants. Finally, the District Court found Dr. Brautbar's testimony inadmissible, as it relied on the excluded expert opinions to establish that Appellants had come into contact with sufficient quantities of red mud to cause their claimed symptoms.

In sum, the District Court performed an exhaustive analysis of the proposed expert testimony, and determined that it was inadmissible. The court of appeals agreed with the reasoning and conclusions of the District Court, and affirmed its evidentiary rulings.
 

Texas Supreme Court Offers Causation Guidance in Mesothelioma Cases

The Texas Supreme Court ruled that a defendant will not have to pay a $12 million verdict in an asbestos case because there was inadequate proof the company’s products actually caused the alleged injury. See Bostic, et al. v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., No. 10-0775 (Texas 7/11/14).

In Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores, 232 S.W.3d 765 (Tex. 2007), the court had discussed the standards imposed by Texas law for establishing causation in asbestos-disease cases. Flores had concerned a plaintiff suffering from asbestosis. This case involved mesothelioma, and the court held that the standard of substantial factor causation recognized in Flores also applied to mesothelioma cases.  The court did not impose a strict but-for causation standard, but held that the plaintiffs had failed to offer legally sufficient evidence of causation, and accordingly it affirmed the lower court's judgment.

Under section 431 of the Restatement Second of Torts, the Texas court had held that to establish causation in fact the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s product was a substantial factor in causing the disease, and that mere proof that the plaintiff was exposed to “some” respirable fibers traceable to the defendant was insufficient. The word substantial is used to denote the fact that the defendant’s conduct has such an effect in producing the harm as to lead reasonable persons to regard it as a cause, using that word in the sense of responsibility.  Proof of mere frequency, regularity, and proximity of potential exposure to asbestos (sufficient in some states) is in Texas
necessary but not sufficient, as it provides none of the quantitative information necessary to support causation under Texas law.  While the plaintiff was not required to establish causation with “mathematical precision,” the court clearly required defendant-specific evidence relating to the approximate dose to which the plaintiff was exposed, coupled with evidence that the dose was a substantial factor in causing the asbestos-related disease.

In rejecting a standard that “some” exposure would suffice, the court recognized that most chemically induced adverse health effects clearly demonstrate thresholds; so, there must be reasonable evidence that the exposure was of sufficient magnitude to exceed the threshold before a likelihood of causation can be inferred. Plaintiffs urged that the standards established in Flores were not applicable in a mesothelioma case because relatively smaller quantities of asbestos can result in mesothelioma.  The court concluded that the Flores framework for reviewing the legal sufficiency of causation evidence lent itself to both types of cases. Even in mesothelioma cases proof of “some exposure” or “any exposure” alone will not suffice to establish causation. While the experts in this case testified that smaller amounts of asbestos exposure can result in mesothelioma, that fact alone does not merit a different analysis. With both asbestosis and  mesothelioma, the likelihood of contracting the disease increases with the dose. 

The court noted that If any exposure at all were sufficient to cause mesothelioma, everyone would suffer from it or at least be at serious risk of contracting the disease. Everyone is exposed to asbestos in the ambient air; it is plentiful in the environment, especially if you’re a typical urban dweller.  Plaintiff's expert confirmed that we all have some asbestos in our lungs, but that background levels are sufficiently low that they do not cause disease; instead, multiples of fibers many times over were required to cause mesothelioma.

More fundamentally, if the court were to adopt a less demanding standard for mesothelioma cases
and accept that any exposure to asbestos is sufficient to establish liability, the result essentially
would be not just strict liability but absolute liability against any company whose asbestos-containing product crossed paths with the plaintiff throughout his entire lifetime. However, exposure does not always result in disease. The court said it had never embraced the concept of industry-wide liability on grounds that proof of causation might be difficult. 

If an “any exposure” theory of liability was accepted for mesothelioma cases because science
has so far been unable to establish the precise dose below which the risk of disease disappears, the same theory would arguably apply to all carcinogens. The any exposure theory effectively accepts that a failure of science to determine the maximum safe dose of a toxin necessarily means that every exposure, regardless of amount, is a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s illness. This approach negates the plaintiff’s burden to prove causation by a preponderance of the evidence.

Further, said the court, there are cases where a plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos can be tied to a defendant, but that exposure is minuscule as compared to the exposure resulting from other sources. Proof of any exposure at all from a defendant should not end the inquiry and result in automatic liability. The Restatement Third of Torts provides that when an actor’s negligent conduct constitutes only a trivial contribution to a causal set that is a factual cause of harm, the harm is not within the scope of the actor’s liability.

The any exposure theory is also illogical in mesothelioma cases, where a small exposure can
result in disease, because it posits that any exposure from a defendant above background levels
could impose liability, while the background level of asbestos should be ignored. But the expert
testimony in this case was undisputed that the background level varies considerably from location
to location. The court could not see how the theory can, as a matter of logic, exclude higher than normal background levels as the cause of the plaintiff’s disease, but accept that any exposure from an individual defendant, no matter how small, should be accepted as a cause in fact of the disease. Under plaintiffs'  any exposure theory a background dose of 20 does not cause cancer, but a defendant’s dose of 2 plus a background dose of 5 somehow does.

Expanding on the notion of substantial factor, the court noted that in the Havner decision it had enunciated principles in toxic tort cases that (1) expert testimony of causation must be scientifically reliable, (2) the plaintiff must establish the elements of his claim by a preponderance of the evidence, and (3) where direct evidence of causation is lacking, scientifically reliable evidence in the form of epidemiological studies showing that the defendant’s product more than doubled the plaintiff’s risk of injury appropriately corresponds to the legal standard of proof by a preponderance of the evidence. These principles, said the court, should apply to asbestos cases. As to the
availability of scientific studies, asbestos-related disease has been researched for many decades and the population of potentially affected persons numbers in the millions. A more than doubling of the risk must be shown through reliable expert testimony that is based on epidemiological studies or similarly reliable scientific testimony. 

Multiple-exposure cases raise the issues of how the finder of fact should consider exposure
from sources other than the defendant, what proof might be required as to those other sources, and who has the burden of proof regarding those other sources. These are difficult questions, said the court, but a plaintiff should be required to establish more than a doubling of the risk attributable to the defendant’s product;  the court did not require a plaintiff to track down every possible source of asbestos exposure and disprove that those other exposures caused the disease. In multiple-exposure cases few if any plaintiffs could ever establish which particular fibers from which particular defendant caused the disease.  However, when evidence is introduced of exposure from other defendants or other sources, mere proof of more than a doubling of the risk may not suffice to establish substantial factor causation. Suppose, hypothesized the court, a plaintiff shows that his exposure to a particular defendant’s product more than doubled his chances of contracting a disease, but the evidence at trial also established that another source of the substance increased the chances by a factor of 10,000. In this circumstance, a trier of fact or a court reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence should be allowed to conclude that the defendant’s product was not a substantial factor in causing the disease.

 

Summary Judgment Affirmed in Medical Monitoring Class Action

The First Circuit  has affirmed a district court ruling rejecting a proposed class action seeking medical monitoring  for alleged exposure to hazardous beryllium.  See Barry Genereux, et al. v. Raytheon Company, No. 13-1921 (1st Cir. 6/10/14).

MassTortDefense has posted on medical monitoring several times before, incuding here and here. The clear trend has been away from recognizing these claims, see Lowe v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 344 Or. 403, 183 P.3d 181 (2008), or to narrow their scope. See Sinclair v. Merck & Co., 195 N.J. 51, 948 A.2d 587 (2008).

Where recognized, medical monitoring plaintiffs typically must prove:
1. exposure greater than normal background levels;
2. to a proven hazardous substance;
3. caused by the defendant's negligence;
4. as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease;
5. a monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible;
6. the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and
7. the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.


The plaintiffs in this case filed a putative class action filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, invoking federal diversity jurisdiction under the special jurisdictional provisions of the Class Action Fairness Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(2). Their complaint alleged that the defendant, Raytheon Company, endangered the health of the plaintiffs and others similarly situated by negligently exposing them to beryllium used in the manufacturing process at its plant in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Beryllium is a useful but potentially hazardous substance, and sufficient exposure to it is a risk factor for a malady known as Chronic Beryllium Disease (CBD). This malady is characterized by inflammation and scarring of lung tissue. Although there is no known cure for CBD, early detection and treatment can ameliorate its impact. The pathogenesis of CBD may begin with beryllium sensitization (BeS). Even though BeS is regarded as an abnormal medical finding, it can be asymptomatic and is typically not treated. Plaintiffs argued that persons with BeS should receive periodic clinical screenings to detect actual disease onset because those persons who are diagnosed with BeS are allegedly at a risk of developing CBD during their lifetimes.

The plaintiffs sought to represent two proposed classes. One comprised all persons who worked at the Waltham plant for at least one month prior to 1997. The other comprised all persons who lived with members of the first class and thus were subject to alleged take-home beryllium exposure. Persons already diagnosed as having CBD were excluded from both proposed classes. Following extensive pretrial discovery and work devoted to a narrowing of the issues, the district court granted summary judgment in favor of Raytheon. See Genereux v. Hardric Labs., Inc., 950 F.Supp.2d 329, 341 (D. Mass. 2013). An appeal ensued.

The Court of Appeals noted that the cornerstone of an action for medical monitoring under Massachusetts law is the decision in Donovan v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 914 N.E.2d 891 (Mass. 2009). There, the court ruled that the cost of medical monitoring may be recoverable in a tort suit under Massachusetts law under certain circumstances.  The First Circuit read the Donovan decision as tethering its holding to a doctrinal mooring: a combination of a defendant's alleged failure to meet an appropriate standard of care, a clear causal connection between that failure and the plaintiffs' alleged injuries, and resulting damages. To identify the injury in the absence of evidence that a plaintiff actually has a full-blown disease, the court demanded a showing that some subcellular or other physiological change has put plaintiffs at increased risk. The court noted that under the unique cause of action recognized in Donovan, increased epidemiological risk of illness caused by exposure, unaccompanied by some subcellular or other physiological change, is not enough to permit recovery in tort.

Here, the summary judgment record disclosed no evidence that any plaintiff — named or unnamed, employee class or take-home class — had as yet developed BeS. This gap in the proof was fatal to the plaintiffs' principal theory of liability. The plaintiffs had not carried their burden that under Massachusetts law that defines actionable injury in the medical monitoring milieu in terms of subcellular or other physiological change; the record revealed no significantly probative evidence of such an injury here.

In the alternative, the plaintiffs argued that the Massachusetts high court had speculated about whether a cause of action for medical monitoring might ever exist when no subclinical changes had occurred.  The trial court concluded that plaintiffs hadn't preserved a claim under this alternative theory.  The court of appeals agreed.  In complex cases, considerations of both fairness and efficiency dictate that a trial judge use his best efforts to winnow and clarify the issues.Plaintiffs' counsel had multiple opportunities to expound a new theory of the case that encompassed this issue.  A status conference transcript where the issue was raised was transparently clear: the plaintiffs told the court that they were not pursuing a theory based on any question that the SJC had allegedly left for another day.

Decision Affirmed.

Federal Court Grants Summary Judgment on Statute of Limitations Grounds in DBCP Case

A federal court has dismissed as time-barred the claims of 3,000 foreign banana plantation workers allegedly exposed to pesticides.  See Marquinez v. Dole Food Co., No. 12-695 (D.Del., 5/27/14).

This litigation stems from injuries allegedly caused during the use in the 1970's and 1980's of dibromochloropropane ("DBCP") on banana plantations of multiple defendants in Panama, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Plaintiffs' May, 2012 complaint included the boilerplate assertion that no plaintiff knew the cause of his injuries before August 31, 1993.  Why that day?  In August 1993, a putative DBCP class action had been filed in Texas state court. The case was removed to federal court based on the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act because one of the defendants was largely owned by the State of Israel. In July 1995, the federal court had dismissed the case based on forum non conveniens. See Delgado v. Shell Oil Co.,890 F.Supp. 1324, 1375 (S.D. Tex. 1995). The dismissal was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit, 231 F.3d 165 (5th Cir. 2000), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 972 (2001). The case was, after some procedural issues and delays, reinstated in Texas state court. Plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification in 2009, which the state court denied on June 3, 2010.

Here, defendants moved for summary judgment based on the running of the statutes of limitations- 1993 to 2012 seemed like a long time. Plaintiffs argued that the doctrine of cross-jurisdictional tolling applied, and that the denial of class certification in the previous class case did not occur until June 3, 2010, and therefore the claims here were still within the applicable statutes of limitations.

Cross-jurisdictional tolling can be defined as a rule under which a court in one jurisdiction tolls the applicable statute of limitations on a pending claim based on the previous filing of an overlapping class action in a different jurisdiction.  The Delaware federal court had originally been inclined to reject defendant's motion because in Blanco v. AMVAC Chemical Corp., 2012 WL 3194412 (Del. Super. Aug. 8, 2012), the Delaware state court held that Delaware recognizes this type of cross-jurisdictional tolling, See also  Dow Chemical Corp. v. Blanco, 67 A.3d 392, 394 (Del. 2013)(Delaware does recognize doctrine).

After further briefing, the court concluded, however, that tolling here stopped in 1995, when the case was dismissed. Extending tolling in the manner and to the extent advocated for by plaintiffs here would go far beyond the policy-based justifications for the doctrine. In American Pipe, for example, the Supreme Court found that tolling the statute of limitations for putative class members was appropriate because it promoted judicial economy such that individual class members need not file individual suits. 414 U.S. at 551. In Crown, Cork & Seal, the Supreme Court further explained that once the statute of limitations has been tolled, it remains tolled for all members of the putative class until class certification is denied. At that point, class members may choose to file their own suits or to intervene as plaintiffs in the pending action. 462 U.S. at 354. Under the doctrine, tolling lasts only until the denial of class certification, not until the termination of the appeals process. Because the policy justification for tolling is to encourage class members reasonably to rely on the class action to protect their rights, tolling ends when reliance on the named plaintiffs' prosecution of the matter ceases to be reasonable. Here, the dismissal of the federal class action was sufficient to end any reasonable reliance -- the plaintiffs' home countries did not provide for a class action, so each individual was on his own, regardless of forum.

In addition to the objective reasonableness of an individual's reliance on the action to protect his or her rights, the prejudice to the defendant based upon the principles underlying class actions and statutes of limitations is also a relevant concern.

Motion granted.

Lone Pine Issue Moving to State Supreme Court

Readers know we have posted before about the important case management tool known as the "Lone PIne" order. These “Lone Pine” orders take their name from a 1986 New Jersey Superior Court case involving toxic tort claims; they refer to case management orders that require the plaintiffs to make a showing regarding causation, injury, and/or damages to demonstrate, typically at an early stage, some minimal level of evidentiary support for the key components of their claims which will be in dispute.

A Colorado trial court had dismissed a claim, relying on a Lone Pine order, 2012 WL 1932470, that arose from the drilling and completing of three natural gas wells in Silt, Colorado.   The central issue was whether defendants caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, which plaintiffs vaguely described as “health injuries” from exposure to air and water contaminated by defendants with “hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes." Plaintiffs also alleged that defendants had caused loss of use and enjoyment of their property, diminution in value of property, loss of quality of life, and other damages.  The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation.  The court further determined that the prima facie showing requirement should not prejudice plaintiffs because they needed a good faith basis for their complaint, and ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

Plaintiffs were given 105 days to comply with the CMO. After that time, all plaintiff's expert could opine was that “sufficient environmental and health information exists to merit further substantive discovery.” Significantly, the expert offered no opinion as to whether exposure was a contributing factor to plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illness. And the requested march towards further discovery
without some adequate proof of causation of injury is precisely what the CMO was meant to
curtail. The expert suggested, at best, a very weak circumstantial causal connection between the Wells and plaintiffs’ injuries. 

The expert did not opine on whether any and each of the substances present in the air and water samples (taken after plaintiffs had moved out of the area) can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation). Finally, and perhaps most significantly,the expert did not even attempt to draw a conclusion that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illnesses were in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in 2013 that the state civil procedure rules did not allow trial courts to require plaintiffs to present prima facie evidence supporting their claims after initial disclosures, but before other discovery commenced.  This view was outside the mainstream of cases discussing the broad discretion necessarily given trial courts to manage their dockets and administer discovery. 

The state supreme court has now agreed to review the decision.  See Antero Res. Corp. v. Strudley,, No. 2013SC576 (Colo. cert. granted 4/7/14).  The review will focus on two issues. First, whether the trial court is barred under the state rules from entering a modified case management order requiring plaintiffs to produce limited evidence essential to their claims after initial disclosures but before further discovery.  The second issue is whether the district court in this case acted within its discretion in entering and enforcing such an order.

It will be interesting to see if Colorado moves back into the mainstream in allowing these sensible case management tools.

Wisconsin Passes Asbestos Trust Reform

We posted before about the legislative effort in Wisconsin to level the asbestos playing field with regard to claims against asbestos trusts and remaining solvent defendants.  Earlier this month the state Senate passed a version of the bill that would require plaintiffs in asbestos personal injury actions to disclose whether they have filed a claim against any personal injury trust.

This week, the Wisconsin Assembly passed the bill (A.B.19), a version that will also create a setoff for defendants of the amount recovered from the trust.  The bill now goes to Gov. Scott Walker (R) for approval.  Published reports suggest the governor will sign the measure.

A.B. 19 imposes a series of new requirements in asbestos-related claims, including:

(a) the plaintiff shall provide to all parties a sworn statement identifying each personal injury claim he or she has filed or reasonably anticipates filing against an asbestos trust, including the amount claimed by the plaintiff, the date that the plaintiff filed the claim, the disposition of the claim and whether there has been a request to defer, delay, suspend, or toll the claim against the asbestos trust.
(b) For each personal injury claim he or she has filed against an asbestos trust, plaintiff shall provide a copy of the final executed proof of claim, all trust documents, including trust claims materials, trust governance documents, any documents reflecting the current status of the claim and, if the claim is settled, all documents relating to the settlement of the claim.
(c)  Trust claims materials and trust governance documents are admissible in evidence. No claims of privilege apply to trust claims materials or trust governance documents.
(d) Trust claim materials that are sufficient to entitle a claim to consideration for payment under the applicable trust governance documents may be sufficient to support a jury finding that the plaintiff may have been exposed to products for which the trust was established to provide compensation and that such exposure may be a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff's injury that is at issue in the action.
(e) If a verdict is entered in favor of the plaintiff in an action subject to this section and the defendant is found to be 51 percent or more causally negligent or responsible for the plaintiff's entire damages, the plaintiff may not collect any amount of damages until after the plaintiff assigns to the defendant all pending, current, and future rights or claims he or she has or may have for a personal injury claim against an asbestos trust.

 

UPDATE- The governor signed the bill. (reminder check our disclaimer page, we don't always update posts!)

 

State Mass Tort Court Rejects General Causation Experts

A Pennsylvania state court excluded plaintiffs' expert testimony offered in coordinated cases alleging a denture adhesive caused personal injuries.  See  In re: Denture Adhesive Cream Litigation, No. 090604534 (Phila, Ct. Common Pleas)(J.New).

In 2009 the court had created the mass tort docket for these product cases. Defendants include manufacturers and retailers. Defendants moved to exclude under the Frye test the plaintiffs' four main general causation experts, who opined that the product's zinc conduct led to neurological complications; the court heard live testimony and oral argument. 

The court had considered some of the issues before, excluding the general causation opinions because they were based on inadequate data, including with regard to how much zinc is absorbed in the body.  Plaintiffs then submitted supplemental information which they alleged filled in the various analytical gaps. One item involved a publish Scottish study of 22 patients to which one of the experts applied a further analysis he termed a "cohort study", and another was a study by one of the experts of 24 subjects using denture products over a 30 day period.

The court concluded that the opinions involved "novel" science because the alleged link between zinc and neuropathy is reported in literature only in the past few years.  In analyzing the new data, the court stressed that the issue was not just the alleged link between zinc exposures and neuropathy, but the ability of a specific product to cause specific injuries. Not all zinc-containing dental creams are equal, said the court.

 The so-called cohort study did not describe the actual exposure dose of each subject. It didn't describe the type of adhesive used, the frequency it was used, or the duration between use and symptoms. Thus it is based on a method that is not generally accepted. Furthermore, it was not published and subject to peer review.

The experts alleged that zinc in the denture adhesive had blocked the users' bodies from being able to absorb copper, causing copper deficiency myeloneuropathy.  The second study, at best, linked product use to a short-term reduction in copper.  It did not say anything about severe copper deficiency or allegedly resultant neurological symptoms.  The court found it to be a "blatant, litigation driven attempt to remediate" the deficiencies in the prior expert testimony.

In sum, even with the "new" data, plaintiffs had failed to provide a sound and generally accepted methodology linking the product to the alleged injury.  Expert opinions excluded.

Ninth Circuit En Banc Decision on Daubert Errors

Readers may recall we posted about a Ninth Circuit case involving a worker at a paper mill who claimed asbestos exposure from various products used there.  The trial court admitted testimony from three experts over defendants’ objections, without conducting an adequate Daubert review, resulting in a trial verdict of $10.2 million. The Ninth Circuit reversed the trial verdict, and the panel remanded the case to the trial judge for a new hearing and trial. See Henry Barabin. et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., No. 10-36142 (9th Cir.) The Ninth Circuit then agreed to hear the case en banc, and our guess was that the court was thinking more about the fact that the panel remanded the case for a new trial in light of the court’s 2003 decision in Mukhtar v. California State University, 299 F.3d 1053 (9th Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003).

The court has now issued its en banc opinion, upholding the reversal of the verdict; agreeing with the original panel that the trial court had conducted an improper Daubert review; and rejecting two key arguments that plaintiffs made in trying to save the case. Plaintiffs, first, wanted a remand for purposes of the Daubert hearing only. They argued that an appeals court did not have the authority to exclude the experts on its own (even after the inadequate job by the trial judge) and must remand that decision. The en banc court disagreed, said that it did have such authority, although here the record was insufficient to allow the panel to make that decision. The en banc court thus held that a reviewing court has the authority to make Daubert findings based on the record established by the district court, and overruled Mukhtar v.California State University, 299 F.3d 1053, 1066 n.12 (9th
Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003), to the extent that it required that Daubert findings always be made by the district court.

Second, plaintiffs argued that on remand the trial judge should get another shot at a Daubert decision without necessarily holding a complete new trial. But, the court held that if expert admissibility error occurred and was prejudicial, the only recourse was an entire new trial. Thus, the plaintiffs now have to first get past a real Daubert analysis, and if they do, then win an entire new trial in front of a new jury.

We have argued here that to remand for an evidentiary hearing post-jury verdict undermines Daubert's requirement that a reliability determination must be made by the trial court before the jury is permitted to hear the evidence. Otherwise, instead of fulfilling its mandatory role as a gatekeeper, the district court clouds its duty to ensure that only reliable evidence is presented. A post-verdict analysis does not protect the purity of the trial, but instead creates an undue risk of post-hoc rationalization. This is hardly the gatekeeping role the Supreme Court envisioned in Daubert and its progeny. The rule recognized here gives trial courts a real and important incentive to be proper, active gatekeepers.

(Note that my partner Mark Behrens was asked to submit an amicus brief on behalf of the Coalition For Litigation Justice, Inc., Chamber Of Commerce Of The United States Of America, NFIB Small Business Legal Center, American Insurance Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association Of America, American Chemistry Council, And National Association Of Manufacturers.)

 

New York High Court Rejects Medical Monitoring

Just the facts on this one, as my firm is involved for defendants in such actions, but word comes that New York's highest court has joined the trend of state courts rejecting medical monitoring. See Caronia v. Philip Morris USA, Inc.,  No. 227 (N.Y., 12/17/13).

Plaintiffs, healthy smokers, sought medical monitoring in the form of low dose CT scans allegedly necessitated by their increased risk of future disease.  The federal court certified the issue of medical monitoring to the state court, specifically, (1) under New York Law, may a current or former longtime heavy smoker who has not been diagnosed with a smoking-related disease, and
who is not under investigation by a physician for such a suspected disease, pursue an  independent equitable cause of action for medical monitoring for such a disease?
(2) If New York recognizes such an independent cause of action for medical monitoring, what are the elements of that cause of action? What is the applicable statute of limitations, and when does that cause of action accrue?

The state court observed that while there is certainly an important health interest in fostering access to medical testing for those whose exposure has resulted in an increased risk of disease, and such testing could possibly lead to early detection and treatment, not only mitigating future illness but also reducing the cost to the tortfeasor.  However, the potential systemic effects of
creating a new, full-blown tort law cause of action cannot be ignored. For instance, dispensing with the physical injury requirement could permit tens of millions of potential plaintiffs to recover monitoring costs, effectively flooding the courts while concomitantly depleting the purported tortfeasor's resources for those who have actually sustained damage.  From a practical standpoint, it cannot be overlooked that there is no framework concerning how such a medical monitoring program would be implemented and administered. Courts generally lack the technical expertise necessary to effectively administer a program heavily dependent on scientific disciplines
such as medicine, chemistry, and environmental science.  The Legislature is plainly in the better position to study the impact and consequences of creating such a cause of action, including the
costs of implementation and the burden on the courts in adjudicating such claims.

The court concluded that these policy reasons militated against a judicially created independent cause of action for medical monitoring. Allowance of such a claim, absent any  evidence of present physical injury or damage to property, would constitute a significant deviation from the state's tort jurisprudence. 

State Appeals Court Rejects Expert Testimony In Toxic Tort Case

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently rejected the plaintiff's expert's opinion on causation, in an interesting Frye decision.  See Snizavich v. Rohm and Haas Co., No. 1383 EDA 2012, (Pa. Super. Ct. Dec. 6, 2013).

Plaintiff's decedent filed suit against Rohm and Haas in April 2009, asserting causes of action under the Wrongful Death and Survival Acts, in which she alleged that decedent’s brain cancer was caused by exposure to chemicals while working at Spring House, and that Rohm and Haas was allegedly liable.  Plaintiffs submitted an expert report, which defendant challenged in a Frye motion and then hearing.  The trial court rejected the expert opinion and then granted defendant summary judgment. Plaintiff appealed.

The trial court was especially troubled by the plaintiff's expert, Dr. Milby’s, reliance on a report from the University of Minnesota (“Minnesota Report”), finding an association between brain cancer and working at the Spring House, PA facility where thousands of chemicals had been used. The Minnesota Report was inconclusive as to both the cause of the brain cancer found in the Spring
House workers and the relationship between the chemicals and increased incidence of brain cancer. Nevertheless, as the court stated, Dr. “Milby somehow comes to the exact opposite conclusion . . . Milby, however, does not state any scientific methodology that he used nor does he call into question the [study’s] methodology that might make its findings incorrect, rather he simply stated his own opposite conclusions without any further support.”  Ultimately, the Milby expert report seemed to be little more than an unscientific lay opinion given by someone who happened to be a medical doctor. As such, Dr. Milby’s testimony would not assist the trier of fact, because it contained no evidence, causal or otherwise, linking the decedent’s brain cancer to the Spring House facility.

Under Pennsylvania law, admissible expert testimony that reflects the application of expertise requires more than simply having an expert offer a lay opinion.  Testimony does not become scientific knowledge merely because it was proffered by a scientist.  Wack v. Farmland Industries, Inc., 744 A.2d 265, 271 (Pa. Super. 1999) abrogated on other grounds by Trach v. Fellin, 817 A.2d
1102 (Pa. Super. 2003). Likewise, expert testimony must be based on more than mere personal belief, Commonwealth v. Stringer, 678 A.2d 1200, 1202 (Pa. Super. 1999), and must be supported by reference to facts, testimony or empirical data.  Downey v. Crozer-Chester Medical Center, 817 A.2d 517, 528 (Pa. Super. 2003) (en banc).

The exercise of scientific expertise requires inclusion of scientific authority and application of the authority to the specific facts at hand. Thus, the minimal threshold that expert testimony must meet to qualify as an expert opinion rather than merely an opinion expressed by an expert, is this, observed the court: the proffered expert testimony must point to, rely on or cite some scientific authority – whether facts, empirical studies, or the expert’s own research – that the expert has applied to the facts at hand and which supports the expert’s ultimate conclusion. When an expert opinion fails to include such authority, the trial court has no choice but to conclude that the expert
opinion reflects nothing more than mere personal belief.

Here, the appellate court agreed that Dr. Milby failed to demonstrate any scientific basis, other than his own subjective beliefs, that the chemicals used at Spring House caused brain cancer. He basically reviewed plaintiff's medical records, work history, and work conditions, and then relied on the Minnesota Report.  However, the Minnesota Report was inconclusive as to the cause of the brain cancer found in the Spring House workers and the relationship between the chemicals used at Spring House and brain cancer. Although Dr. Milby references and seems to rely on the Minnesota Report, he ignored the fact that it specifically and intentionally disclaims that exact conclusion that he himself reaches.  Dr. Milby did not offer any other scientific authority that even suggested a causal relationship between possible exposure to chemicals at Spring House and brain cancer, or any reason to doubt the scientific veracity of the Minnesota Report. The Milby expert opinion was, therefore, more aptly described as scrupulously avoiding the medical literature, and based entirely on subjective assessments of both cause and effect.

Thus, the Superior Court concluded that Dr. Milby’s opinion was nothing more than lay opinion offered by an expert and therefore was inadmissible. The decision reinforces the burden facing plaintiffs in toxic tort cases to proffer expert testimony with a sufficient scientific basis, especially where there are numerous idiopathic cases, where the scientific and medical literature has not found a conclusive causal link between a given product and the alleged injury.

 

State High Court Rejects Mold Expert Opinion

Here's an interesting expert analysis that arises in the less common Frye context.  In Chesson v. Montgomery Mut. Ins. Co., No. 97 (Md., 9/24/13), the Maryland high court affirmed the exclusion of an expert's methodology for linking alleged mold exposure and the plaintiffs' illness; among other things, the approach failed to take into account the level of mold exposure plaintiffs experienced.

The case at hand originated in workers’ compensation claims filed by six employees of the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. The employees claimed that they had sustained physical injury, specifically neurocognitive and musculoskeletal symptoms, as a result of exposure to mold in the Baltimore Washington Conference’s office. To prove causation, the employees proffered Dr. Ritchie Shoemaker as their expert. Montgomery Mutual, however,
sought to exclude Dr. Shoemaker under Frye (called Reed in this state), arguing that his methodology to determine causation was not generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.

After some procedural events, the lower court eventually held a Frye-Reed hearing, in which the judge considered whether the relevant scientific community generally accepted as reliable and
valid Dr. Shoemaker’s methodologies and theory that identified mold exposure as the cause
for the neurocognitive and musculoskeletal symptoms allegedly suffered by the employees.  At the hearing, Dr. Shoemaker testified that the indoor air of a water-damaged building known to contain mold caused neurocognitive and muscuoloskeletal symptoms. He based his opinion on something he called his “Repetitive Exposure Protocol,” in which he would identify the presence of mold in the building, through visual identification of mold, detecting a musty smell, or lab testing of a sample, such as a piece of drywall. The individual at issue would then be removed from the subject building and, for two weeks, receive a treatment to relieve the symptoms allegedly related to mold exposure, and then be returned to the subject building for three days, during which, he
opined, the individual would report that the symptoms had redeveloped.

The trial court allowed the testimony but the Court of Appeals held that Dr. Shoemaker’s testimony was not admissible under Frye-Reed, reasoning that his methodology was flawed and not generally accepted because it failed to account for the levels of mold exposure. The Court, moreover, concluded that based on an examination of relevant scientific journal articles that the scientific community remained uncertain as to Dr. Shoemaker’s techniques and conclusions.  The plaintiffs appealed.

The high court noted that in Maryland when an expert opinion is offered to support the existence of new or novel scientific theory or methodology, “the basis of that opinion must be shown to be generally accepted as reliable within the expert’s particular scientific field.” Reed v. State, 283 Md. 374, 381, 391 A.2d 364, 368 (1978), citing Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013, 1014 (1923). The general acceptance test imposes a significant gate-keeping role on the judge to determine whether a scientific theory or methodology should be admitted for consideration by jury.  Moreover, validity and reliability are the linchpins of  the scientific method: validity, having been defined as the extent to which something measures what it purports to measure, and reliability, characterized as the ability of a measure to produce the same result each time it is applied to the same thing.

The court stressed that on cross-examination, Dr. Shoemaker admitted that he did not test any of the buildings, either the Baltimore Washington Conference’s office or any others in which an
individual resided or worked who underwent his “Repetitive Exposure Protocol,” to determine the level of mold exposure that an individual working or residing therein would have experienced. According to Dr. Shoemaker, the mere "identification" of mold in a building, even by the presence of a musty smell alone, was sufficient to conclude that an individual residing or working in that building inhaled mold that caused neurocognitive and musculoskeletal symptoms, without any further assessment of not only the level of mold, but also what other chemicals the plaintiff may have been exposed to.

Defendants called a Dr. Cheung who testified that Dr. Shoemaker’s “Repetitive Exposure Protocol”
was not generally accepted as valid in the relevant scientific community, not only because it was experimental as well as controversial in its “second tier” of biological markers approach and use of treatment drugs in an off-label fashion, as well as in its failure to account for stress levels in individuals, but also primarily because it failed to measure the levels of mold exposures by individuals in the water-damaged buildings. Mold exposure can be low to medium to high, he testified, and should include consideration of the pathways that mold must travel to reach an individual, such as the building’s ventilation system, walls, or ceiling, as well as the pressure or air flow of the building.  Dr. Cheung also testified to a survey that he had commissioned relative to whether Dr. Shoemaker’s diagnosis was generally accepted and found it was not.  Most importantly, Dr. Cheung testified regarding the absence of any study utilizing the scientific method that confirmed the relationship of mold exposure to neurocognitive and musculoskeletal symptoms.

The court also noted that other jurisdictions have determined that Dr. Shoemaker’s theory, based on his “Repetitive Exposure Protocol,” is neither generally accepted nor reliable. See Young v. Burton, 567 F. Supp. 2d 121, 130-31 (D.D.C. 2008) (also listing Virginia, Florida, and Alabama as jurisdictions rejecting Dr. Shoemaker’s theory).

The Court of Appeals agreed with the intermediate appeals court, finding that the expert's failure to account for the level of mold exposure was a fundamental flaw in his methodology .Without an expert's admissible opinion on causation, plaintiffs were unable to prove that mold in the walls of their office building was the cause of their neurocognitive and musculoskeletal symptoms.

 

Asbestos Conspiracy Verdict Overturned

An Illinois appellate court recently affirmed the trial court's decision overturning a significant jury verdict against various defendants accused of conspiring to conceal the dangers of asbestos. See Gillenwater v. Honeywell International Inc., et al., No. 4-12-0929 (Ill. App. Fourth District, 2013).

Plaintiff allegedly contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in his job as a pipe-fitter. Gillenwater never worked for any of the companies in the appeal, but alleged they had engaged in a civil conspiracy with one another and the distributor to conceal the hazards of asbestos-containing products.  Readers understand that plaintiffs will often allege a conspiracy to draw in deep pocket defendants and to attempt to utilize one defendant's documents against another defendant.  The case went to trial and the jury returned a verdict for significant compensatory and punitive damages against the three defendants.

The court of appeals found that while there was some evidence that these defendants had some knowledge of the risks of asbestos, there was not sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that they conspired together to conceal that knowledge.  Indeed, plaintiffs had no evidence that defendants Honeywell and Abex ever interacted with the product seller in any way. Honeywell and
Abex appeared to be nothing but bystanders, allegedly committing alleged wrongs that had nothing to do with plaintiff.  

Because a conspiracy requires a conspiratorial agreement between the active wrongdoer and the other conspirators, a logical first step when evaluating a claim of conspiracy is to clearly identify the active wrongdoer, the one whose tortious conduct was the proximate cause of harm to the plaintiff, as distinct from those who harmed the plaintiff more indirectly, merely by allegedly encouraging the active wrongdoer. The court noted that the gist of a conspiracy claim is not the agreement itself, but the tortious acts performed in furtherance of the agreement.  It is important to identify the active wrongdoer, because a conspiracy exists only if the others intentionally assisted or encouraged the tortious conduct of the active wrongdoer.  Here the alleged active wrongdoer was Owens-Corning. 

Plaintiff did present some evidence of interaction between defendant Owens Illinois and Owens-Corning because it manufactured the insulation that was ultimately distributed by Owens-Corning. The court reviewed the other alleged interactions on studies and warnings, shared directors, stock ownership, contracts, etc., in detail. But also noted that those companies terminated their relationship more than a decade before Gillenwater was first exposed to the products. The court cited numerous federal cases for the proposition that once a conspiracy has been terminated, that conspiracy claim cannot be extended by suggesting a second, subsidiary conspiracy to keep the original one under wraps. 

While a conspiracy can be shown by circumstantial evidence, and mere parallel conduct might serve as circumstantial evidence of an agreement under the civil conspiracy theory, it cannot, in itself, be considered clear and convincing evidence of such an agreement among manufacturers of the same or similar products.  Here, the defendants appeared to be engaging in parallel conduct by which they allegedly concealed the dangers of their own asbestos-containing products in order allegedly to maximize their own profits. 

This is not to say it is impossible for companies to have a conspiratorial agreement to continue doing that which is in their economic interest. But here a conspiratorial agreement was unnecessary to explain parallel conduct in continuing to do that which is in their economic interest. They each could be expected to pursue their economic interest on their own individual initiative. For that reason, in the absence of more evidence, it would be pure speculation to posit a conspiracy on the basis of consciously parallel conduct that is in each company’s economic interest; and tort liability cannot rest on speculation, said the court of appeals.

 

Lone Pine Issue Appealed to State Supreme Court

Defendants in a fracking toxic tort case last week petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court to overrule an appeals court decision which had struck down a Lone Pine order issued by the trial court in the case. See Antero Resources Corp. et al. v. William G. Strudley et al., No. 2013SC576 (Colo. S. Ct.).

Readers may recall that we posted on this case before, describing the significant discovery and cost burdens presented by a case of this nature; the trial court had endeavored to invoke a more efficient procedure than we see in the standard case management order. The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation, a form of a Lone Pine order. See Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85, 1986 WL 635707 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986). The court further determined that the prima facie showing requirement should not prejudice plaintiffs because ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

Last month, the appeals court struck down the order finding there was no showing of "extraordinary circumstances" to require departure from the civil rules of procedure. Defendants sought an extension of time for filing a petition for writ of certiorari, which the Colorado Supreme Court granted.

Defendants recently filed a petition for writ of certiorari noting that the appeals court’s decision contradicts the many state cases endorsing active case management by trial courts. Those trial courts are vested with wide discretion to adopt non-standard case management procedures and to customize discovery based on the unique circumstances and needs of each case, particularly cases involving complex scientific or technical issues. 

The "good cause” to modify the standard case management order is fact-specific and thus a trial court finding it is entitled to deference on appeal. It unduly handcuffs and hamstrings the trial courts to suggest that it is beyond a trial court’s discretion to enter a modified case management order requiring toxic tort plaintiffs to come forward with basic evidence of exposure, injury and/or causation in an appropriate case.

This is definitely one to watch.

Failure of General Causation Proof Leads to Summary Judgment in Chemical Case

The Ohio appeals court ruled recently that a plaintiff could not pursue her chemical exposure toxic tort suit since her sole general causation expert's testimony was properly deemed unreliable by the lower court.  See Cooper v. BASF Inc., No. 26324 (Ohio Ct. App. 6/28/13).

The plaintiffs alleged they contacted a defendant Pest Control Company due to a termite infestation in various parts of their home, and the company applied Termidor SC, which contains the chemical fipronil, inside an open wall in the Coopers' bedroom, underneath a bathroom drain which is accessed through an opening under a sink cabinet, and around the perimeter of the house. A few months later, Mrs. Cooper was hospitalized complaining of various symptoms and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and related encephalopathy, of unknown etiology. The plaintiffs claimed that the symptoms were caused by alleged exposure to pesticides.  The Coopers filed a complaint alleging: (1) negligence against the chemical manufacturer and the Pest Control Company; (2) strict products liability claims; and (3) fraud against the Pest Control Company.

The trial court ordered the Coopers to identify one or more expert witnesses who would support their theory of general and specific causation in this matter, and to make a submission that the expert was prepared to testify that  the chemical generally is capable of causing the medical conditions about which plaintiff complained and that in this specific instance there was a good faith basis for believing that her conditions were caused by her exposure to this chemical.  The Coopers identified Richard L. Lipsey, Ph.D., as their general causation expert.  Defendants moved to exclude the expert and for summary judgment.

The trial court granted the motions, finding that the expert had not based his opinion regarding general medical causation on reliable scientific, technical, or other specialized information. None of the articles or studies he reviewed showed a causal connection between Fipronil exposure and plaintiff's disease. The key epidemiological study of 103 workers exposed to Fipronil in the factory manufacturing flea collars found that symptoms associated with Fipronil exposure were temporary, and workers' conditions improved when no longer exposed. The animal studies cited by Dr. Lipsey failed to establish any correlation across species, and the expert had to admit that the animals used were not appropriate models for humans.

The court of appeals affirmed.  Ohio follows the Daubert test. And here the expert reached this conclusion without adequate scientific proof of a causal link between fipronil and hypothyroidism in humans. The record contained no evidence of any generally accepted methodology that has been adopted by the scientific community to establish a causal link between fipronil and hypothyroidism in humans. The court also noted, beyond the factors stressed by the lower court, that the expert testified that: (1) he had never written any peer-reviewed articles concerning the effects of pesticides on the human thyroid, (2) he had not done a dose reconstruction as to the amount of fipronil Mrs. Cooper was allegedly exposed to, and (3) there was no biological sampling done on Mrs. Cooper's blood or fatty tissue to prove that she had been exposed to a significant level of the chemical.

Without an expert opinion, summary judgment was appropriate as plaintiff could not prove the causation element of each cause of action.

State Supreme Court Issues Opinion on Management of Discovery

Recently, the Colorado Supreme Court issued an opinion reaffirming that trial courts need to take an active, hands-on role in managing discovery and should consider cost-benefit and proportionality factors  to control excessive discovery. DCP Midstream, LP v. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., et al., Case No. 12SA307 (Colo. June 24, 2013). Note my colleagues at SHB filed an amicus brief on behalf of NAM in this matter. The decision is a victory for efforts to encourage a rule of reasonableness in discovery.

Plaintiff sued for breach of contract and other claims. During discovery, DCP sent Anadarko fifty-eight requests for production seeking millions of pages of paper and electronic documents and many of Anadarko's "title opinions"— attorney-authored opinions about the state of title to land or mineral interests. Anadarko refused to produce many of the requested documents. DCP then filed a motion to compel. Without holding a hearing, the trial court granted DCP's motion. The trial court did not address any of Anadarko's specific objections, nor did it provide any analysis under C.R.C.P. 26(b) in support of its conclusions. In a later written order, the trial court reasoned that DCP was entitled to discovery on any issue that is or may become relevant and ruled that Anadarko's title opinions were not privileged because they were based on public information.

Appeal ensued. The state Supreme Court noted that this proceeding raised important questions about the scope of discovery and the extent to which trial courts must manage the discovery phase of a case to accomplish the overriding purpose of the civil rules—"the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action." C.R.C.P. 1. The state civil rules, and cases interpreting them, reflect an evolving effort to require active judicial management of pretrial matters to curb discovery abuses, reduce delay, and decrease litigation costs. See C.R.C.P. 16 committee comment ("It is expected that trial judges will assertively lead the management of cases to ensure that justice is served.").

This principle of active judicial management is reflected in the comments to the rules, and throughout the civil rules: e.g., C.R.C.P. 26(b) restricts the scope of discovery available as a matter of right; some material is limited to "good cause;" C.R.C.P. 26(b)(2) imposes limits on the number of depositions, interrogatories, and requests for production, and these limits can also be modified for "good cause."

The rules suggest that if a party objects to discovery because it is not relevant to a claim or defense, then the trial court must become involved. C.R.C.P. 26(b) requires trial courts to take an active role managing discovery when a scope objection is raised. When faced with a scope objection, the trial court must determine the appropriate scope of discovery in light of the reasonable needs of the case and tailor discovery to those needs. Because each case is unique and deserves unique treatment, the reasonable needs of the case will necessarily vary, depending on the subject matter and complexity of the case, the nature of the parties' claims or defenses, and the discovery necessary to resolve the dispute. To tailor discovery to the specific needs of the case, the Court said that the cost-benefit and proportionality factors listed in C.R.C.P. 26(b)(2)(F) will be helpful. These factors require active judicial management to control excessive discovery.

Bottom line, to resolve a dispute regarding the proper scope of discovery in a particular case, the trial court should, at a minimum, consider the cost-benefit and proportionality factors set forth in C.R.C.P. 26(b)(2)(F). When tailoring discovery, the factors relevant to a trial court's decision will vary depending on the circumstances of the case, and trial courts always possess discretion to consider any or all of the factors listed—or any other pertinent factors—as the needs of the case require.

So this one was vacated and remanded to the lower court for reconsideration.

State Supreme Court Takes Controversial Asbestos Case

The California Supreme Court agreed last week to review an asbestos case involving an important failure to warn theory. See Webb v. Special Electric Co. Inc., No. S209927 (Cal., 2013).

Plaintiff Webb was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which he attributed to his exposure to asbestos products, including Transite pipe allegedly manufactured by Johns-Manville at its plant in Long Beach,
California, which allegedly contained asbestos supplied to it by Special Electric.  Transite pipe was four inches in diameter, and came in five-foot and sometimes ten-foot lengths. It was typically used for water-heater venting. Webb alleged he used no gloves or respiratory protection when handling the pipe. 

After trial, the lower court decided it would hear Special Electric's motions for nonsuit and directed verdict, both of which argued, inter alia, that Special Electric had no duty to warn Johns-Manville of the dangers of asbestos, either because Johns-Manville had been warned of those dangers, or because the dangers were obvious and known to Johns-Manville, a sophisticated user of asbestos. Special Electric argued also that it had no duty to take measures to warn allegedly unsophisticated downstream users of products containing its asbestos, such as Webb, because Special Electric could rely on Johns-Manville to provide those warnings. The trial court agreed, concluding that "telling Johns-Manville about asbestos is like telling the Pope about Catholicism." In so doing, the trial court relied on the well-settled rule that sophisticated users of dangerous products need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware, derived from Restatement Second, Torts, section 388.

Plaintiff appealed, and the court of appeals reversed. Much of the discussion was on procedural issues (timing and notice, etc.) but our focus is on the alternative ruling on the merits.  The court of appeals agreed that Johns-Manville was a sophisticated user of asbestos, one which needed no warning about its dangers. But, nevertheless, reversed, finding that whether all the asbestos shipped to Johns-Manville had warnings, whether the warnings were adequate, and whether reasonable efforts to warn downstream
users could have been undertaken by Special Electric, were issues of fact. The jury found that Webb had
been exposed to asbestos sold or supplied by Special Electric; that the risks of its asbestos products were known or knowable to Special Electric; and that the risks of Special Electric‘s asbestos products presented a substantial danger to consumers, that ordinary consumers would not recognize. Special Electric‘s duty to warn foreseeable potential users such as Webb, said the court, arose as a matter of law, as seen from the jury‘s fully supported findings.  Because Special Electric‘s duty existed as a matter of law, the jury was entitled to—and did—find from the evidence that Special Electric breached that duty and that its breach was a substantial factor in causing Webb‘s harm, whether some other factors (such as superseding cause) terminated Special Electric‘s share of liability, and the appropriate apportionment of liability between the various actors.

The state Supreme Court will consider the issues now, and tell us what happened to the sophisticated user doctrine.  The concern is that the court of appeals appears to be saying that it can be a tort to fail to tell a customer something they already know, and that it can also be a tort to fail to impose on a direct customer a contractual duty to do something with their customer they already have a tort duty to do. On causation, the dissent offered a cogent analogy: if a defendant in an automobile collision breached the duty of care by driving a car with nonfunctioning headlights, then the plaintiff cannot prove causation merely by demonstrating that the defendant’s car caused the plaintiff‘s injuries when they collided. Rather, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s driving with nonfunctioning headlights caused the plaintiff’s injuries (because, for example, the accident happened in the dark of night rather than in broad daylight). The case arguably can be limited to unique facts, procedural posture, and some strange jury instructions, but perhaps the high court will clarify that the California courts cannot ignore the sophisticated user doctrine and its impact on duty to warn. 

 

Third Circuit Affirms Asbestos Dismissals

Readers know that too often the necessary administrative procedures set in place in a mass tort are enforced on a one-way basis, costing defendants money and resources without requiring plaintiffs to comply with necessary discovery in a timely fashion.  The Third Circuit recently affirmed a lower court decision to exclude from an MDL workers allegedly exposed to asbestos at work when these plaintiffs failed to provide full asbestos exposure histories. See In Re: Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (NO. VI), numbers 12-2061-12-2072 (3d Cir. 2013).  

MDL 875 once included more than 150,000 plaintiffs and more than eight million claims. By the time Judge Robreno inherited the MDL in 2009, thousands of cases had been settled or otherwise resolved. Judge Robreno has been overseeing the progress and resolution of the remaining cases since then.  In the asbestos MDL No. 875, the court had issued Administrative Order 12, which required plaintiffs to submit medical diagnoses or expert opinions based on certain data, interpreted to include exposure history. The order was issued in 2007 and was intended to accelerate the handling of the significant numbers of cases in this MDL by screening out cases in which causation cannot be demonstrated, and to avoid unnecessary burdens on defendants by requiring plaintiffs to provide certain medical and exposure information at the outset of the case.

The district court dismissed several cases in 2012, holding that the plaintiffs' submissions regarding their alleged medical conditions did not meet Administrative Order 12.  Specifically, Judge Robreno determined that the Plaintiffs' submissions were fatally flawed in that they failed to include specific histories of Plaintiffs' exposure to asbestos. Plaintiffs' counsel disputed that interpretation of the order as requiring a complete occupational history of asbestos exposure, and offered simply a diagnosis of an asbestos-related disease. At no point did Plaintiffs offer supplemental AO 12 submissions with more complete exposure histories. 

The Third Circuit agreed that the language of AO 12 is broad, but saw no reason not to defer to the District Court's interpretation of AO 12 that requires plaintiffs' submissions to include asbestos exposure history. Based on the language in AO 12 that requires plaintiffs to submit medical diagnoses or opinions based on objective and subjective data, as well as based on statements from reputable medical organizations that emphasize the importance of exposure history, the District Court interpreted AO 12 submissions to include exposure history. And it was not an abuse of discretion – especially given the District Court's experience overseeing the MDL proceedings – to require a complete occupational and environmental exposure history. 

 

House Committee Approves Asbestos Bill

Quick note for our readers who follow asbestos mass tort issues:  the House Judiciary Committee decided in a 17–14 party-line vote this week to reject  various proposed amendments to the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act of 2013 (H.R. 982).  The FACT Act would require the various asbestos settlement trusts to make public disclosures detailing the claims to the trust and to provide certain information about claims on request (but not confidential medical records).  The amendments were proposed by Democrats opposing the bill.

The Full Committee Markup of H.R. 982 is here.  Hearing information regarding the 3/13 hearing on the bill is here

Passage of the Fact Act would allow defendants to properly assess a plaintiff’s complete exposure history. As it stands, plaintiffs often hide behind trust confidentiality to make solvent defendants believe that their products were far more responsible for the plaintiff’s disease than the true picture.  As asbestos liabilities force more and more companies to file for bankruptcy, legislators need to preserve assets for appropriate claimants; the secrecy and abuse associated with the trusts undermines this as well.

 

EnBanc Oral Argument Set in 9th Circuit Asbestos Case

We have posted before about Henry Barabin, et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc. and Scapa Dryer Fabrics Inc., as a case to watch.  Interested readers should note that the 9th Circuit has now set the en banc oral argument in this case for June 25th.

You may recall that plaintiff sued alleging that his 2006 diagnosis of mesothelioma was caused by occupational exposure to asbestos during the more than 30 years he worked at the Crown-Zellerbach paper mill. The trial court originally excluded one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, because of his “dubious credentials and his lack of expertise with regard to dryer felts and paper mills.” But the court later reversed that ruling, after the plaintiff supplemented the record on the expert's credentials, including that he had testified in other cases (in Frye jurisdictions though). The jury found in favor of plaintiffs.


On appeal, the Ninth Circuit panel determined that the lower court had not properly considered all the Daubert factors, and instead had allowed the plaintiff to submit the expert’s "unfiltered testimony" to the jury. “Once presented with the additional information in the Barabins’ response to the motion in limine, at a minimum the district court was required to assess the scientific reliability of the proffered expert testimony ... In failing to do so, the district court neglected to perform its gatekeeping role.”

Our guess is that in setting the case for rehearing, the court is thinking more about the fact that the panel remanded the case for a new trial in light of the court’s 2003 decision in Mukhtar v. California State University, 299 F.3d 1053 (9th Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003).

(Note that my partner Mark Behrens was asked to submit an amicus brief on behalf of the Coalition For Litigation Justice, Inc., Chamber Of Commerce Of The United States Of America, NFIB Small Business Legal Center, American Insurance Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association Of America, American Chemistry Council,
And National Association Of Manufacturers.)

Prop 65 Reforms Proposed

Our readers know how Prop 65 has created numerous issues for product sellers and created much litigation mischief in the hands of overzealous plaintiffs. Interesting that earlier this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said he now advocates reforms to California's law to frivolous lawsuits that do nothing to protect consumers.

The administration, through the California Environmental Protection Agency, wants to work closely with the state Legislature to revamp Proposition 65 by ending frivolous “shake-down” lawsuits. 

Voters approved Proposition 65 in 1986. The measure requires the Governor to annually publish a list of chemicals allegedly "known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity." If a business in California sells a product containing such chemicals listed by the state in excess of certain levels, the business must provide warnings to users or in the workplace.

The Governor wants reforms to:
• Cap or limit attorney’s fees in Proposition 65 cases.
• Require stronger demonstration by plaintiffs that they have information to support claims before litigation begins.
• Require greater disclosure of plaintiff’s information.
• Set limits on the amount of money in an enforcement case that can go into settlement funds in lieu of penalties.

The administration is worried about "lawyers who bring nuisance lawsuits to extract settlements from businesses with little or no benefit to the public or the environment." Since 2008, nearly 2,000 complaints have been filed by so-called “citizen enforcers.” Goofy suits include litigation against banks for failing to prevent second-hand smoke near their ATM machines.

The devil is always in the details, so it will be important to keep an eye on this.

 

Federal Court Reaffirms Summary Judgment in NORM Case

A federal court recently reaffirmed its prior ruling that a plaintiff's expert failed to establish causation in a suit alleging increased risk of cancer from radioactive scale deposited inside pipes.  See Hill v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 11-2786 (E.D. La. 4/30/13).

Plaintiff worked at Tuboscope Vetco International. He alleged he was exposed to radioactive scale
(naturally occuring radioactive materials or "NORM") when he cleaned pipes at work. Hill sued Shell Oil
Co. and Chevron U.S.A. Inc. alleging that these companies sent used pipes containing radioactive scale to Tuboscope to be processed and that he was exposed to the radioactive scale in these pipes.

Earlier this year, the court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Hill could not prove that he was exposed to radiation attributable to Shell or Chevron.  A fundamental cause in fact issue. His evidence only supported general inferences about radiation at Tuboscope but nothing that showed (1) he actually cleaned used pipe containing scale with NORM or (2) that these pipes were attributable to Shell or Chevron. Hill's evidence required an impermissible chain of speculation to find that he was exposed to radiation in these defendants' pipes.

Plaintiff then moved to alter and amend the summary judgment arguing that the court should amend or reconsider its judgment because of new evidence. The court concluded that the new evidence, largely depositions taken after the motion was pending but before it was ruled on, was not grounds for altering the court's judgment. 
 
Defendants argued that these depositions were not the proper basis for a Rule 59(e) motion to amend because the evidence was available before the judgment issued. See Rosenzweig v. Azurix Corp., 332 F.3d 854, 863-864 (5th Cir. 2003).  Hill deposed these witnesses before the court issued its judgment, and he apparently made no attempt to supplement the record. Accordingly, this evidence was not "newly discovered." See Russ v. Int'l Paper Co., 943 F.2d 589, 593 (5th Cir. 1991).

Even if this evidence was considered, however, the court noted that plaintiff's motion still would fail.  For example, one expert testimony did not establish that Hill was exposed to radioactive scale attributable to Shell and Chevron. No party disputed that new pipe does not have scale, and not all used pipe has scale. Further, not all used pipe with scale contains NORM.  The later expert's calculation of the average radiation dose of pipes that do have scale containing NORM does not provide any proof that Hill was actually exposed to (1) used pipes that have scale containing NORM or (2) that these pipes were attributable to defendants. Accordingly, this kind of "new" testimony was irrelevant to proving Hill's exposure to NORM attributable to Shell and Chevron. The evidence did not show that Hill handled defendants' NORM-containing pipes and did not create an issue of material fact. Motion denied.


 

Hearing Questions EPA Stance on Fracking

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing earlier this week to review federal hydraulic fracturing research activities. The hearing examined research activities by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Interior (DOI) in an inter-agency effort to “address the highest priority challenges” related to the production of domestic unconventional oil and natural gas resources.  Readers may recall we have posted about fracking issues before. 

Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) noted a widely publicized handful of unsubstantiated charges that fracking pollutes ground water; the EPA is at the center of this debate, linking fracking to water contamination in at least three cases, only to be forced to retract their statements after further scrutiny.

Members questioned administration witnesses on the objectives of the interagency initiative as they relate to the administration’s regulatory intentions and track record of unsubstantiated attacks on the safety of hydraulic fracturing.  

Witnesses included:

Dr. Kevin Teichman, Senior Science Advisor, Office of Research and Development, Environmental Protection Agency
Mr. Guido DeHoratiis, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oil and Gas, Office of Fossil Energy, Department of Energy
Dr. David Russ, Regional Executive, Northeast Area, U.S. Geological Survey
Dr. Robin Ikeda, Acting Director, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Department of Health and Human Services

The hearing also noted the administration’s interagency working group had committed to release a draft of their research plan by October 2012 and complete the final plan by January 2013. The Administration has yet to even release a draft for public comment. 

Energy Subcommittee Chairman Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) noted that her home state of Wyoming is at the center of this issue since the EPA put it in the national spotlight with a “draft” report implying that fracking was somehow responsible for the quality of the water. However, in the days and weeks that followed this announcement, the State of Wyoming, industry, and other federal agencies exposed EPA’s study as deeply flawed.

Environment Subcommittee Chairman Chris Stewart noted that largely as a result of the expanded use of cheap natural gas from 2005 to 2011, the U.S. has decreased its carbon dioxide output more than any other nation, including those countries that have implemented aggressive green energy agendas, such as Germany and Spain.  It is perhaps ironic that many of the most passionate advocates for action on climate change also oppose fracking.

CAFA Local Exception Rejected

 A federal court in Georgia ruled last week that a proposed class action alleging injury from chemical exposures was properly removed under the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005.  See Anderson v. King America Finishing Inc., No. 1:11-cv-2258-JEC (N.D. Ga., 3/25/13).


Plaintiffs alleged that defendant King America Finishing released a toxic chemical into the Ogeechee River from its manufacturing plant in Dover, Georgia. According to plaintiffs, the toxic chemical release caused damage to surrounding land downstream from the Dover plant. In addition, plaintiffs claimed that certain individuals who swam in the Ogeechee River suffered from physical injuries due to the release. Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint in Fulton County Superior Court. They purported to represent a property damage class defined to include “[a]ll possessors of property affected, directly or indirectly, by [the May, 2011] release of chemicals into
the waters of the Ogeechee River.” One named plaintiff also purported to represent a personal injury class defined to include “[a]ll persons who have been exposed, directly or indirectly, with the waters of the Ogeechee River that had been contaminated by the Release.”


Defendants removed the case to federal court pursuant to the Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d) and 1453. CAFA generally provides for the removal of any class action in which there is: (1) minimal diversity, (2) at least 100 putative class members and (3) $5 million in alleged damages. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332(d)(2) and 1453. It was undisputed that these requirements were met in this case. Plaintiffs conceded that all of the named plaintiffs were diverse from defendant, that the putative class exceeded 100 members, and that the claims exceeded $5 million in damages.

Nevertheless, plaintiffs filed a motion to remand the case to state court, based on the “local controversy” exception to CAFA jurisdiction, which provides for the remand of a class action that “uniquely affects a particular locality to the exclusion of all others.” Evans v. Walter Indus., Inc., 449 F.3d 1159, 1164 (11th Cir. 2006). Specifically, a “local controversy” is defined by CAFA as a class action in which: (1) greater than two-thirds of the class members are citizens of the state in which the action was originally filed, (2) at least one “significant” defendant is a citizen of the state in which the action was filed and (3) the principal injuries alleged in the action were incurred in the state in which the action was filed. 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(4)(A).

Defendants did not dispute elements 2 and 3. The argument among the parties centered on the two-thirds requirement.  Under CAFA, plaintiffs bear the burden of proving that the exception applies. In order to meet their burden on the two-thirds requirement, plaintiffs had to present evidence from which a court could credibly adduce that more than two-thirds of the purported class members were Georgia citizens. Plaintiffs used tax and voter registration records,  reference to the Secretary of State’s Corporation website, and interviews of personal injury class members who were determined by interview to be Georgia citizens, to just get over the threshold.

The court rejected their calculations, finding no sound evidentiary basis for including several of these groups in the calculation. For example, with regard to the legal entities, the Secretary of State’s website merely lists a Georgia office address for each entity. The website does not indicate that any of these entities have their “principal place of business” in Georgia. In addition to the evidentiary issues with the numerator in plaintiffs’ equation, there were serious questions about the denominator as well. Both the property and the personal injury classes were defined broadly in the complaint to include all land and persons directly or indirectly allegedly impacted by the May, 2011 release. Given that broad definition, the property class likely included many more members than the 900 or so landowners in the particular geographical area chosen by plaintiffs’ attorneys for their showing. Likewise, there could be many more individuals who were “indirectly” injured by the release than the 20 potential class members interviewed by plaintiffs.  The court could not simply speculate about the citizenship of these unaccounted for class members.
Accordingly, the court denied the plaintiffs' motion for remand.

Daubert Decision to Watch in Ninth Circuit

Here's one to watch. The Ninth Circuit last week said it will rehear the case of a paper mill employee whose $9.4 million mesothelioma verdict was vacated by a panel of the appeals court. The court noted in a one-page order that it will rehear the case en banc, but did not provide any specifics. See Henry Barabin. et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., No. 10-36142 (9th Cir.); Henry Barabin, et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc. and Scapa Dryer Fabrics Inc., No. 11-35020 (9th Cir.). 

We can certainly speculate, of course, and our guess is that the reason for the decision does not relate directly to the evidentiary issue the panel had when, in November, it overturned the award after finding that the trial court failed to adequately assess the reliability of the plaintiffs' expert testimony.

Readers may recall that plaintiff sued alleging that his 2006 diagnosis of mesothelioma was caused by occupational exposure to asbestos during the more than 30 years he worked at the Crown-Zellerbach paper mill.  The trial court originally excluded Kenneth Cohen, one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, because of his “dubious credentials and his lack of expertise with regard to dryer felts and paper mills.”  But the court later reversed that ruling, after the plaintiff supplemented the record on the expert's credentials, including that he had testified in other cases (in Frye jurisdictions though). The jury found in favor of plaintiffs.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit determined that the lower court had not properly considered all the Daubert factors, and instead had allowed the plaintiff to submit the expert’s "unfiltered testimony" to the jury.  “Once presented with the additional information in the Barabins’ response to the motion in limine, at a minimum the district court was required to assess the scientific reliability of the proffered expert testimony ...  In failing to do so, the district court neglected to perform its gatekeeping role.”

Our guess is that the court is thinking more about the fact that the panel remanded the case for a new trial in light of the court’s 2003 decision in Mukhtar v. California State University, 299 F.3d 1053 (9th Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003).  One of the concurring opinions questioned the rule from that case that requires the court to vacate and remand for a new trial, as opposed to deciding on the need for a new trial after making a new Daubert determination.  From where we sit, the court had it right in 2003 and this time too. To remand for an evidentiary hearing post-jury verdict undermines Daubert's requirement that some reliability determination must be made by the trial court before the jury is permitted to hear the evidence. Otherwise, instead of fulfilling its mandatory role as a gatekeeper, the district court clouds its duty to ensure that only reliable evidence is presented with impunity. A post-verdict analysis does not protect the purity of the trial, but instead creates an undue risk of post-hoc rationalization. This is hardly the gatekeeping role the Supreme Court envisioned in Daubert and its progeny.  The rule in Mukhtar gives trial courts a real and important incentive to be proper, active gatekeepers. 

 

ACI Chemical Products Liability Seminar

My new firm (Shook Hardy & Bacon) is co-sponsoring the 4th Annual ACI’s Chemical Products Liability and Environmental Litigation conference.  This program brings together a faculty of outside attorneys directly involved in significant toxic tort litigation, as well as industry in-house counsel and the nation’s leading jurists with on-point chemical products experience. This essential litigation forum is designed to educate practitioners—both in-house and outside counsel—on the leading trends in chemical products liability and environmental litigation.  This includes experts from Chevron, Chevron Philips Chemical, The Dow Chemical Company, Dow AgroSciences, Georgia Gulf Corp., Marathon Petroleum, PPG Industries, Praxair, Solvay North America, and many more.

You humble blogger has the privilege of moderating a panel on '"In-House Perspectives: Controlling Costs When Preparing and Trying Cases."  We hope to focus on 

  • Building a trial team, including managing a multi-law firm team that has been “knitted” together
  • Responding to plaintiffs’ forum shopping by tailoring trial management strategies to fit mass tort, class action, or one-off cases
  • Settlement issues
  • Strategizing expert selection
  • Controlling the discovery process to help minimize costs
     

Looking forward to the conference on 4/30 in Chicago.

 

State Supreme Court Clarifies Causation Standard in Asbestos Case

The unique and overwhelming features of the grandfather of all mass torts, asbestos, has created bad law in many jurisdictions, procedurally and substantively.  One important example is the issue of causation, and the questions that arise from an injury possibly associated with multiple  exposures to multiple products over many years.  Last year, we posted about a Pennsylvania decision that rejected the plaintiff position that an expert can opine that any level of exposure to a toxic substance is a substantial contributing factor to a disease that is governed by a dose-response relationship.

Recently, the Virginia Supreme Court adopted a new “multiple sufficient causes” analysis as the standard for Virginia mesothelioma cases involving multiple asbestos exposures. See Ford Motor Co. v. Boomer, No. 120283 (Va. 1/10/13).

Plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a malignant cancer of the pleura of the lungs.  He asserted that his job duties required that he observe vehicle inspections wherein mechanics used compressed air to blow out brake debris (dust) to allow for a visual inspection of the vehicle's  brakes. He testified that he observed vehicle inspections in approximately 70 garages a month, for five to six hours a day, ten days each month. He testified that his rotations included supervising inspections at a Ford dealership. He said he also specifically remembered Oldsmobile dealers on his rotation. Plaintiff could not identify the type of brake linings being inspected, but presented some circumstantial evidence as to the likely manufacturer of the brake linings being Bendix.

Plaintiff's experts opined that the exposure to dust from Bendix brakes and brakes in Ford cars were both substantial contributing factors in his mesothelioma. And they opined that the current medical evidence suggests that there is no safe level of chrysotile asbestos exposure above background levels in the ambient air. However, plaintiff also testified that he worked as a pipefitter at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the early 1940s. His own work and the work of those immediately around him involved packing sand into pipes so that the pipes could be bent to fit the ships. Defense experts opined that his profile was more consistent with a person who had exposure to amosite asbestos at a shipyard sixty years ago than a person exposed to chrysotile brake products.

The jury found in favor of the plaintiff; the trial court denied Bendix' and Ford's motions to strike the expert testimony and their motions to set aside the verdict or for a new trial. Bendix and Ford timely appealed, including on the issue that the court had instructed the jury to determine whether Ford's or Bendix' negligence was a "substantial contributing factor" to plaintiff's mesothelioma. Defendants challenged the use of the substantial contributing factor language as contrary to prevailing Virginia law as to causation.

The court reviewed the traditional Virginia law of causation, which in most instances requires proof that but for the defendant's actions the plaintiff would not have been injured.The 'but for' test is a useful rule of exclusion in all but one situation, said the court: where two causes concur to bring about an event and either alone would have been sufficient to bring about an identical result.  Thus, state law has long provided a means of holding a defendant liable if his or her negligence is one of multiple concurrent causes which proximately caused an injury, when any of the multiple causes would have each have been a sufficient cause.

Causation in a mesothelioma case, however, observed the court, presents a challenge beyond even that standard concurring negligence instruction. Mesothelioma is virtually a signature disease: it was uncontroverted at trial that in most situations the cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos at some point during an individual's lifetime. The long latency period of the disease, however, makes it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when the harmful asbestos exposure occurred and, in the presence of multiple exposures, equally difficult to distinguish the causative exposures. Further complicating the issue, said the court, although numerous individuals were exposed to varying levels of asbestos during its widespread industrial use before safety measures became standard, not all persons so exposed developed mesothelioma.  It is not currently known why some are more susceptible than others to developing mesothelioma, or why even comparatively lower levels of exposure may cause mesothelioma in some individuals while others exposed to higher dosages never develop the disease. Thus, in the context of a lifetime of various potential asbestos exposures, designating particular exposures as causative presents courts with a unique  challenge.

Certainly, said the court, if the traditional but-for definition of proximate cause was invoked, the injured party would virtually never be able to recover for damages arising from mesothelioma in the context of multiple exposures, because injured parties would face the difficult if not impossible task of proving that any one single source of exposure, in light of other exposures, was the sole but-for cause of the disease. The lower court thus used a "substantial factor" test.  In the last several decades, with the rise of asbestos-based lawsuits, the "substantial contributing factor" instruction has become prominent in some other jurisdictions. See, e.g., Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1162-63 (4th Cir. 1986) (upholding Maryland's substantial contributing factor standard in an asbestosis case); Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 941 P.2d 1203, 1219 (Cal. 1997).

Here, the court rejected the “substantial contributing factor” analysis used by these several other jurisdictions.  The Court did not believe that substantial contributing factor has a single, common-sense meaning, and concluded that a reasonable juror could be confused as to the quantum of evidence required to prove causation in the face of both a substantial contributing factor and a proximate cause instruction. In sum, some jurors might construe the term to lower the threshold of proof required for causation while others might interpret it to mean the opposite. The court also agreed with the explicit rejection of substantial contributing factor language in the recent Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm (2010).  The substantial-factor rubric, says the commentary, tends to obscure, rather than to assist, explanation and clarification of the basis of causation decisions. The latest Restatement provides a rule for finding each of two acts that are elements of sufficient competing causal sets to be factual causes without employing the substantial-factor language of the prior Torts Restatements. There is no question of degree in the new version.  It holds that if multiple acts occur, each of which alone would have been a factual cause of the physical harm at the same time in the absence of the other act(s), each can be regarded as a factual cause of the harm.

The court found this model, as explicated in the comments, quite consistent with its prior rulings regarding concurring causation. A defendant whose tortious act was fully capable of causing the plaintiff's harm should not escape liability merely because of the fortuity of another sufficient cause. So the but-for standard is a helpful method for identifying causes, but it is not the exclusive means for determining a factual cause. Multiple sufficient causes may also be factual causes.  The acts themselves do not have to be concurrent, so long as they are operating and sufficient to cause the harm contemporaneously. As to mesothelioma, said the court, the "harm" occurs not at the time of exposure but at the time when competent medical evidence indicates that the cancer first exists and  thus causes injury. 

 The court said that the separate comment under Restatement § 27, entitled "Toxic substances and disease," should not be applied here.  That approach allows for a finding of causation when multiple exposures combine to reach the threshold necessary to cause a disease, allowing parties who were responsible for some portion of that threshold to be held liable. While it may be the case that this dose-related approach to causation is indeed appropriate for some cancers or diseases, the court did not find it to be necessarily appropriate for mesothelioma from asbestos.

Based on this rule, plaintiff must show that it is more likely than not that his alleged exposure to dust from defendant's brakes occurred prior to the development of cancer and was sufficient to cause his mesothelioma. Given that this approach differs from that taken in the circuit court, the court did not find it appropriate to rule on the sufficiency of the evidence at trial at this time, and instead remanded. On remand, the experts must opine as to what level of exposure is sufficient to cause mesothelioma, and whether the levels of exposure at issue in this case were sufficient.

State Supreme Court Issues Forum Non Conveniens Decision

A tip of the hat to faithful reader Brendan Kenny at Blackwell Burke for noting the recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in Fennell v. Illinois Central Railroad.

The issue is forum non conveniens. Brendan notes that the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied defendant Illinois Central's forum non conveniens motion. The state Supreme Court reversed the appellate court judgment affirming the trial court's denial, and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to dismiss. Per Brendan, this 5-1 decision will be helpful to defendants as it emphasizes that Illinois trial courts must grant a defendant's forum non conveniens motion if the plaintiff has no significant connection to the forum and there is an alternative forum that is more convenient. This decision likely strengthens defendants' challenges to asbestos plaintiffs forum shopping in plaintiff-friendly forums like Madison County. This will allow defendants to move asbestos cases to more appropriate forums. 

Brendan notes that Fennell involved plaintiff's 37-year exposure to asbestos-containing products while working for Illinois Central. Fennell lived and sometimes worked in Mississippi, but he also worked across the country for the railroad, and he alleged that he was exposed to asbestos-containing products wherever he worked. In 2002, Fennell and a group of 80 other plaintiffs sued Illinois Central in Mississippi state court. In 2006, Illinois Central filed a motion to dismiss, and the Mississippi court dismissed the case without prejudice.

In 2009, rather than re-file the case in Mississippi, Fennell filed an action against Illinois Central in Saint Clair County, Illinois. He alleged that he was exposed to asbestos and other toxic substances while working for Illinois Central, but he did not allege an injury in Saint Clair County. In May 2010, Illinois Central filed a forum non conveniens motion. Brendan observes that the trial court denied the motion because: (1) Illinois Central's lawyers had significant evidence in Saint Clair County, (2) two of Fennell's important witnesses would testify in Illinois but not in Mississippi, (3) Saint Clair County is closer for Fennell's Chicago-based expert witness than Mississippi, (4) Saint Clair citizens have an interest in "traveling asbestos and other harmful substances"; and (5) Saint Clair County's dockets are uncongested.

Illinois Central appealed, and a divided appellate-court panel affirmed. Illinois Central appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, and several amici filed briefs.

A trial court's denial of a forum non conveniens motion is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Under the forum non conveniens doctrine, a trial court may decline jurisdiction if it appears that another forum can better serve the parties' convenience and the ends of justice. When ruling on the motion, trial court must consider what forum the totality of public and private-interest factors favor.

Brendan notes that private-interest factors include the parties convenience, access to evidence, ability to compel witnesses to appear for trial, cost of presenting willing witnesses at trial, possibility of viewing the premises at issue, and any other factors that make a trial "easy, expeditious, and inexpensive." Trial courts should also consider that courts have never favored forum shopping, and that a plaintiff's interest in selecting a forum is less if the plaintiff is foreign to the forum and the action arose outside the forum. Public-interest factors include the congestion of the forum's courts, the unfairness of imposing jury duty on residents in a community unconnected to the litigation, and the interests of local communities in deciding local issues.

The Supreme Court held that the trial court abused its discretion because it failed to properly apply the public and private-interest factors. Brendan points out that Fennell was from Mississippi and his cause of action arose outside Illinois. The Supreme Court noted that trial court ignored that Fennell initially filed in Mississippi and re-filed in Illinois. It emphasized that Fennell lives less than 25 miles from the Mississippi courthouse, but 530 miles away from the Saint Clair courthouse, and that almost no one connected with Fennell's case lives in Illinois. Nothing suggested that having the case in Mississippi would unduly hamper the parties' discovery. And it held that Fennell's Chicago-based expert's convenience was entitled to little weight because he is compensated for his travel, and factoring the convenience of plaintiffs' expert would make forum shopping even easier.

The Illinois Supreme Court also rejected the trial court's conclusion that two of Fennell's important witnesses would not testify in court in Mississippi; these witnesses were Illinois Central employeees and this makes it unlikely that Fennell would have difficulty compelling them to testify in Mississippi. In contrast, the Mississippi-based witnesses could not be compelled to testify in Saint Clair County, and bringing the willing witnesses there would cost more.

The Illinois Supreme Court was not persuaded, Brendan notes, that the office of Illinois Central's counsel in Saint Clair County was significant. Assuming that the law firm had many Illinois Central documents relevant to the case there, the Illinois Supreme Court noted that modern technology allows litigants to copy and transport the documents long distance easily and cheaply. 

The Supreme Court found that Saint Clair County had a strong interest in avoiding subjecting its citizens to jury duty in a case unrelated to their community. And even assuming that Saint Clair County citizens had some interest in "traveling asbestos and other harmful substances," they have a greater interest in not being burdened with litigation they have no connection to. 

 

Ninth Circuit Vacates Asbestos Verdict on Daubert Basis

The Ninth Circuit earlier this month vacated a $9 million award for a plaintiff who allegedly contracted mesothelioma working for decades at a paper mill, because the trial court failed to assess the reliability of expert testimony for the plaintiffs under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm.,
Inc
., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). See Henry Barabin et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., et al., Nos. 10-36142 and 11-35020 (9th Cir.). 

Plaintiff's employer used dryer felts containing asbestos allegedly made or sold by defendants. During his employment, he allegedly worked in various jobs that exposed him to the dryer felts that defendants had provided. He also took pieces of dryer felt home to use in his garden.  In November, 2006, Plaintiff was diagnosed with pleural malignant epithelial mesothelioma.  It was undisputed that exposure to respirable asbestos can cause mesothelioma (general causation).

Defendants filed a motion in limine to exclude plaintiff's expert witnesses on specific causation. The district court excluded one (Dr. Cohen) as an expert because of his “dubious credentials and his lack of expertise with regard to dryer felts and paper mills. . . ” Additionally, the district court limited a second (Dr. Millette), requiring disclosure to the jury that Dr. Millette’s tests were “performed under laboratory conditions which are not the same as conditions at [plaintiff's workplace].”  However, during a pre-trial conference, the district court reversed its decision to exclude Dr. Cohen’s testimony. The district court explained that plaintiffs had clarified Dr. Cohen’s credentials, including that he had testified in other cases. The district court did not hold a Daubert hearing.

After the jury verdict and post-trial motions, defendants appealed.  The court of appeals noted that in its role as gatekeeper, the district court determines the relevance and reliability of expert testimony and its subsequent admission or exclusion. See Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 657 F.3d 970, 982 (9th Cir. 2011). Admission or exclusion under Daubert rests on the scientific reliability and relevance of the expert testimony.  The expert’s opinion must be deduced from a “scientific method” to be admissible. The test under Daubert is not the correctness of the expert’s conclusions but the soundness of his methodology. Compliance with Rule 702 is gauged by the district court’s assessment of the reliability of the proffered expert testimony. Specifically, the district court is charged with determining whether the proffered expert testimony is trustworthy. In a case involving scientific evidence, evidentiary reliability will be based upon scientific validity. Scientific validity is, in turn, assessed in large part by the degree to which the theories propounded by the expert have been subjected to and survived scrutiny in the relevant scientific community.  The "decision to admit or exclude expert testimony is often the difference between winning and losing a case."

Since the decision to permit the testimony was based on reconsideration, the record was limited. Once presented with the additional information in the response to the motion in limine, at a minimum the district court was required to assess the scientific reliability of the proffered expert testimony.  Unfortunately, said the court of appeals, because no Daubert hearing was conducted as requested, the district court failed to assess the scientific methodologies, reasoning, or principles Dr. Cohen applied. None of the Daubert factors was considered. "Instead, the court allowed the parties to submit the experts’ unfiltered testimony to the jury."  In failing to do so, the district court neglected to perform its gatekeeping role.  Rather than making the required determinations, the district court left it to the jury to determine the relevance and reliability of the proffered expert testimony in the first instance, said the panel. The 9th Circuit panel seemed influenced in part by the fact that, in its order, the district court wrote: In the interest of allowing each party to try its case to the jury, the Court deems admissible expert testimony that every exposure can cause an asbestos-related disease. (emphasis added).

"Let the parties try their cases; let the jury sort it out" is not what Daubert allows or requires.  The district court committed reversible error when it failed to assess the proferred expert testimony for relevance and reliability, concluded the court. Prior decisions dictated that a new trial be provided in this circumstance.

Report Issued on Use of Science in Regulatory Decisions

Scientists and policy experts from industry, government, and various nonprofit sectors worked on a report released recently by the Research Integrity Roundtable, designed to offer ways to improve the scientific analysis and independent expert reviews which underpin many important regulatory decisions. The primary audience for the report is federal agencies and their scientific advisory committees, but the ideas in the report may be relevant to others who work at the intersection of science and regulatory policy, including in Congress, the judiciary, and readers of MassTortDefense.  These issues can have important implications for persons interested in issues associated with chemicals, energy, land use, natural resources, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and other areas in which science informs public policy.

Critics of the manner in which science is used in regulatory decision-making processes tend to raise two kinds of concerns. They question the composition of committees that are empaneled to recommend or review the science behind a possible regulatory decision and they question the way an agency or committee has reviewed the relevant scientific literature, charging that the reviewers used or omitted the wrong studies, and/or that the studies were not appraised appropriately. Obviously, some disputes over the "politicization" of science actually arise over differences about policy choices that science can inform, but not determine.

With that in mind, this report attempts to lay out some broad principles, guidelines, and practices designed in the view of the authors to limit the battling over conflict of interest and bias, and systematic reviews.  Accordingly, this report focuses on:

 How should panels be composed and the qualifications of prospective advisory panelists be vetted?
 How should concerns about biases and conflicts of interest of advisory panelists be handled?
 Which studies should agencies review when examining the scientific literature related to a regulatory policy issue?
 How should contending views regarding the relevance of particular scientific results to a regulatory issue and the credibility of those results be addressed?

For panel formation, the report concludes that a reasonable balance must be established between transparency and privacy. In the realm of qualifications, for example, balancing how much personal information should be revealed to the public by a prospective panelist who may be willing to serve in an advisory capacity, but may not want every aspect of his or her personal life or financial status released to the public.

In dealing with scientific studies, the report suggests a balance must be established in developing and applying objective and transparent criteria for establishing data relevance and reliability between the desire for complete data-sets and the reality that the relevant scientific literature is populated with studies from a wide variety of sources with varying degrees of data availability. In some cases, when proprietary information is involved, an appropriate balance must be struck between the public’s right to know and the legally based need to protect proprietary formulas, production processes, and related intellectual property. 

Industry Weighs in on "Safe Chemicals" Bill

A variety of companies and chemical industry trade groups weighed in last week on a bill to amend the decades-old Toxic Substances Control Act.   

Several dozen interested parties, including the National Association of Manufacturers, American Chemistry Council, and American Petroleum Institute, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate noting their objections to S. 847 — dubbed the Safe Chemicals Act -- that the Environment and Public Works Committee recently sent to the Senate floor. 

We have posted about this bill before.  It would give the EPA revised authority to regulate a broader range of potentially toxic chemicals.  But it would establish an unworkable safety standard, and would require an enormous amount of additional government resources to implement. The bill would also dramatically increase the time it would take for EPA to review new chemicals and undermine long-standing protections of trade secrets, seriously hampering innovations in new products and technologies.

In their letter, the groups said that the bill that did not reflect the input of the Republican Senators or many of the stakeholders on all the very complex issues involved in updating TSCA. On July 25th, the EPW Committee held a markup of S. 847, and then voted along party lines to approve the bill.

The industry groups said they wholeheartedly support the continuation of a bipartisan process to discuss the right concepts needed in legislation to effectively reform the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate chemicals. But they believe that S. 847 as reported by the Committee does not accomplish this goal.  They continue to support sound, science and risk-based legislation to update TSCA, and will work with Senators on such new legislation.


 

 

TSCA "Reform" Bill Moves To Senate Floor

Over the past several years, Congress has wrestled with chemical safety and possible ways to modernize TSCA. Chemical business leaders, public officials, scientists, doctors, academics, and liberal environmental organizations have expressed support for varied methods of reforms to this principal toxic substance law. 

Recently, a U.S. Senate committee advanced yet another bill that would revise the decades-old  regulation for chemicals. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works voted 10-8 (along party lines) to move S. 847, the so-called Safe Chemicals Act, to the Senate floor.

The bill would require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish new minimum data sets for chemical substances; identify required testing of any chemical substances; create various hurdles for a manufacturer before making any new chemical substance;  update a list of chemical substances warranting placement within one of three priority classes regarding risk management; and, importantly, requires substance manufacturers and processors to bear the burden of proving that chemical substances meet applicable safety standards.  The bill would also establish an Internet-accessible, public database of information on the toxicity of, use of, and exposure to chemical substances.  The bill would also drastically narrow the conditions under which data about chemical substances may be treated as confidential business information.

The chemical Industry remains committed to working with the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works to pursue reform of TSCA, but views this as a partisan markup of a bill that is inconsistent with balanced reform.  Specifically, the bill would establish an unworkable safety standard, and would require an enormous amount of additional government resources to implement. The bill would also dramatically increase the time it would take for EPA to review new chemicals and undermine long-standing protections of trade secrets, seriously hampering innovations in new products and technologies.

 

 

EPA Releases Draft BPA Report

Last week, the EPA released a draft analysis of chemicals that may substitute for bisphenol A's use in thermal paper -- that's the material often used in sales receipts, supermarket labels, parking tickets, airline tickets, and similar items.

Readers may recall that in 2010, EPA released a chemical action plan that summarized hazard, exposure, and use information on bisphenol A (BPA) and identified various actions EPA was considering.  Part of that action plan was to help industries consider alternative chemicals and provide a basis for informed decision-making by developing an in-depth comparison of potential human health and environmental impacts of chemical alternatives. Representatives from industrial, academic, governmental, and non-governmental organizations worked with EPA to select and evaluate alternatives to BPA in thermal paper and develop this report.

By way of background, BPA (a topic we have posted on before) is a high production volume (HPV) chemical with a U.S. volume estimated at 2.4 billion pounds in 2007 and an estimated value of almost $2 billion. It is a monomer used in manufacturing most polycarbonate plastics, the majority of epoxy resins, and other chemical products such as flame retardants.  Approximately 94% of BPA is used as a monomer to make polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins. Although most human exposure to BPA is believed to come from food and beverage packaging made from these materials, less than 5% of the BPA produced is used in food contact applications.  BPA-based materials are also used in automotive and other transportation equipment, optical media such as DVDs, electrical/electronics equipment, construction, linings inside drinking water pipes, thermal paper coatings, foundry casting, and elsewhere.  It has been an extraordinarily useful product.

The BPA in Thermal Paper Alternatives Assessment is an evaluation of potential hazards associated with thermal paper developers that are likely to be functional alternatives to BPA. Thermal paper systems include a developer and other components such as dyes and sensitizers. (EPA recognized that a change in the developer may require additional adjustments to the system.) This draft report summarizes the outcomes of the alternatives assessment, and aims to improve understanding of the potential environmental and human health impacts of BPA and alternative developers in thermal paper throughout their life cycles. Importantly, this draft report does not identify functional chemicals with no or even low concern for all human health and environmental hazard endpoints; all of the alternatives are associated with some trade-offs. For example, a chemical may have a lower concern for human health but a higher concern for aquatic toxicity. Finding and choosing substitutes is not always as easy as plaintiff attorneys and advocacy groups try to suggest.

Comments on EPA's draft alternatives assessment are due Oct. 1, 2012, at baier-anderson.caroline@epa.gov.
 

Medical Monitoring at Issue in Oklahoma Federal Court

Readers know that medical monitoring is a recurring topic here at MassTortDefense.  Here is one to keep an eye on, as a defendant recently asked the Oklahoma federal court to reject plaintiffs' claim for medical monitoring in a putative class action. Mitchell McCormick, et al. v. Halliburton Co., et al., Np. 5:11-cv-0127 (W.D. Okla.).

Plaintiffs, about three dozen residents of Duncan, Okla., are seeking, inter alia, medical monitoring, establishment of a class-wide medical registry, and payment for medical research to assist alleged disease identification, prevention and treatment, based on allegations  that defendants exposed the town's residents to toxic substances.

Defendants have moved to dismiss, arguing that there is no cognizable claim for a medical monitoring remedy under Oklahoma law. Defendants noted the absence of any Oklahoma statutes or state court decisions recognizing or even suggesting the availability of medical monitoring, and the important public policy considerations that disfavor medical monitoring relief. Specifically, medical monitoring for uninjured plaintiffs (1) encourages highly speculative claims and equally conjectural awards; (2) diverts scarce medical resources away from truly injured individuals who need them most; (3) subjects defendants to open-ended liability; and (4) places significant strain on a judicial system that is generally ill-equipped to formulate and then supervise complex medical monitoring regimes.

Such fears are reflected in the prevailing trend in other jurisdictions to reject such claims. See Rhodes v. E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co., 657 F. Supp. 2d 751, 774 (S.D. W. Va. 2009) (noting post-Buckley trend); Norwood v. Raytheon Co., 414 F. Supp. 2d 659, 667 (W.D. Tex. 2006) (discussing “the recent trend of rejecting medical monitoring as a cause of action” in light of Buckley); see also Zarov et al., A Medical Monitoring Claim for Asymptomatic Plaintiffs: Should Illinois Take the Plunge?, 12 DEPAUL J. HEALTH CARE L. 1, 2 (2009).

The defendants cited additional authority: Hinton v. Monsanto Co., 813 So. 2d 827, 830 (Ala. 2001) (“To recognize medical monitoring as a distinct cause of action . . . would require this Court to completely rewrite Alabama’s tort-law system, a task akin to traveling in uncharted waters, without the benefit of a seasoned guide. We are unprepared to embark upon such a voyage.”); Badillo v. Am. Brands, Inc., 16 P.3d 435, 441 (Nev. 2001) (en banc) (“[W]e hold that Nevada common law does not recognize a cause of action for medical monitoring”); Wood v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., Div. of Am. Home Prods., 82 S.W.3d 849, 857 (Ky. 2002) (“We are supported in rejecting prospective medical monitoring claims (in the absence of present injury) by both the United States Supreme Court and a persuasive cadre of authors from academia. These authorities explain that, while well-intentioned, courts allowing recovery for increased risk and medical screening may be creating significant public policy problems.”); Henry v. Dow Chem. Co., 701 N.W.2d 684, 703 (Mich. 2005) (“To recognize a medical monitoring cause of action would essentially be to accord carte blanche to any moderately creative lawyer to identify an emission from any business enterprise anywhere, speculate about the adverse health consequences of such an emission, and thereby seek to impose on such business the obligation to pay the medical costs of a segment of the population that has suffered no actual medical harm.”); Paz v. Brush Engineered Materials, Inc., 949 So. 2d 1, 5-6 (Miss. 2007) (refusing to recognize a claim for medical monitoring allowing a plaintiff to recover medical monitoring costs for mere exposure to a harmful substance without proof of a current actual bodily injury); Lowe v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 183 P.3d 181, 187 (Or. 2008) (“[W]e hold that negligent conduct that results only in a significantly increased risk of future injury that requires medical monitoring does not give rise to a claim for negligence.”). 

But see Bower v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 522 S.E.2d 424, 431 (W. Va. 1999); Meyer v. Fluor Corp., 220 S.W.3d 712, 717-18 (Mo. 2007); Donovan v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 914 N.E.2d 891, 901 (Mass. 2009).

 

Medical Monitoring Claim Rejected by Federal Court

Readers know that medical monitoring claims are a focus of MassTortDefense.  In a recent case, a federal trial court granted summary judgment on a medical monitoring claim with an opinion that makes a salient point.  See Sahu v. Union Carbide Corp., 2012 WL 2422757 (S.D.N.Y. June 26, 2012.)

Plaintiffs filed suit as members of a putative class against Union Carbide Corporation, seeking monetary damages and medical monitoring for injuries allegedly caused by exposure to soil and drinking water polluted by wastes allegedly produced by the Union Carbide India Limited plant in Bhopal, India.  After years of discovery and tens of thousands of pages of document produced, defendants were able to move for summary judgment as to all theories of liability.  Specifically, plaintiffs brought negligence, public and private nuisance, and strict liability claims against UCC, seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as medical monitoring, for injuries allegedly caused by the Bhopal Plant operations.  But our focus in this post is on the medical monitoring claims.

Plaintiffs in the "Medical Monitoring Class” sought  a “court-ordered medical monitoring program for the early detection of various illnesses which they may develop as a result of exposure to the contaminants and pollutants to which they have been exposed"   The court rejected the claim, noting that medical monitoring was not a feasible remedy,  and was one which would face insurmountable hurdles: locating thousands of people who have resided 8,000 miles away in Bhopal, India, over a span of more than thirty years would be nearly impossible. Plaintiffs sought  relief on behalf of themselves, their families, their minor children, and a putative class of similarly situated people who “continue to reside in the municipal wards and residential areas in the vicinity of the UCIL plant and continue to be exposed to toxins” from contaminated soil and groundwater. Administration of such a program would require identification of every resident considered to be living “in the vicinity” of the Bhopal Plant site, and then further identification of those residents who “continue to be exposed to toxins.” To confirm exposure, it would be necessary to test the soil and drinking water supply throughout Bhopal. Literally construed, plaintiffs' complaint seemed to seek medical monitoring for every current resident of the Bhopal area—an impossible task.

This analysis is a refreshing counterpoint to the alarming feature of some recent medical monitoring decisions, in which the difficulty of identifying and ascertaining class members is somehow de-coupled from class certification and from the elements of the medical monitoring claim, and somehow relegated to an "administrative" feature of the relief program.

Appeals Court Vacates Asbestos Plaintiff Jury Verdict

The Florida court of appeals recently reversed a $6.6 million judgment for the plaintiff in an asbestos case raising interesting issues of the law applicable to design and warning defects. See Union Carbide Corp. v. Aubin,  No. 3D10-1982 (3d DCA 6/20/12).

Plaintiff Aubin worked construction and alleged he routinely handled and was otherwise exposed to joint compounds and ceiling textures that contained asbestos. He contracted mesothelioma and sued.  At trial, plaintiff presented studies purportedly linking defendant's product to a higher degree of danger with respect to the development of asbestosis than other types of asbestos, but he failed to introduce any evidence suggesting it was more dangerous than other asbestos fibers with respect to the contraction of cancer or peritoneal mesothelioma. Also at trial, the parties offered contrasting evidence as to whether Union Carbide adequately informed intermediary manufacturers about the dangers of asbestos. Defense representatives testified that along with an OSHA-mandated warning label, Union Carbide regularly updated its clients regarding the dangers of asbestos as such dangers came to light. Conversely, plaintiff claimed that because there were no warnings on the end product, he was unaware of the dangers associated with the liberation of asbestos fibers into the air, and, therefore, allegedly did not wear any respiratory masks or protective gear while working around the asbestos.

Relying on the component parts doctrine recognized by the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 5 (1997), adopted by the 3d DCA in Kohler Co. v. Marcotte, 907 So. 2d 596, 598-99 (Fla. 3d DCA 2005), defendant moved for a directed verdict on plaintiff's strict liability and negligence claims. That motion was denied. At the charge conference, Union Carbide also requested jury instructions regarding the Third Restatement’s component parts doctrine, The trial court denied Union Carbide’s requests, choosing instead to deliver the special instructions that were requested by plaintiff. The key instruction read: “An asbestos manufacturer, such as Union Carbide Corporation, has a duty to warn end users of an unreasonable danger in the contemplated use of its products.”  The requested context was not provided.

The court of appeals concluded that the trial court erred, first, in determining that Aubin’s claims were governed by the Second Restatement rather than the Third Restatement and, as a result, erred in denying Union Carbide’s motion for a directed verdict with respect to Aubin’s design defect claim. Second, the trial court erred in instructing the jury that Union Carbide had a duty to warn end-users without also instructing the jury that a defendant could have discharged this duty by adequately warning the intermediary manufacturers, and reasonably relying on them to warn end-users. Accordingly, the court remanded for a new trial as to the warning defect claim.

Specifically, the trial court erred as a matter of law in determining that Aubin’s claims were governed by Sections 388 and 402 of the Second Restatement.  In Kohler, the court had adopted the component parts doctrine articulated in Section 5 of the Third Restatement as the governing law for products liability claims arising out of a defendant’s sale of a component part to a manufacturer who then incorporates the component into its own products. Kohler, 907 So. 2d at 598-99. This Appeals Court’s adoption of the Third Restatement was later reaffirmed and extended in Agrofollajes, S.A. v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours & Co., 48 So. 3d 976, 997 (Fla. 3d DCA 2010), which rejected the Second Restatement’s “consumer expectations” test as an independent basis for finding a design defect, determining instead that, after Kohler, the appropriate standard is the “risk-utility/risk-benefit” test articulated in Section 2 of the Third Restatement.

Regarding the warnings claim instructions, reversible error exists where the trial court delivers an instruction that reasonably might have misled the jury.   Plaintiff Aubin had requested, and the trial court granted, the special instruction: “An asbestos manufacturer, such as Union Carbide Corporation, has a duty to warn end-users of an unreasonable danger in the contemplated use of its products.” While this requested special instruction was "technically accurate," it was, standing alone, misleading because Florida law provides that this duty may be discharged by reasonable reliance on an intermediary. Recognizing that Aubin’s requested instruction was misleading, Union Carbide requested that Aubin’s special instruction be supplemented with an explanation of how the duty to warn could have been discharged by Union Carbide. The trial court rejected Union Carbide’s request, and delivered Aubin’s instruction without further explanation. This was also error.

The court of appeals explained that under both the Third Restatement and the Second Restatement, the determination as to whether a manufacturer like Union Carbide may rely on intermediaries to warn end-users is to be analyzed by the trier of fact, and the standard to be  employed is one of “reasonableness.” The Third Restatement provides several factors to guide the analysis, and these factors are substantially the same as those set forth in the Section 388 of the Second Restatement under comment n.  The trial court, however, did not instruct the jury on any of these factors. 

Because the trial court’s instruction communicated to the jury that Union Carbide had a duty to warn end-users, but did not inform the jury that Union Carbide could have discharged its duty by adequately warning the intermediary manufacturers and reasonably relying on them to warn end-users, the court of appeals concluded that the instruction given was misleading and entitled defendant to a new trial.

Fifth Circuit Affirms Exclusion of Plaintiff Causation Experts in Chemical Case

The Fifth Circuit recently affirmed the dismissal of most of a plaintiff's personal injury claims against a chemical company, based on the conclusion that certain expert witness testimony was inadmissible. See Johnson v. Arkema Inc., No.11-50193 (5th Cir. June, 2012).

Plaintiff Johnson worked as a machine repairman at a glass bottling plant in Waco, Texas from May 1998 to the end of 2008. On two separate occasions, first in early June 2007 and again in July 2007, Johnson claims he was directed to perform work in close proximity to a device known as a C-4 Hood, which was designed, manufactured, and installed by defendant. C-4 Hoods are
utilized to apply a chemical coating to the glass bottles as the bottles are transported along a conveyor belt. According to Johnson, the C-4 Hood he worked near to on those two occasions failed to perform its proper functions, resulting in his alleged exposure to harmful chemicals.

Plaintiff sued. Arkema then filed motions to exclude the opinions of Dr. Richard Schlesinger, Johnson’s expert toxicologist, and Dr. Charles Grodzin, Johnson’s expert pulmonologist, under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and the Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). Arkema also filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that absent those experts, Johnson was unable to present scientifically reliable evidence establishing that exposure to the chemicals can cause restrictive lung disease and pulmonary
fibrosis (his alleged injury types). The district court granted the motions, and plaintiff appealed. 

On appeal, plaintiff contended that the district court abused its discretion in excluding Dr. Schlesinger’s expert opinion on general causation.  The district court excluded Dr. Schlesinger’s testimony after determining, inter alia, that: (1) Dr. Schlesinger could not cite to one epidemiological or controlled study of humans indicating that exposure to the relevant chemicals could cause restrictive lung disease and pulmonary fibrosis; (2) the scientific literature was devoid of any data or peer reviewed articles indicating that exposure to the two chemicals will result in chronic lung disease, and such a proposition is not generally accepted in the scientific community.

Plaintiff argued that the two fell into a "class" of chemicals that have been shown to cause these injuries. In forming a reliable opinion regarding the effects of exposure to a particular chemical, an expert may extrapolate data from studies of similar chemicals. BUT to support a conclusion based on such reasoning, the extrapolation or leap from one chemical to another must be reasonable and scientifically valid.  Thus, courts are free to reject a theory based on extrapolation when there is simply too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion proffered. Here, save for highlighting their shared classifications as "irritants," the expert did not attempt to explain any direct correlation or “fit” between the chemicals at issue and the known scientific data concerning exposure to, for example, chlorine, ammonia, or nitric acid vapor. Accordingly, given the diverse chemical structures and toxicities of irritants, which plaintiff acknowledged, the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that Dr. Schlesinger’s “class of chemicals” theory presented “too great an analytical gap between the data and the opinion proffered.

The next issue was reliance on language in an MSDS, which is useful for many of our readers in toxic tort cases.  The district court found the "warning" language in a competitor's MSDS to be irrelevant and unreliable because: it did not clearly state a causation conclusion, and, most importantly, Johnson did not provide any science behind the MSDS, such as the duration or concentration of exposure needed to produce the noted effects, or the scientific literature relied upon by the drafter for the statements contained in the MSDS.  Under such circumstances, the MSDS, standing alone, need not have been accorded any weight. Plaintiff also relied on general hazard language in defendant's own MSDS. But could cite no authority for the proposition that material safety data sheets constitute per se reliable support for an expert’s opinion. To the contrary, in exercising its discretion as a gatekeeper, a court may refrain from treating a MSDS as reliable until it is presented with scientific evidence justifying the relevant statements found within the MSDS.

Finally, Johnson contended that he was exposed to amounts of one of the chemicals (HCl) that were between two and ten times the permissible exposure levels set by OSHA, NIOSH, and the Acute Exposure Guideline Levels set by the National Research Council. Regulatory and advisory bodies such as IARC, OSHA and EPA utilize a “weight of the evidence” method to assess the carcinogenicity or toxicity of various substances in human beings and suggest or make prophylactic rules governing human exposure. This methodology results from the preventive perspective that the agencies adopt in order to reduce potential public exposure to possibly harmful substances. The agencies’ threshold of proof is lower (for policy reasons) than that appropriate in tort law, which traditionally makes more particularized inquiries into cause and effect, and requires a plaintiff to prove that it is more likely than not that another individual has caused him or her harm. See generally Wright v. Willamette Industries, Inc., 91 F.3d 1105, 1107 (8th Cir.1996). Thus, such regulatory chemical guidelines are not necessarily reliable in all toxic tort cases. And a court should confirm the underlying basis for their  proscriptions before an expert’s reliance on them can pass Daubert muster. Here, plaintiff did not provide any scientific data or literature to explain how or why the various exposure limits and guidelines were established for the chemicals. Similarly, he had no evidence that the guidelines and exposure limits existed to protect people from developing severe restrictive lung disease and pulmonary fibrosis, his diseases. Thus, the court concluded that the OSHA, NIOSH, and NRC guidelines and exposure limits, standing alone, were insufficient to demonstrate abuse of discretion on the part of the district court.

As to the other expert, Dr. Grodzin’s research and analysis essentially mirrored Dr. Schlesinger’s save for one key distinction: Dr. Grodzin performed a so-called “differential diagnosis” of Johnson. A reliable differential diagnosis typically, though not invariably, is performed after physical examinations, the taking of medical histories, and the review of clinical tests, including laboratory tests, and generally is accomplished by determining the possible causes for the patient’s symptoms and then eliminating each of these potential causes until reaching one that cannot be ruled out.  Even in jurisdictions that accept this questionable approach to causation, the results of a differential diagnosis are far from reliable per se. For example, before courts can admit an expert’s differential diagnosis, which, by its nature, only addresses the issue of specific causation, the expert must first demonstrate that the chemical at issue is actually capable of harming individuals in the general population, thereby satisfying the general causation standard. In other words, the suspect has to be reasonably and reliably "ruled in."

Here, Dr. Grodzin’s differential diagnosis was based on the presumption that the two chemicals  were actually capable of causing restrictive lung disease and pulmonary fibrosis in the general population. Dr. Grodzin did not present any reliable or relevant scientific evidence to bolster this assumption. Consequently, the fact that Dr. Grodzin claimed he conducted a differential
diagnosis did not save his opinion from the same fate as Dr. Schlesinger’s opinion.

 (Note, the court concluded that plaintiff did not need expert witnesses to demonstrate that his immediate acute injuries after exposure and which allegedly sent him to the emergency room, could have been caused by the chemical.  Thus, this part of the case was remanded.)

 

 

 

House Subcommitee Chair Questions EPA Approach on Fracking

We have posted before about the tremendous economic promise of fracking technology, and the attempts of the plaintiffs bar to exploit this promise.  Another piece of the evolving puzzle has been the regulatory issues.

House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment Chairman Andy Harris (R.-Md.) earlier this month sent a long letter to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson requesting information and documents related to the Agency’s activities with respect to hydraulic fracturing.
 

The letter expressed frustration with EPA's "lack of transparency and responsiveness" surrounding its fracking approach, and with the agency's "confusing and questionable" approach to fracking regulation.  The letter cites numerous examples of EPA "leaping to scientific conclusions before having all the facts."  These include claims that fracking operations in Parker County, Texas, had affected drinking water, later retracted; and alleged fracking contamination in Dimock, Pa. only later to conclude the water was safe to drink.

The letter worries that such examples, while individually very troubling, "collectively suggest EPA is not objectively pursuing an improved understanding of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, but rather is determined to find fault with the technology in order to justify sweeping new regulations.”

 

Fracking Toxic Tort Case Dismissed Per Lone Pine Order

Readers will recall our earlier postings on "fracking"; natural gas from shale rock promises to provide cleaner, abundant energy for the U.S.  New drilling methods allow companies to tap into huge quantities of gas from shale rock. New estimates show that we have enough of this natural gas to last 100 years at current consumption rates.

The second biggest natural gas field in the world -- the Marcellus -- runs through your humble blogger's home state of Pennsylvania. The energy, jobs, taxes, and independence that tapping into this domestic resource will bring has spurred much interest and anticipation. The method to extract the gas from the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which like any technology, carries potential risks.

However, the potential drilling into the Marcellus Shale has caught the attention of the plaintiffs' bar, including personal injury and environmental class action lawyers. Plaintiffs lawyers are openly speculating about everything from gas leaks and fires, to environmental groundwater impacts, to the problems of large tanker trucks on small rural roadways.

We posted before about one such case already filed regarding another deposit, out West. See Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp., No. 2011CV2218 (Colo. Dist. Ct., Denver Cty., 3/24/11). Plaintiffs sued the gas exploration company and drilling equipment contractor, alleging that the hyrdrofracking contaminated their well water.

Earlier this month, the Colorado court dismissed the claim, relying on a  Lone Pine order, 2012 WL 1932470. The case arose from drilling and completing three natural gas wells in Silt, Colorado known as the Diemoz A well, the Fenno Ranch A well, and the Three Siblings A well. Construction of the Wells allegedly began on August 9, 2010. By January 10, 2011, plaintiffs had moved out of their home and away from Silt.

The central issue was whether defendants caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, which
plaintiffs vaguely described as “health injuries” from exposure to air and water contaminated by
defendants with “hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes." Plaintiffs also alleged that
defendants had caused loss of use and enjoyment of their property, diminution in value of
property, loss of quality of life, and other damages. 

Cognizant of the significant discovery and cost burdens presented by a case of this nature, the court endeavored to invoke a more efficient procedure than we see in the standard case management order. The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation, a form of a Lone Pine order. See Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85 1986 WL 635707 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986). The court further
determined that the prima facie showing requirement should  not prejudice plaintiffs because
ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

The court also seemed influenced by the fact that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”) had conducted an investigation of the plaintiffs’ well water and had concluded that the water supply was not affected by oil and gas operations in the vicinity. Defendants also provided evidence to support their contention that the air emission-control
equipment at the Wells and prevailing wind patterns made it unlikely that plaintiffs or their
property were exposed to harmful levels of chemicals from defendants’ activities.

Specifically, the CMO required plaintiffs to identify the identity of each hazardous substance from defendants’ activities to which he or she was exposed and which caused him or
her injury;  evidence whether any and each of these substances can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation);  the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of his/her exposure to each substance; a medically recognized diagnosis of the specific disease or illness from which each plaintiff allegedly suffers or is at risk for such that medical monitoring is purportedly necessary; and a conclusion that such illness was in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

Plaintiffs were given 105 days to comply with the CMO. After that time, all plaintiff's expert could opine was that “sufficient environmental and health information exists to merit further substantive discovery.” Significantly, he offered no opinion as to whether exposure was a contributing factor to plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illness. And the requested march towards further discovery
without some adequate proof of causation of injury is precisely what the CMO was meant to
curtail. The expert  suggested, at best, a very weak circumstantial causal connection between the Wells and plaintiffs’ injuries. In fact, he merely temporally associated plaintiff’s symptoms with the Wells being brought into production.

While the proffered evidence showed existence of certain low level gases and compounds in both the air and water of plaintiffs’ Silt home, there was neither sufficient data nor expert analysis stating with any level of probability that a causal connection does in fact exist between the alleged injuries and exposure to defendants drilling activities.  This is particularly telling, since Mr. Strudley complained of “nasal sinus congestion, nose bleeds at inconvenient times” and “an aversion to odors,” while he owns a painting business, and was frequently exposed to paint vapors -- offering a ready alternative explanation for his alleged respiratory symptoms.

The expert did not opine on whether any and each of the substances present in the air and water samples (taken after plaintiffs had moved out) can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation). He did not discuss the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of the alleged exposure to each substance. Finally, and perhaps most significantly,the expert did not even attempt to draw a conclusion that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illnesses were in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

The case reflects an effective, but also appropriate, use of the Lone Pine order. It may be a useful model for other fracking toxic tort suits, and is important as an illustration of a method to avoid long, expensive, and unnecessary discovery in such cases. 

 

Update BUT SEE Strudley v. Antero, Colo. Ct. App., No. 12CA1251, 7/3/13.

DRI Product Liability Conference Wraps Up Today

The DRI Product Liability Seminar winds up today, with scheduled highlights including a presentation on the implications of Nicastro and Goodyear on future product liability litigation.  Readers know this is a topic of great interest at MassTortDefense, which we have posted on before a couple times.

Yesterday's highlights included discussions of the Third Restatement, and in-house counsel had a separate session on blogging.  Not the kind we do here, but the issues relating to corporate employees or the marketing department getting engaged in blogging relating to product promotion, building brand goodwill, and responding to customer questions or issues raised in the blogosphere.

Your humble author attended the session focused on Chemical and Toxic Torts, which featured an interesting presentation from Scott Scarpelli, Esq., of The Dow Chemical Company.  This veteran in-house litigator shared his perspective on the most vexing causation questions that arise in chemical-based litigation.

 

Medical Monitoring Complaint Held Insufficient

A federal trial court last week dismissed a medical monitoring claim by an employee of a pipe cleaning company pursuant to Twombly. Royal v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 12-00081 (E.D. La.,  2/6/12).

Junius Royal sued several oil companies for damages in connection with oil pipe cleaning services that he allegedly performed. Plaintiff asserted that the oil pipes he cleaned contained carcinogenic radioactive materials commonly referred to as naturally occurring radioactive material, or "NORMS.'" Plaintiff claimed that the defendants knew about the radioactive material in
the pipes, but failed to warn.  He thus became exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation during his work, and he now has a substantially increased risk of developing cancer. He sought medical monitoring. Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff's medical monitoring claim for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted.

To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 569 (2007)). Factual allegations must be
enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.  In deciding whether dismissal is warranted, the court will not accept conclusory allegations in the complaint as true. Kaiser Aluminum & Chem. Sales, Inc. v. Avondale Shipyards, Inc., 677 F.2d 1045, 1050 (5th Cir. 1982).

To prove common law medical monitoring claim under Louisiana law (there is a separate statutory claim), a plaintiff must show: (1) Significant exposure to a proven hazardous substance, (2) As a
proximate result of this exposure, plaintiff suffers a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease, (3) Plaintiff's risk of contracting a serious latent disease is greater than (a) the risk of contracting the same disease had he or she not been exposed and (b) the chances of
members of the public at large of developing the disease, (4) A monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible, (5) The monitoring procedure has been
prescribed by a qualified physician and is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles, (6) The prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally
recommended in the absence of exposure, and (7) There is some demonstrated clinical value in the early detection and diagnosis of the disease. Bourgeois v. A.P. Green Indus., 716 So. 2d 355,
360-61 (La. 1998).

Here, plaintiff failed to allege or urge that he had a manifest physical injury or mental injury or disease, as required by the statute. The fact that he may have been exposed to radiation was not, in and of itself, sufficient. Further, the plaintiff failed to plead facts which bear directly on several of the common law factors. For example, plaintiff made no mention of what type of monitoring he was
looking for, who prescribed him the monitoring, or what the efficacy of the monitoring might be.

 

Raw Material Suppliers Not Liable for Worker Injuries

A California appeals court ruled last week that several raw material suppliers could not be held liable for injuries allegedly sustained by a worker as a result of using their raw materials. See John Maxton v. Western States Metals, et al., No. B227000 (Cal. Ct. App., 2d Dist., 2/1/12).

Plaintiff alleged he sustained personal injuries as a result of working with metal products manufactured by defendants and supplied to Maxton‘s employer. The metal products were essentially raw materials that could be used in innumerable ways. The products at issue consisted of steel and aluminum ingots, sheets, rolls, tubes and the like. Plaintiff alleged he
worked with and around each of these metal products in cutting, grinding, sandblasting, welding, brazing, and other activities. This allegedly resulted in the generation and release of toxicologically significant amounts of toxic airborne fumes and dusts. As a direct result of this exposure, Maxton claimed he developed lung disease. 

Generally, suppliers of raw materials to manufacturers cannot be liable for negligence, or under a strict products liability theory, to the manufacturers‘ employees who sustain personal injuries as a result of using the raw materials in the manufacturing process. Only in extraordinary circumstances —such as when the raw materials are contaminated, the supplier exercises substantial control of the manufacturing process, or the supplier provides inherently dangerous raw materials— can suppliers be held liable. So the first issue was whether such circumstances existed here.

A few courts have imposed liability on suppliers of raw asbestos materials under negligence and strict liability causes of action.  The second issue was whether asbestos is unique in that it is inherently dangerous, and thus whether the holdings of those asbestos cases would be extended here.

Defendants mounted two kinds of challenges to the complaint. Some defendants filed demurrers; others filed motions for judgment on the pleadings. The trial court sustained the demurrers and granted the motions.  Plaintiff appealed.

The court of appeals noted that the component parts doctrine is set forth in section 5 of the Restatement Third of Torts, Products Liability, which provides:
―One engaged in the business of selling or otherwise distributing product components who sells or distributes a component is subject to liability for harm to persons or property caused by a product into which the component is integrated if:
―(a) the component is defective in itself, and the defect causes the harm; or
―(b)(1) the seller or distributor of the component substantially participates in the integration of the component into the design of the product; and (2) the integration of the component causes the product to be defective, and  (3) the defect in the product causes harm.

Product components include raw materials, bulk products, and other constituent products sold for integration into other products. The metal products at issue here were clearly raw materials because they could be used in innumerable ways, and they were not sold directly to consumers in the market place. Rather, they were sold to plaintiff‘s employer for the purpose of using them to manufacture other products. The metal products in this case were closer to raw materials like kerosene than they were to more developed components of finished products, such as airbags in cars, because they can be used in innumerable ways.

Under California law, component and raw material suppliers are not liable to ultimate consumers when the goods or material they supply are not inherently dangerous, they sell goods or material in bulk to a sophisticated buyer, the material is substantially changed during the manufacturing process, and the supplier has a limited role in developing and designing the end product. When these factors exist, the social cost of imposing a duty to the ultimate consumers far exceeds any additional protection provided to consumers. The rationale for not imposing liability on a supplier of product components is a matter of equity and public policy. Such suppliers ordinarily do not participate in developing the product components into finished products for consumers. Imposing liability on suppliers of product components would force them to scrutinize the buyer-manufacturer‘s manufacturing process and end-products in order reduce their exposure to lawsuits. This would require many suppliers to retain experts in a huge variety of areas, especially if the product components are versatile raw materials. Courts generally do not impose this onerous burden on suppliers of product components because the buyer- manufacturer is in a better position to ensure safety.

Although the complaint stated the legal conclusion that the metal products were inherently hazardous, the facts alleged indicated otherwise. Maxton was not injured by simply handling the metal itself, or even the final product containing the metal. Instead, Maxton was injured as a result of the manufacturing process, which altered the form and risks of the products. 

As for the contention that the metal products involved here were analogous to asbestos, the court disagreed. Asbestos itself is dangerous when handled in any form even if it is unchanged by the manufacturer. Indeed, asbestos is dangerous when it leaves the supplier‘s control. By contrast, the metal products in this case were not dangerous when they left defendants‘ control. They only became allegedly dangerous because of the manufacturing process controlled by the employer. (Nothing in the complaint indicated that defendants played any role whatsoever in developing or designing the end products.) 

The court of appeals declined to impose the social cost, meaning the practical burdens that liability would place on defendants as suppliers of the ubiquitous metal products involved in this case. Defendants would be required to assess the risks of using their metal products to manufacture other products. In order to make such assessments, defendants would need to retain experts on the countless ways their customers used their metal products. Defendants would also be placed in the untenable position of second-guessing their customers whenever they received information regarding potential safety problems. Courts generally do not impose this onerous burden on suppliers of product components because the buyer-manufacturers are in a better position to guarantee the safety of the manufacturing process and the end product.

Dismissal affirmed. 

 

Federal Court Upholds "Bare-Metal" Defense

A federal court last week became the latest to refuse to hold a defendant liable for injuries allegedly caused by asbestos-containing parts manufactured by others but used with the defendant's products. See Conner v. Alfa Laval Inc., No. MDL-875 (E.D. Pa.  2/1/12).

The issue arose in the consolidated asbestos products liability multidistrict litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the ground that they were not liable for injuries caused by asbestos products, such as insulation, gaskets, and packing, that were incorporated into their products or used as replacement parts, but which they did not manufacture or distribute.

As the asbestos litigation has evolved, and the major manufacturing defendants have declared bankruptcy, the litigation has moved away from the manufacturers of asbestos to new types of defendants, including premises owners, and even those that manufactured so-called “bare-metal” products that contained or were later encapsulated in asbestos made by others. Litigants often refer to the defense raised in this case as the “bare-metal defense,” but it is more properly understood, as the court explained, as a challenge to a plaintiff’s prima facie case to prove duty or causation.

Here, the court considered the availability and scope of the so-called “bare-metal” defense under maritime law.

Plaintiffs alleged they developed mesothelioma as a result of exposure to defendants products while working on vessels operated by the U.S. Navy. One alleged he was exposed to asbestos products used with turbines while he served in the U.S. Navy from 1962 to 1971 aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown. (This was the 2d Yorktown;  under construction as Bon Homme Richard, this new Essex-class carrier was renamed Yorktown in honor of  the carrier sunk at the epic Battle of Midway  in June, 1942. Much of the Academy Award-winning documentary "The Fighting Lady" was filmed aboard the Yorktown.)

Another alleged he was exposed to asbestos aboard the U.S.S. Pollux and U.S.S. Delta, through products like turbines, pumps, boilers, and valves that used and, in some cases, were originally distributed with, asbestos-containing insulation, packing, gaskets, and other products.
The third alleged he was exposed to asbestos used with products while serving as a boiler tender in the U.S. Navy from 1959 to 1976 aboard various naval vessels.

Plaintiffs did not, however, proffer evidence that defendants manufactured or distributed the particular asbestos components or replacement parts to which they were allegedly exposed. Instead, they argued that defendants were liable for all the intended and foreseeable uses of asbestos parts in connection with their original products.

In determining whether defendant manufacturers were liable under maritime law for injuries caused by asbestos parts used with their products, whether in strict liability or negligence, a plaintiff must establish causation with respect to each defendant manufacturer. See Lindstrom v. A-C Prod. Liab. Trust, 424 F.3d 488, 492 (6th Cir. 2005). A plaintiff generally establishes causation under maritime law by showing (1) that the plaintiff was exposed to the defendant’s product and (2) that the product was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injury, said the court.

Plaintiffs raised two arguments to hold manufacturers liable for harm caused by asbestos products they did not manufacture or distribute. First, plaintiffs argued that under the integrated-products doctrine the “products” at issue were really defendants’ products together with the asbestos-containing components and replacement parts supplied by third parties.  Second, plaintiffs argued that defendants had a duty to warn of the hazards posed by the foreseeable uses of their products.

The court rejected both arguments. The first was not consistent with the law under the component parts doctrine. Even if the court were to accept that defendants were component-part manufacturers, a component-part manufacturer is not liable for injuries caused by the finished product into which the component is incorporated unless the component itself was defective at the time it left the manufacturer.  The defective product here was the asbestos insulation, not the pumps and valves to which it was applied after defendants’ manufacture and delivery.  Also, as a matter of law, defendants did not owe a duty to warn under maritime law of the hazards posed by products they did not manufacture or distribute.

The court cited with approval the view of other courts that the overwhelming case law does not support extending strict liability for failure to warn to those outside the chain of distribution of a product. Products liability has always been premised on harm caused by deficiencies in the defendant’s own product. Moreover, a manufacturer does not have an obligation to warn of the dangers of another manufacturer’s product.  The law does not impose a duty to warn about dangers arising entirely from another manufacturer’s product, even if it is foreseeable that the products will be used together.  Any expansion of the duty of care as urged here would impose an obligation to compensate on those whose products caused the plaintiffs no harm. To do so would exceed the boundaries established over decades of product liability law.  And it would also be unfair to require manufacturers of non-defective products to shoulder a burden of liability when they derived no economic benefit from the sale of the products that injured the plaintiff.

Having held as a matter of law that a manufacturer is not liable for harm caused by the asbestos products that it did not manufacture or distribute, the court concluded that plaintiffs failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether any of the defendants manufactured or distributed the asbestos products that caused the alleged injuries.

The decision puts the court in the company of others, like O'Neil v. Crane Co., Cal., No. S177401 (Cal. 1/12/12), which have declined to extend liability for asbestos-related injury to makers of products used with asbestos insulation, gaskets, and packing.  

State Supreme Court Reverses Dangerous Expansion of Product Liability

The California Supreme Court held last week that the law does not impose liability on manufacturers of equipment used in conjunction with asbestos-containing parts made by others.  See O'Neil v. Crane Co., Cal., No. S177401 (Cal. 1/12/12).
 
Readers may recall that we posted on this case before. The Restatement of Torts (Third): Products Liability says that in the context of a final, finished product that injures a user and which is made up of components from different manufacturers, if a given component is itself defective and the defect causes the harm, then the supplier of that component is of course liable. In addition, the supplier can be liable even if the component by itself is not defective, but only if the seller substantially participates in the integration of the component into the design of the product (and the defect causes the harm). See Restatement 3d, Section 5. In essence, the doctrine holds that an entity supplying a non-defective raw material or a non-defective component part is not strictly liable for defects in the final product over which it had no control. In this respect, the Third Restatement of Torts simply codified the doctrine of various states’ common law.
 
Nevertheless, a split had existed among the lower courts in California about whether to
extend liability for asbestos-related disease beyond the manufacturers of the asbestos insulation, gaskets, and packing to which many ship workers were exposed (and which makers are now bankrupt) to the makers of the products the asbestos was used with (to find a solvent target).  So the state supreme court confronted the limits of a manufacturer’s duty to prevent foreseeable harm related to its product: When is a product manufacturer liable for injuries caused by adjacent products or replacement parts that were made by others and used in conjunction with the defendant’s product?   It held that a product manufacturer may not be held liable in strict liability or negligence for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product unless the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm, or the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.
 
Defendants made valves and pumps used in Navy warships. They were sued here for a wrongful death allegedly caused by asbestos released from external insulation and internal gaskets and packing, all of which were made by third parties and added to the pumps and valves post-sale. It is undisputed that defendants never manufactured or sold any of the asbestos-containing materials to which plaintiffs’ decedent was exposed. That is, no evidence was presented that any of the asbestos-containing dust came from a product made by defendants. Neither company manufactured or sold the external insulation or flange gaskets that the repairmen like plaintiff removed. Although the valves and pumps contained internal asbestos-containing gaskets and packing, these original components had been replaced long before plaintiff encountered them years later. There was no evidence that any of these replacement parts were made by defendants.  The Court of Appeal asserted defendants’ products were defectively designed “because they required asbestos packing and insulation.” But this factual assertion was unsupported by the record. The evidence established that the requirement for asbestos derived from military specifications, not from any inherent aspect of defendants’ pump and valve designs

Nevertheless, plaintiff claimed that defendants should be held strictly liable and found negligent because it was foreseeable that workers would be exposed to and harmed by the asbestos in replacement parts and products used in conjunction with their pumps and valves. The Court of Appeals held that the component parts defense applied only to manufacturers of “multi-use or fungible products” designed to be altered and incorporated into another product. It then concluded defendants’ products did not meet these requirements. The Court of Appeal also rejected defendants’ argument that they could not be found strictly liable because they did not manufacture or supply the asbestos-containing products that caused plaintiffs' disease. The lower court announced a broad definition of strict products liability: a manufacturer is liable in strict liability for the dangerous components of its products, and for dangerous products with which its product will necessarily be used. Even though it was replacement gaskets and packing that allegedly caused disease, the lower appeals court concluded these replacement parts were “no different” from the asbestos-containing components originally included in defendants’ products.
 

Plaintiff's claims would represent an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability, which the supreme court declined to do.  California law, like most states, has long provided that manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have a duty to see to the safety of their products, and will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in their products. Yet, the state has never held that these responsibilities extend to preventing injuries caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant’s product. Nor has the state's high court ever held that manufacturers must warn about potential hazards in replacement parts made by others when, as here, the dangerous feature of these parts was not integral to the product’s design.  From the outset, strict products liability in California has always been premised on harm caused by deficiencies in the defendant’s own product.  The reach of strict liability is not limitless; strict liability does not extend to harm from entirely distinct products that the consumer can be expected to use with, or in, the defendant’s non-defective product. Instead, the courts require proof that the plaintiff suffered injury caused by a defect in the defendant’s own product.
 
In this case, it was undisputed that plaintiff was exposed to no asbestos from a product made by the defendants. Although he was allegedly exposed to potentially high levels of asbestos dust released from insulation the Navy had applied to the exterior of the pumps and valves, defendants did not manufacture or sell this external insulation. They did not mandate or advise that it be used with their products. It is fundamental that the imposition of liability requires a showing that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by an act of the defendant or an instrumentality under the defendant’s control.
 
Generally speaking, manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers about the hazards inherent in their products. The requirement’s purpose is to inform consumers about a product’s hazards and faults of which they are unaware, so that they can refrain from using the product altogether or evade the danger by careful use. Typically, under California law, manufacturers are strictly liable for injuries caused by their failure to warn of dangers that were known to the scientific community at the time they manufactured and distributed their product. The supreme court has never held that a manufacturer’s duty to warn extends to hazards arising exclusively from other manufacturers’ products. Plaintiff's alleged exposure to asbestos came from replacement gaskets and packing and external insulation added to defendants’ products long after their installation; there was no dispute that these external and replacement products were made by other manufacturers.
 
So the supreme court reaffirmed that 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, either because the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm or because the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.   Plaintiffs sought to expand these exceptions to make manufacturers strictly liable when it is foreseeable that their products will be used in conjunction with defective products or even replacement parts made or sold by someone else. However, the mere foreseeability of harm, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for imposing strict liability on the manufacturer of a non-defective product, or one whose arguably defective product does not actually cause harm.
 
The decision was supported by common sense. A manufacturer cannot be expected to exert pressure on other manufacturers to make their products safe and is not able to share the costs of ensuring product safety with these other manufacturers. It would be unfair to require  manufacturers of non-defective products to shoulder a burden of liability when they derived no economic benefit from the sale of the products that injured the plaintiff.  And a contrary rule would require manufacturers to investigate the potential risks of all other products and replacement parts that might foreseeably be used with their own product and warn about all of these risks. Such a duty would impose an excessive and unrealistic burden on manufacturers. Such an expanded duty could also undermine consumer safety by inundating users with excessive warnings. “To warn of all potential dangers would warn of nothing.”
 
 
 
 

 

Class Certification Denied in BPA Litigation

A Missouri federal court last week denied the class certification motion of consumers suing defendants in the multi-district litigation over the use of bisphenol-A in baby bottles and sippy cups. In re: Bisphenol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, No. 4:08-md-01967 (W.D. Mo.).

As we have posted before, the federal judge in the MDL involving BPA in baby bottles refused last Summer to certify three proposed multistate classes in this multidistrict litigation. In re: Bisphenol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, No. 08-1967 (W. D. Mo. July 7, 2011).   That decision offered an interesting discussion of choice of law, and of the notion of commonality after Dukes v. Walmart, and included an important reminder that while individual issues relating to damages do not automatically bar certification, they also are not to be ignored. E.g., In re St. Jude Medical, Inc., 522 F.3d 836, 840-41 (8th Cir. 2008) (individual issues related to appropriate remedy considered in evaluating predominance); Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Ass’n, Inc. v. New Prime, Inc., 339 F.3d 1001, 1012 (8th Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 973 (2004) (individual issues related to damages predominated over common issues); see also In re Wilborn, 609 F.3d 748, 755 (5th Cir. 2010).

The court gave plaintiffs an opportunity to show that a class of Missouri-only consumers should be certified, and plaintiffs then moved for certification of three classes of Missouri consumers. Plaintiffs alleged three causes of action: violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and unjust enrichment.

The court focused first on standing. A court may not certify a class if it contains members who lack
standing. In re Zurn Pex Plumbing Products Liability Litigation, 644 F.3d 604, 616 (8th Cir. 2011). Plaintiffs’ proposed classes here could not be certified because they included individuals who had not suffered an injury-in-fact.  Individuals who knew about BPA’s existence and the surrounding controversy before purchasing defendants’ products had no injury. There was a potential for the proposed classes to include a large number of such uninjured consumers. Plaintiffs admitted that parents often carefully research baby care product purchases, and defendants submitted proof that information regarding BPA was in the media (including popular press such as "20/20") as early as 1999.

The opinion also offers an instructive discussion of reliance. Plaintiffs argued the issue of knowledge goes only to consumers’ reliance on defendants’ alleged nondisclosure, and plaintiffs always contend reliance is not an element of their consumer fraud claims. The court explained that the hypothetical posed by the question of reliance – whether the plaintiff would have purchased the product if she/he had known – presupposes the consumer did not know the relevant information. Thus, the question of knowledge logically precedes the question of reliance.

Even consumers who were unaware of BPA when they purchased defendants’ products may not have suffered an injury. Consumers who fully used defendants’ baby bottles and other products without physical harm before learning about BPA suffered no injury, and could not assert a claim under consumer protection statutes or for breach of warranty. Plaintiffs asserted that none of the proposed class members received what they intended to obtain, because plaintiffs were not provided material information before making their purchases. But plaintiffs were bargaining for baby products at the time of transaction, not for a certain type of information. Those who fully used the products before learning about BPA would have received 100% use (and benefit) from the products.

In the Rule 23 analysis proper, the court also noted that plaintiffs’ proof of what defendants failed to disclose would not be common for all class members, at least with respect to the scientific debate concerning BPA. Class-wide evidence cannot be used to show what defendants knew or should have known because their knowledge and the available information about BPA changed during the
class period. Plaintiffs' proposed trial plan stated they intended to show defendants' alleged awareness and nondisclosure of various scientific studies from 1997 to at least 2006.

The court's observation on materiality is also worth noting. A material fact for state consumer fraud liability includes a fact which a reasonable consumer would likely consider to be important in making a purchasing decision.  Even if this is an objective inquiry, that does not mean it can always be proven with class-wide evidence. A 2006 study allegedly showing BPA's effect on the endocrine systems of snails, even if material, would not be probative of defendants' liability in 2002. Similarly, a reasonable consumer may be less likely to consider a scientific study from 1997 significant if that consumer learned that federal agencies over the years – the FDA in particular – considered that study, and nevertheless still concluded BPA could be safely used to make baby products.

Finally, the court considered superiority and manageability, with a key issue of concern how to determine who was in the class (some courts do this analysis under the ascertainability rubric). Identifying himself or herself as a purchaser would not prove a person is in the class. A plaintiff in a typical case is not allowed to establish an element of a defendant’s liability merely by completing an affidavit swearing the element is satisfied, and this should be no different for a class action.  Defendants would be entitled to cross-examine each and every alleged class member regarding his or her memory and story.

For all these reasons, class certification denied.

Class Certification Denied in Plant Explosion Case

A Massachusetts federal court last week declined to certify a class in a suit against chemical company Ashland Inc., in a dispute over a factory explosion. Riva et al. v. Ashland Inc., No. 1:09-cv-12074 (D. Mass.).

Plaintiffs alleged that the defendant negligently maintained certain highly explosive chemicals at a Danvers, MA, facility in such a way that caused an explosion in 2006. At the time of the explosion, Ashland was the primary provider of chemicals to C.A.I., a manufacturer of commercial printing inks, and Arnel Co., Inc. a manufacturer of paint products. C.A.I. and Arnel both operated from the Danvers facility.  There was an incident that destroyed the Danvers facility and caused property damage to the surrounding Danversport community. The named plaintiffs claimed that Ashland, among other things: did not inquire or determine whether C.A.I. or Arnel had a license or permit to maintain the quantities and types of chemicals Ashland provided; failed to warn about the scope and magnitude of the explosive risks and hazards of the chemicals and chemical mixtures that it was providing; delivered chemicals into inappropriate containers and vessels. Ashland prepared a vigorous defense. Plaintiffs sued under theories of strict liability, negligence, nuisance, and breach of implied warranty of merchantability.

As is typical with mass disasters, multiple law suits were filed, including a Borelli matter.  Ashland was not named as a defendant in Borelli or in any of the additional suits brought against C.A.I., Arnel and its insurers.   In connection with the Borelli action, certain households and businesses in the Danversport area in close proximity to the site of the explosion created the Danversport Trust for the benefit of those whose real estate Property was directly impacted by the explosion and fire at the Danvers facility.  The state court eventually certified the Borelli class and approved a comprehensive settlement agreement.  It gets a little complicated because not  all Borelli class members were Trust beneficiaries, and the settlement agreement also contained an indemnification provision which applied to Trust beneficiaries and certain other settling parties, but not all of them. Specifically, this indemnification provision did not require Borelli class members who were not in the Trust or in a "Subrogated Group" of claimants to indemnify the released defendants from future claims. Rather, the settlement agreement provided that the remaining Borelli class members expressly reserved the right to initiate individual, class, or collective actions against any or all non-released parties. 

And that is how this case came to be filed against Ashland. Borelli class members, including the
named plaintiffs in the present action, received compensation resolving their claims in that matter.  Named plaintiff  Riva alleged that her residence and personal property in Danvers were destroyed by the explosion. Although Riva was not a Trust beneficiary, she was a member of the
Borelli class and received money from the Claims Review Committee to resolve her claims in that
matter.  Named plaintiff Corrieri alleged that his uninsured boat was damaged in the explosion while it was stored at Liberty Marina in Danvers. Corrieri was neither a Trust beneficiary nor was
he asserting individual claims for damages to real property. He received a settlement payment in the prior class action for damage to the same boat for which he now asserted claims against Ashland.

The plaintiffs moved for class certification, and the court's analysis focused on the typicality and adequacy prongs, particularly in light of the prior class settlement.

The requirements of typicality and adequacy focus on the class representatives, Fed. R. Civ.
P. 23(a)(3) & 23(a)(4), and in the eyes of some courts “ tend to merge.” In re Credit Suisse-AOL Sec. Litig., 253 F.R.D. 17, 22 (D. Mass. 2008). Rule 23(a)(3) requires that “the claims or defenses of the representative parties [be] typical of the claims or defenses of the class.” The class representatives’ claims are “typical” when their claims arise from the same event or practice or course of conduct that gives rise to the claims of other class members, and are based on the same legal theory.  The class members' claims here did appear to arise from the same event (the accident), but despite these similarities, the court found that the named plaintiffs had not shown that their interests in proving liability were aligned with those of the class to meet the typicality requirement.

The indemnification provision of the prior settlement required the "Subrogated Group" and Trust beneficiaries to individually defend, hold harmless, and indemnify C.A.I. for any and all claims in the nature of third-party claims for indemnity or contribution which might be brought by Ashland. Since Ashland, a non-released party, had indeed brought a third-party claim for indemnification and contribution against C.A.I., a released party in Borelli, the impact of this indemnification provision on class members who were Indemnitors (i.e., Trust beneficiaries or members of the Subrogated
Group), was in the eyes of the court a "live issue in this case." The indemnification provision did not apply to the other class members who are neither Trust beneficiaries nor members of the Subrogated Group. So the indemnification provision could affect the Indemnitor and non-Indemnitor class members differently,  i.e., if the case was certified as a class action and the class prevailed, the Indemnitors in the class could become obligated to indemnify C.A.I., but other class members would not.

The court predicted that a substantial number of putative class members would be Indemnitors.  But the named plaintiffs were all non-Indemnitors and therefore would not be bound by the
indemnification provision. As non-Indemnitors, the named plaintiffs had a clear interest in proving
Ashland’s liability and maximizing damages. The majority of the class, the Indemnitors, on the
other hand, would not have the same goal since, according to the indemnification provision, they might be required to pay certain damages over to C.A.I.  Thus, it could not be said that the interests of the class representatives were typical of the class in this respect.

The adequacy requirement demands a similar inquiry into whether the putative representative plaintiff’s interests are aligned with other class members and whether the plaintiff is in a position to vigorously protect the class' interests.  Adequacy requires that the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. To be adequate class representatives, plaintiffs must show that: (1) the interests of the representative party will not conflict with the interests of the class members; and (2) counsel chosen by the representative party is qualified, experienced and able to vigorously conduct the proposed litigation.  Here, an apparent conflict of interest exists between the non-Indemnitors (i.e., the named plaintiffs) and the Indemnitors (i.e., most of the class). The Indemnitors’ interest in shielding themselves from liability over indicated they would pursue tactics contrary to the named plaintiffs’ objectives in both proving liability and maximizing all kinds of damages against Ashland.

The court noted that the fact that the class representatives have suffered the same injury as the Indemnitors and non-Indemnitors in the class was insufficient to show that the adequacy requirement was met. Class representatives must also “possess the same interests” as other class members.

Class certification denied. 

Defense Verdict in Chemical Case Affirmed

The Eleventh Circuit last week affirmed a jury verdict for chemical defendant E. I. DuPont de Nemours & Co. in a personal injury claim arising out of the use of the agricultural product Benlate. Ramirez v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., No. 11-10035 (11th Cir. 12/13/11).
 
The plaintiff/appellant alleged in his complaint that he used Benlate in conjunction with his farming
operations. Ramirez asserted that Benlate was a defective product because it contained an allegedly known carcinogen, atrazine. He also contended that the use of Benlate caused him to contract cancer. The case was tried to a jury which returned a verdict favorable to DuPont.  Specifically, although the jury found that Benlate was a defective product, it did not find that the Benlate was the cause of Ramirez’s cancer.
 
On appeal, Ramirez argued that the verdict in the case was inconsistent because the jury determined that the product was defective, but was not the cause of Ramirez’s injuries. The court agreed with DuPont's argument that defect and causation are separate elements of the strict liability cause of action, and a jury is free to go different directions on each.
 
The record showed that the jury was presented with numerous plausible reasons for determining that Benlate did not cause Ramirez’s cancer. For example, the jury heard that when Ramirez sprayed his crops, he rode inside an enclosed tractor cab, wore protective clothing, including goggles, a mask, a jumpsuit, gloves and boots, and thus had minimal exposure.  The jury also heard evidence demonstrating that Ramirez had numerous risk factors for cancer, including a family history of cancer and a history of smoking cigarettes.
 
Finally, plaintiff attacked DuPont’s expert, Dr. Cohen, contending that the testimony of Dr. Cohen should have been stricken pursuant to Daubert.  The court of appeals disagreed, finding Cohen was one of the world’s leading experts in cancer and chemical causation; clearly, he considered the type of scientific and factual information that experts in his field would reasonably rely upon in opining on causation.
 

FDA to Issue BPA Decision in 2012

The FDA apparently will issue a final decision next Spring on an interest group's petition requesting a ban on the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging. This results from a settlement reached last week in Natural Resources Defense Council v. HHS, No. 11-cv-5801 (S.D.N.Y. 12/07/11).

FDA is agreeing to issue a final decision on or before March 31, 2012, settling a complaint by the NRDC that the agency unreasonably delayed a decision on its petition, which dates to 2008.  In reality, FDA continued to gather data on the issues, and has been looking at taking what it has called reasonable steps to reduce exposure to BPA in certain aspects of the food supply. For example, the American Chemistry Council has supported restricting the use of BPA in infant feeding bottles and spill-proof cups used by infants.

NRDC didn't want to wait for the science, taking the usual pro-plaintiff, anti-industry position that all gaps in knowledge should be filled in with worst-case scenarios. Studies employing standardized toxicity tests have in fact supported the safety of current low levels of human exposure to BPA. (FDA has been consulting with other agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (and National Toxicology Program), Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

And the interest group doesn't seem to care about the tremendous public health benefits that such products have provided. Any wide-spread ban of the product – or litigation accomplishing the same result -- may risk the public safety more than enhance it. Epoxy resins derived from bisphenol A are used to manufacture protective polymer coatings for the inner surface of metal food and beverage containers. This critical technology protects the contents of these containers from aggressive food products, thereby assuring a safe, wholesome, and nutritious food supply. Compared to other coating technologies, coatings derived from epoxy resins provide superior adhesion to the metal surface, greater durability, and higher resistance to the wide range of chemistries found in foods and beverages. These attributes are essential to protect the packed food from microbiological contamination, which is a significant food safety issue. 

Canning might be the single most important innovation in the preservation of food in history. More than 1500 food items are regularly packed in cans, making out-of-season foods globally accessible year-round. More than 90% of food and beverage cans use epoxy-based coatings because of their strength, adhesion, formability and resistance to chemical reactions in the food and drinks -- without affecting the taste or smell of the product. They protect the food from the container and from bacterial contamination. They give canned foods their long shelf-life.  Where is the cost-benefit analysis including these factors?

 

State Supreme Court Applies Lessons of Dukes to Toxic Tort Class Action

Louisiana's Supreme Court last week reversed the certification of a class action brought by property owners over the alleged release of contaminants from a wood-treating site. See Price, et al. v. Martin, et al., No. 2011-C-0853 (La. 2011).  What should catch readers' eyes is the court's reliance on the U.S. Supreme Court's Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision in this mass tort case. we have been following the lower courts' treatment of that decision, and this case represents a sensible application of the Court's commonality analysis.

Several  individuals residing in the vicinity of the Dura-Wood Treating Company filed a proposed class action on behalf of persons who allegedly suffered damages as a result of operations at the wood-treating facility.  The petition alleged that the Dura-Wood facility was primarily engaged in the production of creosote-treated railroad ties. Plaintiffs alleged that various environmentally unsound practices caused a significant amount of hazardous and toxic chemicals to be released into the environment, including the air, soil, and water, of the communities in which plaintiffs resided.  For example, according to the petition, from 1940 to mid-1950, significant quantities of creosote sludge were deposited into area canals and ponds. According to plaintiffs, the allegedly negligent releases increased their risk of disease, caused property damage, and diminished property values. Plaintiffs also alleged that defendants’ activities constituted a nuisance.

Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Class Certification, asserting that more than 3,000 persons, firms, and entities had been damaged by defendants’ conduct and that the issues common to the
class -- generally liability issues --  predominated over individual issues.  The trial court granted plaintiffs’ motion, certifying a class defined as “property owners who owned property within the class area at the time the property was damaged during the years of 1944 through the present.   The court of appeals affirmed and the state supreme court granted cert.

The court began by noting that the class action rules do not set forth a mere pleading standard; rather, a party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance
with the rule – that is, he must be prepared to prove that there are in fact sufficiently numerous parties, common questions of law or fact, etc. citing Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2551.  That a class can be decertified or later amended does not excuse a failure to take a rigorous look at prerequisites. Taking that careful look, the supreme court found that lower court erred in ruling that the commonality prerequisite was met and, further, in determining that the requirements that common issues predominate over individual issues and that the class device be superior were also satisfied.

The requirement that there be questions of law or fact common to the class (in La. C.C.P.
art. 591(A)(2) and in federal Rule 23(a)) is in language that is “easy to misread" since any competently crafted class complaint literally raises common questions. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2551, quoting Nagareda, Class Certification in the Age of Aggregate Proof, 84 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 97, 131-32 (2009). The mere existence of common questions, however, will not satisfy the commonality requirement. Commonality requires a party seeking certification to demonstrate the class members’ claims depend on a common contention, and that common contention must be one capable of class-wide resolution – one where the determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2551. In the context of mass tort litigation, said the court, each member of the class must be able to prove individual causation based on the same set of operative facts and law that would be used by any other class member to prove causation.

Here, thousands of property owners sued for alleged damage caused from 1944 to the present by the alleged emission of toxic chemicals from operations at the wood treating facility. The
essence of the causes of action was that the named defendants conducted activities which harmed the class members by depositing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and dioxins in the attic dust of their residential and commercial properties. Plaintiffs argued this presented common questions, as they alleged that injury could be shown not by examining individual
residences, but by showing that elevated toxin levels emanated from the defendants’ facility “on an area-wide basis,” and that this issue, when decided for one class member, would thus be decided for all.

This represented a misinterpretation of the law and of plaintiffs’ burden of proof. To establish the “common issue” they posited, plaintiffs would be required to present evidence not simply that emissions occurred, but that the emissions resulted in the deposit of unreasonably elevated levels of chemicals on each plaintiff's property. And this issues must   be  capable  of common resolution for all class members based on common evidence. Moreover, the proof of commonality must be “significant.”

The court then proceeded to list some of the many reasons why the issues were not common.  The facility had three owners in the span (although only two were sued). These owners engaged in independent and varying operations throughout the approximately 66-year period of alleged emissions. The specific operations that plaintiffs alleged resulted in off-site emissions were varied –such as overflow, runoff,  and the burning of wood -- and occurred at varied and unspecified times during the period in question. Moreover, the facility’s operations changed over time. For example,certain burning processes ceased in or around 1982. Also, the chemicals used at the facility changed over time.

In an important, but often overlooked point, the court noted that the legal standards applying to the operations of the wood-treating facility have changed over time. For example, whether principles of strict liability or negligence would govern the conduct of defendants depended on the
year the damaging emission occurred. Likewise, exemplary damages were not available for some years, by statute. The applicable standards for air emissions varied also, with the enactment of the Clean Air Act decades after the class period began, and various amendments to it over time. Time raised another individual issue: while the attic dust from various properties was tested for contaminants, there was no attempt to determine when contaminants were deposited in the attics of the buildings that were tested.  Finally, over time there were varying alternative sources of the contaminants, including myriad area-wide and property-specific alternative sources of PAHs and dioxins in the defined class area.

For class certification to be appropriate, there must be some common thread which holds the claims together. With regard to causation and injury, plaintiffs thus failed to present sufficient evidence to prove the existence of that common thread.

For many of the same reasons, common issues did not predominate, and the class was not a superior method of resolving the dispute.  The court also noted the existence of potential conflicts between current owners and prior owners of the respective properties.  Also militating against class certification was the fact that several class members had already brought individual claims against these same defendants for personal injuries and property damage allegedly caused by the same facility emissions.

Class certification reversed.  

Ninth Circuit Hears Oral Argument in Climate Change Case

The Ninth Circuit recently heard oral argument in a potentially significant case raising climate change issues.  See Kivalina v. Exxon Mobil Corp., No. 09-17490 (9th Cir.)(oral argument  11/28/11).

We have posted on this case before, in which the village of about 400 people alleged that, as a result of global warming, the Arctic sea ice that protects the Kivalina coast from storms has been diminished, and that resulting erosion requires relocation of the residents to another village. (The town of Kivalina is located at the tip of a six-mile-long barrier reef, about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska's northwest coast.) Plaintiffs sought damages under federal common law nuisance, state nuisance, and civil conspiracy theories. They alleged that defendants were a major part of the cause of excessive emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which plaintiffs claimed are causing the global warming.

The defendants properly noted that many of the questions raised by the plaintiffs in this suit were inherently political; there are no traditional judicial standards available to adjudicate such political issues. They also argued that plaintiffs lacked standing under Article III because the injury to the plaintiffs was not “fairly traceable” to the conduct of the defendants.

After the District Court dismissed the case, 663 F. Supp. 2d 863 (N.D. Cal. 2009), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a global warming case brought by a number of states and land trusts that sought injunctive relief against utilities under the Clean Air Act.  See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, 131 S. Ct. 2527 (2011).  The Kivalina case is potentially significant as one of the first to apply and interpret the Supreme Court decision limiting climate change lawsuits under federal common law.
 

The plaintiffs in Kivalina argue that the AEP decision focused exclusively on injunctive relief and did not address damage claims under federal common law. Kivalina does not seek to set emissions caps. It seeks damages, they argued.  But that reading of the decision may overstate the importance of that fact; the Court focused on the issue of injunctive relief arguably because that was what was being sought by the states and land trusts.  Defendants argued that displacement of the federal common law applies to both injunctive and damages remedies.  When Congress crafted the regulatory framework establishing the Clean Air Act, it did not provide for any compensatory relief to an allegedly injured private party. Accordingly, a damages remedy should also be displaced.  Recognizing the nuisance theory in this context would enable a federal judge to substitute a different balancing of interests from the one made by the EPA, to which Congress assigned this function.


 

Alleged Chemical Release Did Not "Speak for Itself"

Contractors working at a refinery who were allegedly exposed to chemical fumes cannot rely on the venerable res ipsa loquitur theory because their claimed injuries may have had other causes. See Pearson v. BP Products North America Inc., 10-40442 (5th Cir., 11/10/11).

As a precaution due to Hurricane Rita, BP Products North America decided to shut down all of its Texas City Refinery.  before starting up again, BP decided to audit, evaluate, and “turn around” each of the units at the Refinery on an individual basis before resuming production. To complete the turnaround, BP used independent contractors for most of the work.

Plaintiffs were among the 450 contractors working on the turnaround when, one night in 2007, they 
began smelling an odor "unlike those one usually smells in a refinery."  None of the hundreds of monitors and detectors designed to detect the release of any harmful gases was triggered. The
foremen stopped work and allowed any worker to be examined at a local hospital; about one hundred workers went. Upon medical examination, no workers were found to have any exposure injuries that required hospital admission or required them to miss work.

Nevertheless, one hundred plaintiffs filed suit in the Southern District of Texas, claiming injuries from the incident. Ten workers' claims were consolidated for trial. None of these Trial Plaintiffs’ experts could identify the alleged odor’s source or its cause. The closest thing to proof that the Trial
Plaintiffs marshaled was that the gas was carbon disulfide was a mask worn by one of the Trial Plaintiffs was found to have had exposure to carbon disulfide. But, the laboratory technician who tested the mask admitted that the mask had not been appropriately maintained for proper scientific study.

BP moved for judgment as a matter of law, which the district court denied, and the claims were submitted to the jury. As part of the jury’s charge, the district court instructed the jury that it could infer the Appellant’s/BP's negligence through the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. The jury returned a verdict for the Trial Plaintiffs and awarded approximately $325,000 in compensatory damages
amongst the ten Trial Plaintiffs and also $100 million in punitive damages ($10 million per Trial Plaintiff). The district court entered final judgment for the Trial Plaintiffs but vacated the jury’s award of punitive damages because the Trial Plaintiffs failed to prove gross negligence, as required under Texas law.  Already, red flags should be flying, as clearly the punitives claim should never have gone to the jury, and yet the ability to argue it would have inflamed the emotion of the jury, contaminating the compensatory award.

BP timely appealed. (Seven Trial plaintiffs settled, leaving the three for this opinion to handle.) BP argued that it was improper for the district court to have instructed the jury on res ipsa loquitur and that absent that instruction, Appellees could not show that it was negligent. Under Texas law, res ipsa loquitur, meaning “the thing speaks for itself,” is used in certain limited types of cases when the circumstances surrounding the accident constitute sufficient evidence of the defendant’s
negligence to support such a finding.  Res ipsa loquitur is applicable only when two factors are present: (1) the character of the accident is such that it would not ordinarily occur in the absence of negligence; and (2) the instrumentality causing the injury is shown to have been under the management and control of the defendant.  Res ipsa loquitur is simply a rule of evidence by which negligence may be inferred by the jury; it is not a separate cause of action from negligence.

 Importantly, the Texas Supreme Court had already noted in a chemical release case that a res ipsa instruction was inappropriate because escaping gas in the vicinity of a complex chemical plant could be due to an unexpected and unforeseeable mechanical failure or it could be due to negligence. The instrumentality causing the injury could have been in the control of the owner of the refinery or the contractors turning around the unit.

Here, none f the Appellants’ experts could identify where the odor came from or whether it was even from BP’s property. The Appellees had shown neither that the character of the accident was one that would not usually occur absent negligence nor that the injury-causing instrumentality was in BP’s control. In such circumstances, the district court should not have instructed the jury on res ipsa loquitur. Without a res ipsa instruction, the Appellees could not meet their burden of proof as to negligence. Judgment reversed.

 

Court Permits Plaintiffs to Evade CAFA Mass Action Reach

Readers know that one of the effects of the Class Action Fairness Act has been to encourage plaintiff counsel to get creative in ways to defeat federal jurisdiction and keep mass torts and class actions in state courts.  Last week, a federal court remanded several cases brought by individuals who claimed that they developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma as a result of exposure to PCBs, despite the “mass action” provisions of CAFA.  Nunn v. Monsanto Co., No, 4:11-CV-1657(CEJ) (E.D. Mo. 11/7/11).

Under CAFA, federal courts have jurisdiction over class actions in which the amount in controversy exceeds $5,000,000 in the aggregate; there is minimal diversity among the parties; and there are at least 100 members in the class. 28 U.S.C. §1332(d). CAFA also provides federal jurisdiction over a “mass action,” which is defined as “any civil action . . . in which monetary relief claims of 100 or more persons are proposed to be tried jointly on the ground that the plaintiffs’ claims involve common questions of law or fact . . .” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(11)(B)(i).

The district court stated that for it to have jurisdiction under the mass action provisions, defendants must demonstrate that there really are 100 plaintiffs. Defendants made a clever and powerful argument, pointing out that in addition to the cases and these plaintiffs subject to the remand motion,  plaintiffs’ counsel filed two separate, largely identical, cases in the state court (St. Louis City Circuit Court), one with 95 plaintiffs and one with 96 plaintiffs. This clearly evidenced plaintiffs’ counsel purposeful efforts to “splinter” a single mass tort case for the purpose of evading federal jurisdiction. That kind of rigging was rejected in cases like Freeman v. Blue Ridge Paper Prods., Inc., 551 F.3d 405 (6th Cir. 2008), and Westerfeld v. Independent Processing, LLC, 621 F.3d 819 (8th Cir. 2010), argued defendants.

The court felt obligated to disregard such manipulations, however.  Defendants’ contention that plaintiffs had deliberately divided their cases in order to avoid the mass action threshold was somehow "irrelevant."  Reference to the other identical cases was, the court thought, akin to defendant "consolidating" the cases; by excluding cases in which the claims were consolidated on
a defendant’s motion, Congress appears to have contemplated that some cases which could have been brought as a mass action would, because of the way in which the plaintiffs chose to structure their claims, remain outside of CAFA’s grant of jurisdiction. Citing Anderson v. Bayer Corp., 610 F.3d 390, 393 (7th Cir. 2010); see also Tanoh v. Dow Chem. Co., 561 F.3d 945 (9th Cir. 2009). 
 

So, another example of the numerical loophole to removal of mass actions, evading the Congressional intent. Plaintiffs' attorneys continue to resort to dividing their clients into groups of 99 or fewer plaintiffs to try to avoid federal court.


 

California Publishes New Draft of Informal Green Chemistry Regulations

Yesterday the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) convened a Green Ribbon Science Panel (GRSP) to continue work on the state's Green Chemistry initiative.

Readers may recall from previous posts that the GRSP was established with the passage of two "green chemistry laws" in 2008, and is charged with providing advice and serving as a resource to DTSC and the public regarding the California Green Chemistry Initiative. On the agenda for the meeting this week was input from the GRSP on the recently-posted “Safer Consumer Products Informal Draft Regulations”, which were published late last month.  An earlier draft of those regulations, released by the DTSC last November, drew strong commentary from both industry and environmental groups. According to DTSC, a wide range of stakeholders, including those from industry, environmental groups, scientists, and legislative leaders, raised "substantive and valid concerns" about the prior draft of the regulations. DTSC  eventually withdrew the draft regulations.

The latest draft regulations provide for a four-step process to identify safer consumer product alternatives: 1) create an immediate list of Chemicals of Concern (~3,000) based on the work already done by other organizations, and specify a process for DTSC to identify additional  chemicals as Chemicals of Concern (COCs); 2) require DTSC to evaluate and prioritize product/COC combinations to develop a list of “Priority Products” for which an alternatives assessment must be conducted; 3) require responsible entities (manufacturers, importers, and retailers) to notify DTSC when their product is listed as a Priority Product.  Manufacturers (or other responsible entities) must perform an "alternatives assessment" for the product and the Chemicals of Concern in the product to determine how best to limit potential exposures to, or the level of potential adverse public health and environmental impacts posed by, the Chemicals of Concern in the product; 4) require DTSC to identify and impose regulatory responses to effectively limit potential adverse public health and/or environmental impacts, if any, posed by the Priority Product/Chemical of Concern.

The draft regulations note that they would not apply to prescription drugs and devices; dental restorative materials; medical devices, and some other categories. But it is clear that they will impose significant new burdens on many product manufacturers, importers and sellers. The new regulations require risk assessments and life cycle analyses for prioritized products, which may lead to use limits for chemicals, reformulation requirements to eliminate targeted chemicals, or even a ban on sales of certain products in California.

And, of course, varying state regulations (in approach and content) frustrate the ability of those companies to design and market products in a global supply chain.

DTSC labels the new draft "informal," perhaps because they make substantial changes to the withdrawn set, which drew such intense scrutiny.   The initial list of “Chemicals of Concern” would be far broader than previously expected; the product prioritization criteria is revised, although it still appears likely to impact children's products, personal health, and other consumer products. But worker exposure has been added to the priority criteria as well. The regulations would also expand the list of hazards to include a wider range of hazard traits and environmental and toxicological testing endpoints. The previous exemption for unintentionally added chemicals would be eliminated, and, significantly, the “no exposure pathway” exemption would also be dropped.  

The regulations would require an alternatives assessment, conducted in two stages, with a report to DTSC regarding each stage. The first stage focuses on product criteria (function, performance, technical, and legal requirements), identification of alternatives to the COC, and screening of the alternatives.  The second stage would involve a detailed assessment of alternatives, focusing on exposure pathways and life cycle segments.

After evaluating the reports of the alternatives assessment, DTSC would then consider the appropriate regulatory response, which could involve a requirement of information disclosure, or more assessment, or limitation of certain uses, up to a ban.

The draft regulations would also require responsible entities to establish and pay for an end-of-life product stewardship program for any product that is to treated as a hazardous waste in California.

Materials for the meeting are here and here. On December 5, 2011, DTSC will hold a workshop on the informal draft regulations. The informal public comment period ends December 30, 2011.  DTSC apparently will then develop a formal new set of proposed regulations.   

NTP Proposes Changes to Process for Next Report on Carcinogens

The National Toxicology Program is accepting comments on a revised process for reviewing substances that may be added to its widely cited "Report on Carcinogens." NTP is accepting comments up to Nov. 30th.

The Report is required by Congress to be published every two years, and is designed to provide
information on substances that may pose a hazard to human health by virtue of their  carcinogenicity.  Substances are listed in the report as either known or reasonably anticipated human carcinogens. The 12th Report was published in June, 2011. But now, the NTP is proposing changes to the review process for listing substances in the 13th Report.

The NTP will hold a listening session on November 29, 2011, from 1–5 p.m. (EST), as well, to receive oral comments on the proposed review process.

Under the proposed process, NTP says it would make its substance review process more flexible, and more descriptive of the  reasoning it used to develop a proposed classification of an agent, and  thus would summarize the relevant science and also the agency's reasoning about how the agent should be classified.

Toxic tort practitioners among our readers may want to take a look (and have their experts do so).
 

Beverage Maker Not Liable for Alleged Failure to Warn

The maker of  a drink containing alcohol and caffeine was not liable to a woman allegedly injured when the driver of the motorcycle on which she was a passenger crashed, after the driver consumed the beverage.  See Cook v. MillerCoors LLC, No. 11-1488 (M.D. Fla., 10/28/11).

The operator of the motorcycle in the accident was killed, and plaintiff Cook, who was a passenger, was injured.  Prior to the crash, the driver allegedly had consumed several “Sparks”
alcoholic beverages containing caffeine and other stimulants, manufactured by defendant.

Cook argued that alcoholic beverages such as Sparks containing stimulants are “uniquely dangerous” because they appeal to younger drinkers and because the addition of caffeine enables one to drink more alcohol without feeling as intoxicated as one normally would. Thus, she alleged, consumers of these beverages are more likely to “engage in dangerous behavior such as driving.”  She asserted the driver did not appear impaired, even though toxicology reports from his autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol level was 0.10 at the time of the crash.

Defendant responded that the risks associated with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol are well known; therefore, it could not be held responsible for the operator's choice to consume Sparks then illegally operate his motorcycle. The addition of other ingredients to the beverage did not lessen his responsibility to refrain from operating his motorcycle after having consumed the alcohol, and his actions, not the manufacture of Sparks,
proximately caused Cook’s injuries.  The crux of the defense motion to dismiss thus was that there is no cause of action against a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages for injuries resulting from their consumption because the effects of alcohol consumption are well known. With a response from plaintiff that the legion of such holdings in courts everywhere apply to “conventional” alcoholic beverages, not to an alcoholic beverage mixed with stimulants which allegedly suppress the consumer’s subjective awareness of alcohol’s well-known effects.

Regarding the failure to warn theory, a plaintiff must establish the existence of a duty. A manufacturer’s duty to warn arises when there is a need to inform consumers of dangers of which they are unaware.  The effects of alcohol and the need to not drink and drive are universally known.  While plaintiff argued about the unconventionality of this product, plaintiff did not and could not allege that the driver was unaware that he was drinking alcohol. His alleged subjective awareness of the speed or impact of those effects did not alter the legal reasoning of precedent that holds that there is no duty to warn because of the universal recognition of all potential dangers associated with alcohol. 

Plaintiff also failed to adequately allege how the product was unreasonably dangerous for the design defect claim. The effects of alcohol are universally and objectively well known, irrespective of the operator's alleged subjective awareness of them. The defectiveness of a design is determined based on an objective standard, not from the viewpoint of any specific user, said the court.

Moreover, plaintiff's theories failed as to proximate cause. Plaintiff alleged that the manufacturer's negligence caused the driver to become intoxicated to the point of impairment,
causing the crash and Cook’s injuries. In Florida, however, voluntary drinking of alcohol is the proximate cause of an injury from an intoxicated driver, rather than the manufacture or sale of those intoxicating beverages to that person.  This doomed the negligence claim.

Readers can readily see why the court was reluctant to make an exception to the rule for the "unconventional" beverage.  There are hundreds of alcohol-containing products that are not "conventional" in one way or another, by taste, ingredients, color, manufacturing process, advertising... To shift responsibility from the person who over-consumes one of these and then drives impaired is to send the absolutely wrong policy message.

Courts have typically recognized no duty on the maker, regardless of plaintiff's attempt to differentiate either themselves or the product. See, e.g., Malek v. Miller Brewing Co., 749 S.W.2d 521 (Tex. App. 1988) (finding no duty to warn despite claim that advertising led plaintiff to believe that “Lite” beer was less intoxicating than other beer); Pemberton v. Am. Distilled Spirits Co., 664 S.W.2d 690 (Tenn. 1984); Greif v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., Inc., 114 F. Supp. 2d 100 (D. Conn. 2000)(particular, alleged tolerance of an individual consumer); MaGuire v. Pabst Brewing Co., 387 N.W.2d 565 (Iowa 1986).


 

EPA Issues New Proposed HPV Chemical Rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued two proposed rules last week that would require manufacturers and importers of dozens of high production volume chemicals to provide health, environmental and usage data.  EPA also issued  a final rule that requires manufacturers to test the health and environmental effects of 15 high production volume (HPV) chemicals

In 1998, EPA concluded that there were significant gaps in the basic data needed to understand and characterize the potential hazards associated with certain HPV chemicals. HPV chemicals are classified as those chemicals produced or imported in the United States in quantities of 1 million pounds or more per year.  In the High Production Volume (HPV) Challenge Program, companies were "challenged" by EPA to make health and environmental effects data publicly available on chemicals produced or imported in the United States in the greatest quantities.  As of June 2007, companies sponsored more than 2,200 HPV chemicals, with approximately 1,400 chemicals sponsored directly through the HPV Challenge Program and over 860 chemicals sponsored indirectly through international efforts.

One proposal would require manufacturers to test the health and environmental effects of an additional 23 HPV chemicals, and the other proposal would require companies to notify EPA prior to new uses of an additional 22 chemicals that are widely used in commerce. Both new rules would be issued under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which itself is the subject of Congressional scrutiny.

The 1998 High Production Volume Challenge did not provide adequate data for the 45 chemicals covered by the two proposed rules, according to EPA. Observers believe the proposed rules will likely affect chemical manufacturing and petroleum refineries.

Public comments must be received on or before January 19, 2012.
 

EU Offers Standard Definition of Nanotechnology

One of the challenging aspects of attempts to regulate emerging nanotechnology is the definition.  Proposing a "definition" for nanotechnology is not as straightforward a process as it may seem; applying a strict, universal definition of nanotechnology to all applicable fields and products may not be an appropriate science-based approach.  Inclusion of nanometer-sized active ingredients or excipients in a product does not by itself determine a product's safety and efficacy (i.e. size alone is not always itself an indicator of toxicity).   Then there is the issue of distinguishing between engineered nanomaterials and those naturally occurring at the nanoscale.

Last week, the European Commission took another step in this debate, unveiling a new, common nanomaterial definition as a basis for regulation. Nanomaterials are defined as those whose main constituents measure between 1 and 100 billionth of a meter; that is, a natural, incidental or manufactured material containing particles, in an unbound state or as an aggregate or as an agglomerate and where, for 50% or more of the particles in the number size distribution, one or more external dimensions is in the target size range.

Thus, the new EU definition is based on an approach that considers the size of the constituent particles, rather than any other indicia of potential risk.  The EU did note that there is no evidence that nanomaterials are inherently hazardous. Technological development and scientific progress continue with great speed, noted the report. The definition including descriptors will therefore be subject to a re-review by December 2014. In particular, the review will assess whether the number size distribution threshold of 50 % should be increased or decreased and whether to include materials with internal structure or surface structure in the nanoscale such as complex nano-component nanomaterials including nanoporous and nano-composite materials that are used in some product sectors.

 

Amicus Urges Supreme Court to Reverse Causation Junk Science Decision

DRI (the Defense Research Institute) last week submitted an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review a federal appeals court decision that threatens to undermine the gatekeeper role of the trial courts on expert testimony. United States Steel Corp. v. Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group Inc., No. 11-316 ( U.S., amicus petition filed 10/12/2011).

Most of our readers know that DRI is an international organization that includes more than 23,000 attorneys involved in the defense of civil litigation.  DRI has long been a voice in the ongoing effort to make the civil justice system more fair, efficient, and—where national issues are involved—consistent. (Your humble blogger is a member.)

In this case, the plaintiff alleged that he contracted a rare form of cancer, acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), through exposure to benzene or benzene contaminants. The plaintiff’s expert acknowledged that science has not determined what causes or can cause APL, but opined that, based on his own "judgment," the "weight of evidence" supported a conclusion that APL could be caused by benzene exposure. After a four-day hearing, the district court excluded the expert testimony as unreliable under Daubert, and Gen. Elec. Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997)(district courts need to exclude proof that is connected to the data only by the ipse dixit of an expert), finding that it amounted to no more than a plausible hypothesis. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed and reinstated the case, holding that it was an abuse discretion to exclude this evidence as to possible causation.

The First Circuit in this case appeared to think that district courts not only may but must admit speculative expert testimony that rests on nothing more than the expert’s subjective judgment that an untested hypothesis is supported by the “weight of the evidence.”  That decision conflicts with Supreme Court guidance and with the decisions of other circuits holding that expert testimony is admissible only when it rests on a reliable scientific foundation, and that a district court is not required to accept an expert’s ipse dixit but must instead carefully examine the methods and data underlying the expert’s opinion to ensure that the expert has reliably applied valid scientific principles. Without such an inquiry, the “gatekeeper” function the Federal Rules of Evidence envision for the district court judge becomes meaningless.

DRI correctly points out that the weight-of-the-evidence methodology the court of appeals endorsed does not satisfy the criteria Daubert adopted for assessing the reliability of expert testimony. It is neither testable nor falsifiable; it is not governed by any objective standards; and it has not been generally accepted by the scientific community as a means to assess medical causation absent an observed association between the substance and disease at issue. The fact that some regulatory agencies use an arguably similar, lower bar, methodology to assess risks to public health based on the available data does not mean that it yields “scientific knowledge” admissible under the very different standards governing a court proceeding.

Moreover, the district court’s essential gate-keeping role is particularly important on the issue of medical causation. That issue is often dispositive in toxic tort and product liability cases, which can involve enormous stakes not only for the parties, but also for the national economy. The lay jurors who decide these complicated issues are likely to be greatly influenced by testimony that appears to be scientific in nature coming from a witness whom the court has admitted as an "expert." The decision by the First Circuit undermines the critical screening function district courts perform to prevent juries from being misled by speculation masquerading as scientific knowledge.

 

Plutonium Class Action in Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court last week invited the Solicitor General to weigh in on the issues in a significant class action, in which the plaintiffs allege plutonium contamination. Merilyn Cook, et al. v. Rockwell International Corporation, et al., No. 10-1377 (U.S.).

The plaintiffs were more than 15,000 property owners near the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Colorado.  In 2006, a jury found against defendants Dow and Rockwell.  In 2008, the federal trial court ordered the companies to pay a total of $926 million in damages. The 10th Circuit reversed.

At issue now is whether state substantive law controls the standard of compensable harm in suits under the Price-Anderson Act, or whether the Act instead imposes a federal standard; and, secondly, whether, if a federal standard applies, a property owner whose land has been contaminated by plutonium must show some physical injury to the property beyond the contamination itself in order to recover.

The court of appeals had concluded that plutonium contamination by itself was not adequate under the Act. In particular, property owners’ fears that the plutonium might damage their health was not a sufficient basis to award damages.

The case raises the all-too-familiar scenario of trial courts dispensing with traditional elements of a cause of action in order to proceed with class litigation. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants were  responsible for plutonium emissions that diminished their property values. But they did not prove any present physical injury to person or property, or loss of use of property, on a class-wide basis. Rather, they vigorously --and successfully-- urged the district court to dispense with any such injury requirement. The district court allowed petitioners to recover based solely on a risk of injury to person or property, even if unverifiable or scientifically unfounded.

 

Substantial Cause Explored in Case of Multiple Exposures

The Sixth Circuit issues and interesting opinion last week, exploring plaintiff's burden to prove that exposure to defendant's product caused his injury in the context in which plaintiff was exposed to numerous other similar products. See Moeller v. Garlock Sealing Technologies LLC, No. 09-5670, (6th Cir., 9/28/11).

Plaintiff was a pipefitter who worked with asbestos-containing gaskets made by Garlock from about 1962 until about 1970. But from 1962 until about 1975, he also sustained significant exposure to asbestos insulation. He contracted mesothelioma and sued, alleging that his exposure to Garlock’s asbestos-containing gaskets was a substantial factor in causing his injuries.

At trial, plaintiff's expert testified that exposure to asbestos from Garlock gaskets, along with his other exposures, contributed to the mesothelioma. And one of the treating oncologists opined  that if plaintiff had worked for many years (as he did) scraping and grinding asbestos gaskets, and if plaintiff breathed those fibers, then that exposure would have caused his cancer. In rebuttal, Garlock presented evidence that plaintiff had sustained substantial exposure to asbestos insulation products for 13 years. It also presented evidence that whereas asbestos insulation was banned in the 1970s, leading asbestos safety authorities believed that gaskets, such as those sold by Garlock, posed “no health hazard,” and were sold lawfully in the United States. Garlock also suggested that the plaintiff had only installed Garlock gaskets (an activity that both parties agree did not create a risk of injury), and had not ever removed them (the activity that the plaintiff alleges caused the injuries).

The jury returned a verdict for plaintiff, and defendant appealed.

To prevail on a negligence claim, Kentucky law requires a plaintiff to prove that a defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. Deutsch v. Shein, 597 S.W.2d 141, 144 (Ky. 1980). Causation requires a link between the specific defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injuries. See Estes v. Gibson, 257 S.W.2d 604, 607 (Ky. 1953) . Substantial causation refers to the probable cause, as opposed to a possible cause. One measure of whether an action is a substantial factor is the number of other factors which contribute in producing the harm and the extent of the effect which they have in producing it.

The appeals court concluded that the plaintiff failed to prove that Garlock’s product was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm. The plaintiff presented various witnesses to support the claim that the mesothelioma was caused by his exposure to Garlock gaskets. But one expert never actually said that the exposure to Garlock gaskets was a substantial factor in causing the  cancer; the others testified that all types of asbestos can cause mesothelioma and that any asbestos exposure counts as a “contributing factor.”  That testimony does not establish that exposure to Garlock gaskets in and of itself was a substantial factor.

Moreover, the evidence presented was insufficient to allow a jury to infer that exposure to Garlock gaskets was a substantial cause of the cancer. Plaintiff here presented no evidence quantifying  exposure to asbestos from Garlock gaskets. There was testimony that he removed gaskets for several years, and that some of those gaskets were Garlock’s. But the plaintiff failed to establish how many Garlock gaskets he removed, or how frequently he removed—as opposed to installed—them. The record also shows that plaintiff regularly tore out asbestos insulation during the relevant years, and that his exposure to asbestos from insulation would have been thousands of times greater than his exposure from removing gaskets.

Thus, while his exposure to Garlock gaskets may have contributed to his mesothelioma, the record simply does not support an inference that it was a substantial cause of his mesothelioma. Given that the Plaintiff failed to quantify his exposure to asbestos from Garlock gaskets and that the Plaintiff concedes that he sustained massive exposure to asbestos from non-Garlock sources, there is simply insufficient evidence to infer that Garlock gaskets probably, as opposed to possibly, were a substantial cause of the injury.

The court summed it up: saying that exposure to Garlock gaskets was a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma would be akin to saying that one who pours a bucket of water into the
ocean has substantially contributed to the ocean’s volume.

 

Gulf Oil Spill MDL Court Issues Trial CMO

The court managing the Gulf oil spill MDL recently entered an important case management order defining the structure and scope of the upcoming trial on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  That Trial of Liability, Limitation, Exoneration, and Fault Allocation is scheduled to commence, as previously ordered in CMO No. 1 and CMO No. 2, on February 27, 2012.  See In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, MDL No. 2179 (E.D. La., Order 9/14/11).

Readers know we have been keeping an eye on this signficant litigation since the MDL was created. CMO No. 3 notes that the trial will address all allocation of fault issues that are to be tried to the bench without a jury, including the negligence, gross negligence, or other bases of liability of, and the proportion of liability allocatable to, the various defendants, third parties, and non-parties with respect to the issues, including limitation of liability.

The trial will be conducted in three phases.

Phase One [the Incident Phase] of the trial will address issues arising out of the conduct of various parties, third parties, and non-parties allegedly relevant to the loss of well control at the Macondo Well, the ensuing fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon vessel, the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon on April 22, 2010, and the initiation of the release of oil from the Macondo Well or Deepwater Horizon.

Phase Two of the trial will address Source Control and Quantification of Discharge issues. Source Control issues consist of issues pertaining to the conduct of various parties, third parties, and non-parties regarding stopping the release of hydrocarbons stemming from the Incident from April 22, 2010 through approximately September 19, 2010. Quantification of Discharge issues refer to  issues pertaining to the amount of oil actually released into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the Incident from the time when these releases began until the Macondo Well was capped on approximately July 15, 2010 and then permanently cemented shut on approximately September 19, 2010.

Phase Three [Containment Phase] of the trial will address issues pertaining to the efforts by various parties, third parties, and non-parties aimed at containing oil discharged as a result of the Incident by, for example, controlled burning, application of dispersants, use of booms, skimming, etc. Phase Three of the trial will also address issues pertaining to the migration paths and end locations of oil released as a result of the Incident as carried by wind, currents, and other natural forces.

CMO No. 3 also addresses the sequence of proof for Phase One: first plaintiffs, then Transocean, then the other defendants. At the end of each Phase of the trial and after consideration of the parties' submissions, the Court may decide to issue partial Findings of Fact and  conclusions of Law for that Phase if it deems the record adequately developed. The Court said it anticipates that discovery and other pretrial proceedings for Phase Two of the trial and possibly for Phase Three of the trial will likely need to be conducted concurrently with pretrial proceedings for and the conduct of Phase One of the trial.

 

 


 

Medical Monitoring Claim Rejected in Rail Spill

The Sixth Circuit recently rejected the medical monitoring claims of a putative class of residents of a small Ohio town who alleged exposure to chemicals released after a CSX Transportation Inc. train accidentally derailed. Jonathan Hirsch et al. v. CSX Transportation Inc., No. 09-4548 (6th Cir. Sept. 8, 2011).

On October 10, 2007, thirty-one cars of a CSX train derailed and caught fire near the town of Painesville, Ohio. As a precaution, emergency personnel removed about 1,300 people from the surrounding half-mile radius. Most of what burned in this fire was non-toxic, but nine of the cars were carrying potentially hazardous materials. The plaintiffs claimed that 2,800 tons of burning material were sent into the surrounding atmosphere, and that, as a result, the level of dioxin in their town was significantly elevated.

While the fire was still burning, several residents of the town brought suit against CSX;  the district court did not allow the plaintiffs to pursue an independent cause of action for medical monitoring, but decided a court-supervised medical monitoring was available as an equitable remedy under Ohio law. See Wilson v. Brush Wellman, 817 N.E.2d 59, 63-65 (Ohio 2004); see also Day v. NLO, 851 F. Supp. 869, 880 (S.D. Ohio 1994).  Defendant then moved for summary judgment, which was granted. The district court held that the plaintiffs had failed to meet their burden to show that (1) the dioxin released into the air by the fire is a known cause of human disease; and (2) that the named plaintiffs were exposed to dioxin in an amount sufficient to cause a significantly increased risk of disease such that a reasonable physician would order medical monitoring. The plaintiffs timely appealed.

The court of appeals focused on the issues of causation and injury. Rather than traditional personal injuries, the alleged injuries consisted solely of the increased risk of—and corresponding cost of screening for—certain diseases that, according to plaintiffs, were more likely to occur as a result of the train crash. Assuming that Ohio would recognize such an injury, the remedy would be a medical monitoring program that would spare the Plaintiffs these expenses. But were plaintiffs actually at such an increased risk of disease that they were entitled to a medical monitoring program? Not every exposure, not every increased risk risk of disease warrants increased medical scrutiny. For the plaintiffs to prevail, there must be evidence that a reasonable physician would order medical monitoring for them.

Plaintiffs hired several experts to try to meet this burden. (No Daubert issue raised; the issue was sufficiency, not admissibility.). They offered a chemical engineer who tested the community for levels of dioxin. He assumed a normal background level of dioxin at 4 parts per trillion and took measurements around Painesville to compare with this baseline. His measurements
showed elevated levels near the crash site.  Plaintiffs had a chemist who speculated about train cargo, nature and amounts; then, a physicist who plotted the dispersion and concentration of the chemicals from the fire on a map for the purpose of showing which members of the community were exposed to what levels of dioxin. Then a medical doctor used this map to determine who in the community was likely exposed to levels of dioxin above what the EPA considers acceptable—levels at which the risk of cancer increases by "one case in one million exposed persons."

The court of appeals saw at least two problems with this offer.  One issue was the use of the regulatory level. The expert not only accepted the risk of one in a million as the threshold for monitoring, but appeared to have halved it. “One should be afforded the benefit of medical
monitoring, if one has sustained a dose equal to or in excess of 50% of the EPA maximum.” There was little explanation as to why he believed that reasonable physicians would order expensive and burdensome testing for such a small risk, but he explained he wanted "to err on the side of patient safety.”  However, a one-in-a-million chance is small. Indeed, it is proverbially small. If something has a one-in-a-million chance of causing cancer in an individual, then it will not cause cancer in 999,999. For some perspective, the National Safety Council estimates a person’s lifetime risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident as 1 in 88. The lifetime risk of dying in “air and space transport accidents” is roughly 1 in 7,000. The risk of being killed by lightning
is roughly 1 in 84,000, while the risk of being killed in a “fireworks discharge” stands at around 1 in 386,000. So, a small risk and no basis to say it called for medical monitoring.  Certainly the EPA didn't base its standard on any medical monitoring analysis.

Second, the doctor based based his assessment on the exposure map.  But the map was unreliable. The estimate of the total material burned was speculative. The expert admitted that “the fire temperature, particle size distribution, and fire area were not established.” And there were other sources of exposure not accounted for.

Plaintiffs thus alleged only a risk that bordered on legal insignificance, and failed to produce evidence establishing with any degree of certainty that they had even this hypothetical risk.

Summary judgment affirmed.

Chevron Suit Proceeds: Ecuador Plaintiffs' Judicial Estoppel Motion Rejected

A New York federal court ruled last week that Chevron could continue to pursue its effort to overturn a questionable $18 billion judgment against the company in Ecuadorean court. Chevron Corp. v. Salazar et al., No. 1:11-cv-0371 (S.D.N.Y. 8/31/11).

This is an action by Chevron for, among other things, a declaration that the large judgment entered against it by a provincial court in Lago Agrio, Ecuador, is not entitled to recognition or enforcement, and for an injunction against its enforcement outside of Ecuador.

The district court's memorandum opinion dealt with their contentions that Chevron was judicially estopped to now deny that (1) the Ecuadorian legal system provides impartial tribunals and procedures compatible with due process of law, and (2) the Ecuadorian court had jurisdiction over Chevron.

The judicial estoppel argument rested principally on statements made in a separate lawsuit brought in 1993 by many of the same plaintiffs against Texaco, Inc. — then an independent, publicly owned company.  That suit was dismissed on the ground of forum non conveniens many years ago and, indeed, before this Lago Agrio litigation even began.  Plaintiffs cited statements made in briefs, and in affidavits and declarations by witnesses submitted in the prior litigation in
support of Texaco's efforts to obtain the forum non conveniens dismissal.  All were allegedly to the effect that the Ecuadorian courts were neither corrupt nor unfair.

Each and every one of these statements was made by Texaco. Indeed, each was made before Chevron acquired its stock in Texaco in October, 2001.  Chevron never was a party to the prior litigation. Thus, the statements about and the alleged consent to jurisdiction in Ecuador were made by Texaco and Texaco alone.

The court thought it important to emphasize that the pleadings in this case were entirely devoid of any allegations that Texaco merged with or into Chevron, or indeed, any subsidiary of Chevron. Nor were there any allegations that would support piercing the corporate veil of Texaco, treating Chevron as Texaco's alter ego, or otherwise disregarding the separate corporate existence of Texaco. Texaco did not merge with or into Chevron. Rather, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chevron
merged with and into Texaco. Texaco was the surviving entity. Chevron became the sole stockholder.

Judicial estoppel occurs when a party assumes a legal position which it later changes, and  assumes a contrary position, especially if it be to the prejudice of the party who has acquiesced in the position previously taken by him. It applies if 1) a party's later position is clearly inconsistent with its earlier position; 2) the party's former position has been adopted in some way by the court in the earlier proceeding; and 3) the party asserting the two positions would derive an unfair
advantage against the party seeking estoppel. Some courts limit it to situations where the risk of inconsistent results has a clear impact on judicial integrity.

Here, the court had a factual and a legal rejection of the application of judicial estoppel.  While Texaco certainly appeared to have argued throughout much of the 1990s that it could get a fair trial in Ecuador, the issue here was different. The issue now was whether the Ecuadorian legal system, in the next decade, provided impartial tribunals and procedures compatible with due process of law. It was Chevron's contention that it did not, as a result of events that occurred in and after 2004, whatever may have been the case previously.  That is not an inconsistent position from what Texaco had allegedly argued.

Second, the operative legal documents in the public record established that Texaco at all relevant times was a legal entity separate and distinct from Chevron. The fact that a Chevron subsidiary merged into Texaco did not make Chevron responsible for Texaco's obligations. To be sure the law recognizes various bases for disregarding a corporate entity and imposing its obligations upon the stockholder or stockholders. But a litigant seeking to impose corporate obligations on a shareholder or shareholders must allege facts that, if proven, would justify disregard of the corporate entity. The plaintiffs alleged no such facts in this case. They certainly had not demonstrated, as they must in order to prevail on a motion for judgment on the pleadings on this theory, that the pleadings unequivocally establish facts that warrant disregarding Texaco's separate corporate existence and imputing its prior statements and positions to Chevron. 

MDL Court Rules on Availability of Punitive Damages in Gulf Oil Spill Litigation

The MDL court overseeing the claims arising from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill has ruled that plaintiffs can seek punitive damages against allegedly responsible parties in economic loss and property damage suits. In Re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, No. 2:10-md-02179 (E.D. La., 8/26/11).

Readers may recall that this MDL consists of hundreds of consolidated cases, with thousands of claimants, arising from the April 20, 2010 explosion, fire, and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon  mobile offshore drilling unit, which resulted in the release of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was finally capped approximately three months later. In order to efficiently  manage this complex MDL, the court consolidated and organized the various types of claims (e.g., personal injury, environmental, property, and economic damages) into several “pleading bundles.”  One such pleading bundle includes all claims for private or non-governmental economic loss and property damages.  There are in excess of 100,000 individual claims encompassed within this bundle.

The court recently ruled on several pending motions to dismiss the claims by this sub-group of plaintiffs, but let's focus on the punitive damages claims. The court's analysis began with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990: the OPA is silent as to the availability of punitive damages. So the issue became whether plaintiffs who could assert general maritime claims pre-OPA enactment could still plausibly allege punitive damages under general maritime.  The court concluded they could.

First, punitive damages have long been available at common law, and the common-law tradition of punitive damages extends to maritime claims. The court reasoned that Congress had not occupied the entire field of oil spill liability in light of the OPA provision preserving admiralty and maritime law, “except as otherwise provided.” OPA does not mention punitive damages; thus, while punitive damages are not available under OPA, the court did not read OPA’s silence as meaning that punitive damages are precluded under general maritime law. The MDL court observed that Congress knows how to proscribe punitive damages when it intends to, as it did in the commercial aviation exception under the Death on the High Seas Act, 46 U.S.C. § 30307(b) (“punitive damages are not recoverable”).
 

Second, the court saw nothing to indicate that allowing a claim for punitive damages in this context would frustrate the OPA liability scheme. All claims against the allegedly Responsible Party must comply with OPA’s procedure, regardless of whether there is also cause of action against the Responsible Party under general maritime law. However, the behavior that would give rise to punitive damages under general maritime law–gross negligence–would also break OPA’s limit of liability. See 33 U.S.C. § 2704(a). Thus, the imposition of punitive damages under general maritime law would not, according to the court, circumvent OPA’s limitation of liability.

Finally on this issue, the court noted that some courts had held that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act (“TAPAA”), which provided “the liability regime governing certain types of Alaskan oil spills, imposing strict liability but also capping recovery,” did not restrict the availability of punitive damages.  OPA, like TAPAA, creates a liability regime governing oil spills, imposes strict liability on the Responsible Parties, includes liability limits, and is silent on the issue of punitive damages.

Thus, the court concluded, the OPA does not displace general maritime law claims for those plaintiffs who would have been able to bring such claims prior to OPA’s enactment. 


 

Court of Appeals Rejects Medical Monitoring Class Action

The Third Circuit last week affirmed a lower court decision denying class certification in a medical monitoring case alleging vinyl chloride exposures. Gates v. Rohm & Haas Co., No. 10-2108 (3d Cir.,  8/25/11).

Readers may recall we posted on this case at the trial court level last year.  Plaintiffs alleged that vinyl chloride released from Rohm & Haas’s specialty chemicals manufacturing facility in Ringwood, Illinois contaminated the groundwater in and around McCollum Lake Village, as well as the air in the Village. Plaintiffs alleged that between 1968 and 2002, the vinyl chloride evaporating from the shallow plume blew over the Village, contaminating the air in the Village and causing some Village residents to breathe varying amounts of it. Plaintiffs claimed that the levels of vinyl chloride in the Village air were higher than the background level.

Plaintiffs sought certification of two classes: (1) a class seeking medical monitoring for Village residents exposed to the airborne vinyl chloride between 1968 and 2002, and (2) a liability-only issue class seeking compensation for property damage from the exposure. (We will focus on medical monitoring.)

The district court denied certification; it found the medical monitoring class lacked the cohesiveness needed to maintain a class under Rule 23(b)(2), and that common issues of law and fact did not predominate as required under Rule 23(b)(3). Both failed for the same reason—the “common” evidence proposed for trial did not adequately typify the specific individuals that composed the two classes. In particular, the court found plaintiffs failed to present common proof of three issues critical to recovering on the medical monitoring claim—(1) that plaintiffs suffered from exposure greater than normal background levels, (2) the proximate result of which is significantly increased risk of developing a serious disease, and (3) whether the proposed medical monitoring regime is reasonably medically necessary.  The court also found the remaining individual issues would require individual trial proceedings, undoing any efficiencies of class treatment and possibly leading a second jury to reconsider evidence presented to the jury in the class proceeding.

Plaintiffs took an interlocutory appeal under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f) from the denial of class certification. The court of appeals affirmed.

The Third Circuit offered a number of important points for readers that may be confronting putative medical monitoring class actions:

1) what is a medical monitoring class?

A medical monitoring cause of action allows those exposed to toxic substances to recover the costs of periodic medical appointments and the costs of tests to detect the early signs of diseases associated with exposure. The few states that recognize medical monitoring as a remedy recognize it as a cause of action, like Pennsylvania, Redland Soccer Club, Inc. v. Dep’t of the Army, 696 A.2d 137, 142 (Pa. 1997), or treat it as a type of relief granted in connection with a traditional tort cause of action, see, e.g., Bourgeois v. A.P. Green Indus., Inc., 716 So.2d 355, 359 (La. 1998).

The remedy of medical monitoring has divided courts on whether plaintiffs should proceed under Rule 23(b)(2) or Rule 23(b)(3), said the court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has talked about awarding medical monitoring damages as a trust fund which “compensates the plaintiff for only the monitoring costs actually incurred.” Redland Soccer Club, 696 A.2d at 142 n.6. But it has not yet clearly decided whether or when medical monitoring awards can be in the form of a lump-sum verdict.

The appeals court noted, however, that some guidance may have come from the fact that the Supreme Court recently clarified that Rule 23(b)(2) applies only when a single injunction or declaratory judgment would provide relief to each member of the class. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2557 (2011). In light of the Supreme Court's recent decision, the Third Circuit would "question whether the kind of medical monitoring sought here can be certified under Rule 23(b)(2)."  If the plaintiffs here prevailed, class members' regimes of medical screenings and the corresponding cost would vary individual by individual. A single injunction or declaratory judgment would seem to not be able to provide relief to each member of the class proposed here. Rule 23(b)(2) “does not authorize class certification when each class member would be entitled to an individualized award of monetary damages.” Wal-Mart, 131 S. Ct. at 2557. But it did not need to reach the issue, because certification was improper under either category of Rule 23 for reasons apart from the monetary nature of plaintiffs' claims.

2) Cohesion and (b)(2) Certification

Although Rule 23(b)(2) classes need not meet the predominance and superiority requirements of Rule 23(b)(3), it is well established that the class claims must be cohesive. A key to the (b)(2) class is the indivisible nature of the injunctive or declaratory remedy warranted—the notion that the conduct is such that it can be enjoined or declared unlawful only as to all of the class members or as to none of them. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc, 131 S. Ct. at 2557 (quoting Richard A. Nagareda, Class Certification in the Age of Aggregate Proof, 84 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 97, 132 (2009)). Indeed, a (b)(2) class may require more cohesiveness than a (b)(3) class. As all class members will be bound by a single judgment, members of a proposed Rule 23(b)(2) injunctive or declaratory class must have strong commonality of interests. The Supreme Court in Wal-Mart recently highlighted the importance of cohesiveness in light of the limited protections for absent class members under subsections (b)(1) and (b)(2) of the class rule. 

3) Individual Issues in Medical Monitoring Class

Because causation and medical necessity often require individual proof, medical monitoring classes may founder for lack of cohesion. See In re St. Jude Med. Inc., 425 F.3d 1116, 1122 (8th Cir. 2005); Ball v. Union Carbide Corp., 385 F.3d 713, 727-28 (6th Cir. 2004); Zinser v. Accufix Research Inst., Inc., 253 F.3d 1180, 1195-96, amended, 273 F.3d 1266 (9th Cir. 2001); Barnes, 161 F.3d at 143-46; Boughton v. Cotter Corp., 65 F.3d 823, 827 (10th Cir. 1995). Frequently the rigorous analysis of common and individual issues  will entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff‟s underlying claim.  Wal-Mart Stores, Inc, 131 S. Ct. at 2551.  The trial court may consider the substantive elements of the plaintiffs' case in order to envision the form that a trial on those issues would take.  The District Court here did so and found individual issues were significant to certain elements of the medical monitoring claims here.

Readers will recall that to prevail on a medical monitoring claim under Pennsylvania law, plaintiffs must prove:
(a) exposure greater than normal background levels;
(b) to a proven hazardous substance;
(c) caused by the defendant‟s negligence;
(d) as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease;
(e) a monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible;
(f) the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and
(g) the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.
Redland Soccer Club, 696 A.2d at 145-46.  “Expert testimony is required to prove these elements.” Sheridan v. NGK Metals Corp., 609 F.3d 239, 251 (3d Cir. 2010).

Here, the District Court identified individual issues that would eclipse common issues in at least three of the required elements, noting several potential variations in proving exposure above background, a significantly increased risk of a serious latent disease, and the reasonable necessity of the monitoring regime.

4) Exposure

Plaintiffs proposed to show the exposure of class members through expert opinions on air dispersion modeling that mapped concentrations of vinyl chloride exposure (isopleths) that allegedly could provide average exposure per person. But in fact those isopleths only showed average daily exposure, not minimum exposure, used average exposure over very long periods of time when exposure likely varied, and thus could not show that every class member was exposed above background.  Instead of showing the exposure of the class member with the least amount of exposure, plaintiffs proof would show only the amount that hypothetical residents of the village would have been exposed to under a uniform set of assumptions without accounting for differences in exposure year-by-year or based upon an individual's characteristics. At most, the isopleths showed the exposure only of persons who lived in the village for the entire period the isopleth represents and who behaved according to all assumptions that the experts made in creating the isopleth.

5) Composite Proof
Plaintiffs cannot, said the court,  substitute for evidence of exposure of actual class members evidence of hypothetical, composite persons in order to gain class certification. The evidence here was not  truly common because it was not shared by all (possibly even most) individuals in the class. Averages or community-wide estimations would not be probative of any individual's claim because any one class member may have an exposure level well above or below the average.
Attempts to meet the burden of proof using modeling and assumptions that do not reflect the individual characteristics of class members have been met with skepticism, noted the court of appeals. See In re Fibreboard Corp., 893 F.2d 706, 712 (5th Cir. 1990); In re “Agent Orange” Prod. Liab. Litig. MDL No. 381, 818 F.2d 145, 165 (2d Cir. 1987); see also 2 Joseph M. McLaughlin, McLaughlin on Class Actions: Law and Practice § 8:9, at 8-55 to -57 (3d ed. 2006).

Plaintiffs have traditionally loved medical monitoring in part because they think that class certification may come more readily given their alleged ability to use epidemiological or group or aggregate proof to establish some the elements of the medical monitoring claim.  That is why it is significant that the Third Circuit recognized that plaintiffs' aggregate proof in the form of exposure isopleths did not reflect that different persons may have different levels of exposure based on biological factors or individual activities over the class period. Factors which affect a person's exposure to toxins can include activity level, age, sex, and genetic make-up. See Federal Judicial Center, Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence 430 (2d ed. 2000).  For example, some people will have higher breathing rates per body weight which would create a disparity between the concentrations of vinyl chloride (based on estimated exposure as opposed to actual exposure).
Each person's work, travel, and recreational habits may have affected their level of exposure to vinyl chloride. Differences in the amount of time spent outside the village would create different average concentrations to which the class members were exposed. A person who worked outside the village would have been exposed less than a stay-at-home parent, or retiree. The isopleths approach simply assumed exposure to the same concentration for class members who may have spent very different amounts of time in the village.

6) Significant Increased Risk

Plaintiffs were unable to prove a concentration of vinyl chloride that would create a significant risk of contracting a serious latent disease for all class members. Nor was there common proof that could establish the danger point for all class members. The court rejected plaintiffs' attempted use of a regulatory threshold by the EPA -- for mixed populations of adults and children—as a proper standard for determining liability under tort law. Even if the regulatory standard were a correct measurement of the aggregate threshold, it would not be the threshold for each class member who may be more or less susceptible to diseases from exposure to vinyl chloride.  Although the positions of regulatory policymakers are relevant in litigation, their risk assessments are not necessarily conclusive in determining what risk an exposure presents to specified individuals. See Federal Judicial Center, Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence 413 (2d ed. 2000) (“While risk assessment information about a chemical can be somewhat useful in a toxic tort case, at least in terms of setting reasonable boundaries as to the likelihood of causation, the impetus for the development of risk assessment has been the regulatory process, which has different goals.”); id. at 423 (“Particularly problematic are generalizations made in personal injury litigation from regulatory positions. . . . [I]f regulatory standards are discussed in toxic tort cases to provide a reference point for assessing exposure levels, it must be recognized that there is a great deal of variability in the extent of evidence required to support different regulations.”).  Plaintiffs proposed a single concentration without accounting for the age of the class member being exposed, the length of exposure, other individual factors such as medical history, or showing the exposure was so toxic that such individual factors are irrelevant. The Third Circuit concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding individual issues on this point make trial as a class unfeasible, defeating cohesion.

7) Necessity of Monitoring

Nor did the lower court abuse its discretion in determining individual issues defeat cohesion with respect to whether the proposed monitoring regime is reasonably medically necessary. Many courts have been skeptical that the necessity for individuals' medical monitoring regimes can be proven on a class basis. See Barnes, 161 F.3d at 146; see Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation § 2.04 reporter‟s notes cmt. b, at 126 (2010). Plaintiffs' experts had no compelling answer to the point that the negative health effects of screening may outweigh any potential benefits. For example, the proposed regime of serial MRIs would be contraindicated and potentially risky because the contrast agent used for MRIs poses dangers to those with kidney disease.

8) Certification under (b)(3)

Courts have generally denied certification of medical monitoring classes when individual questions involving causation and damages predominate over (and are more complex than) common issues such as whether defendants released the offending chemical into the environment. See In re St. Jude Med., Inc., 522 F.3d 836, 840 (8th Cir. 2008).  Here, the same the inquiries into whether class members were exposed above background levels, whether class members faced a significantly increased risk of developing a serious latent disease, and whether a medical monitoring regime was reasonably medically necessary all required considering individual proof of class members' specific circumstances.  Common issues did not predominate.

 

 
 

State Supreme Court Holds Causation Evidence Insufficient

The Vermont Supreme Court recently held that a plaintiff's evidence that exposure to benzene allegedly caused his cancer was insufficient to get to the jury.  Blanchard v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.,  No. 2010-250 (Vt. 8/5/11).

Plaintiff was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and he attributed the onset of the disease to benzene exposure that allegedly occurred between 1968 and 1973 while he was a teenager playing on a ball field on the grounds of the former Goodyear rubber manufacturing plant. That  plant operated in Windsor, Vermont from 1936 to 1986. He sued, alleging that the field itself was polluted and that there was a gully in the outfield that transported foul-smelling and oily stormwater discharge away from the manufacturing plant.

Defendants moved for summary judgment. The lower court concluded that plaintiff was not entitled to present his case to a jury because he had provided insufficient evidence to support an inference that he had been exposed to benzene in any amount, let alone an amount that could have caused his illness, nor sufficient expert testimony sufficient to eliminate other potential causes of his disease. On appeal, plaintiff argued that his circumstantial evidence of causation was sufficient to present his case to the jury.

The state Supreme Court noted that the plaintiff could not survive the motion for summary judgment on his toxic tort claim unless he was able to point to evidence suggesting a probability, rather than a mere possibility, that (1) he was exposed to the specified chemical at a level that could have caused his physical condition (general causation); and (2) the exposure to that chemical did in fact result in the condition (specific causation).  In a toxic tort case, general causation addresses whether a substance is capable of causing a particular injury or condition in a population, while specific causation addresses whether a substance caused a particular individual's alleged injury. E.g., King v. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Ry. Co., 762 N.W.2d 24, 34 (Neb. 2009). General causation is typically shown through epidemiological studies, and plaintiffs in toxic exposure cases in Vermont generally must demonstrate specific causation by submitting evidence concerning the amount, duration, intensity, and frequency of exposure. Citing  Henricksen v. ConocoPhillips Co., 605 F. Supp. 2d 1142, 1157 (E.D. Wash. 2009) (citing several appellate court cases holding that experts testifying as to specific causation must pay careful attention to amount, intensity, and duration of exposure).

The court recognized that in some toxic tort cases it is impossible to quantify exposure with hard proof, such as the presence of the alleged toxic substance in the plaintiff's blood or tissue and the precise amount of the toxic substance to which an individual plaintiff was exposed. Plourde v. Gladstone, 190 F. Supp. 2d 708, 721 (D. Vt. 2002).  Therefore, expert testimony on toxic injuries may be admissible where dosage or exposure levels have been established through sufficient reliable circumstantial evidence. While it is not always necessary for a plaintiff to quantify exposure levels precisely, the courts generally preclude experts from testifying as to specific causation without having any some measurement or reasonable estimate of a  plaintiff's exposure to the allegedly harmful substance. Finally, a defendant's concession that its product contains a carcinogen, say benzene, does not excuse a plaintiff from having to show the benzene contained in defendant's product is capable of causing the illness at issue.

When direct evidence of the precise amount of exposure to a toxic substance is limited, some courts have allowed expert witnesses to use a differential diagnosis process as a method of proving specific causation. We have posted before about the mis-use and mischaracterization of this process.  Differential diagnosis is a scientific analysis entailing the weighing of relevant evidence, listing all likely explanations of the patient's observed symptoms or injury, then eliminating all but one.  Some courts have made the leap from allowing the process designed to arrive at a diagnosis (what disease caused the symptoms) to arrive at a cause (what substance caused the disease). However, said the state court, even the courts that do recognize differential diagnosis are reluctant to admit causation testimony based on a differential diagnosis where the proffered expert possesses only weak circumstantial evidence that some exposure occurred and makes insufficient effort to scientifically evaluate or estimate the degree of exposure or dosage. Also, and significantly, standing alone, the presence of a known risk factor is not a sufficient basis for ruling out idiopathic origin in a particular case, particularly where most cases of the disease have no known cause. In such cases, analysis beyond a differential diagnosis is required.

Here, plaintiff pointed to three bits of circumstantial evidence. First, he offered statements made by himself and boyhood friends concerning their alleged exposure to chemicals from the Goodyear plant when they were teenagers playing ball on a field adjoining the plant.  Second, plaintiff relied on the testimony of the project manager for an environmental firm hired by Goodyear in 2007 to conduct a site investigation in response to a clean-up agreement reached by Goodyear and the State of Vermont. The 2009 report stemming from the investigation listed contaminants of concern, including petroleum products containing benzene, that could have been released into the environment. Third, plaintiff relies upon the testimony of his two experts, who testified that occupational exposure to benzene is generally associated with a risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and that plaintiff's cancer was not caused by an immunodeficiency disorder, one of the known causes of that form of cancer.

That evidence "falls well short" of what plaintiff would be required to show in order to prevail in a jury trial. Indeed, if a jury were to find in favor of plaintiff on the evidence relied upon by plaintiff, said the court, "we would have to overturn the verdict." In the end, plaintiff's suspicion that his cancer was caused by exposure to benzene on the Goodyear ball field when he was a teenager was purely speculative. There was no way to know whether any benzene-containing product actually contaminated the ball field.  And there was no evidence indicating the amount or concentration of benzene that was present, even assuming some was. Nor was there any evidence indicating plaintiff's level of exposure to any benzene that may have been present on the field. Nor was plaintiff able to point to studies indicating a risk of cancer posed by exposure to limited amounts of benzene from petroleum products in an outside environment.  

Further, plaintiff could not rely upon differential diagnosis to overcome the complete lack of evidence as to the level of any exposure to benzene. A large percentage of cases of plaintiff's type of lymphoma are of unknown origin. Thus plaintiff's experts could not rule out all other causes, an essential part of the differential diagnosis.  E.g., Whiting v. Boston Edison Co., 891 F. Supp. 12, 21 n.41 (D. Mass. 1995) (concluding that differential diagnosis cannot be used to explain disease where 90% of cases of disease are of unknown origin).
 

State Court Finds No Duty to Spouse of Exposed Worker

Delaware's supreme court held last month that an employer owes no duty of care to an employee's spouse, who allegedly contracted asbestos-related disease from exposure to her spouse's work clothes. Price v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., No. 719, 2009 (Del. 7/11/11).

Bobby Price worked as a maintenance technician in defendant's facility from 1957 until 1991. During his employment, Mr. Price allegedly worked with and around products containing asbestos. Allegedly, Mr. Price transported asbestos fibers home on his clothing, vehicle, and skin. Patricia Price, his wife, alleged that years of living with her husband, and handling and washing his work clothes, exposed her to the fibers. Mrs. Price claimed to suffer from bilateral interstitial fibrosis and bilateral pleural thickening of the lungs. These maladies, she claimed, stemmed directly from her exposure to the asbestos dust and fibers her husband brought home from work.

Plaintiff sued, alleging that the company wrongfully released asbestos from its plant and that she was a reasonably foreseeable victim of its asserted misconduct. 

To prevail on a negligence claim under Delaware law, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant owed her a duty of care, the respondent breached that duty, and the breach proximately caused an injury. Whether a duty exists is a question of law, typically. To determine whether one party owed another a duty of care, Delaware courts look to the Restatement (Second) of Torts for guidance.  Negligent conduct involves either (1) an act which the actor as a reasonable person should recognize as involving an unreasonable risk of causing an invasion of an interest of another (described in some cases as misfeasance), or (2) a failure to do an act which is necessary for the protection or assistance of another and which the actor is under a duty to do (sometimes described as nonfeasance).

Plaintiffs moved to amend the complaint to state a claim based on an asserted theory of misfeasance—that the release of asbestos was carried into a worker's home — rather than a claim of nonfeasance based on a failure to warn. The Delaware court noted that in the case of misfeasance, the party who does an affirmative act owes a general duty to others to exercise reasonable care, but, in the case of nonfeasance, the party who merely omits to act owes no general duty to others unless there is a "special relationship" between the actor and the other which gives rise to the duty.

DuPont contended that as a matter of substance the amended complaint really alleged  nonfeasance—not misfeasance. Again, in order to recover for nonfeasance, a plaintiff must specifically allege a “special relationship” between herself and the defendant. Having not alleged any “special relationship” in this case, DuPont argued, Price’s amendments were futile because they failed to state a claim as a matter of law.

The court noted that Price’s allegations, stripped of all reformatory re-characterization, were that: (1) Mr. Price, an employee of defendant, worked with and around products containing asbestos for 34 years, (2) asbestos fibers settled on his skin, clothing, and vehicle, (3) defendant allegedly did not provide locker rooms, uniforms, or warnings to the Prices regarding the dangers of asbestos, (4) defendant did not prevent Mr. Price from transporting the asbestos fibers home on his skin, clothing, and vehicle, and (5) Mrs. Price, because she lived with Mr. Price and washed his clothes, developed disease. These alleged acts were pure nonfeasance—nothing more. Dupont’s alleged failures to prevent Mr. Price from taking asbestos fibers home or to warn the Prices about the dangers of asbestos did not rise to the level of affirmative misconduct required to allege a claim of misfeasance. No amount of semantics can turn nonfeasance into misfeasance or
vice versa.

Having alleged only nonfeasance, Price needed to allege that a “special relationship” existed between her and DuPont in order for DuPont to owe her a duty of care. But the relationship between Mrs. Price and DuPont did not fit any of the recognized “special relationships”
giving rise to a duty to aid or protect. Just because her husband worked for DuPont for over thirty years, or DuPont provided health insurance to her as Mr. Price’s spouse, or DuPont sponsored company picnics and participated in programs promoting a "family friendly" workplace, a special relationship did not exist. 

The plaintiff's bar has been aggressive in efforts to create new methods of recovery from asbestos exposures -- new defendants, new legal theories, new injuries, new plaintiffs. For once, a court has put the brakes on this seemingly endless expansion. 

 


 

Dukes Applied to Reconsideration of Class Certification

A state court recently denied the motion of a group of Michigan residents to certify a class action regarding their dioxin claims against Dow Chemical Co. See Henry v. Dow Chemical Co., No. 03-47775-NZ (Saginaw County, Mich., Cir. Ct.,  7/18/11).

Here at MassTortDefense we typically focus on appellate decisions, but we thought it interesting that this court relied heavily on the Supreme Court's decision in Dukes v. Wal-Mart  to re-analyze the prerequisites for class certification under state law.

Plaintiffs live in an area along the Tittabawassee River near Dow's plant in Midland, and allege their properties were contaminated by dioxin from the plant.

The trial court originally certified a class, and on appeal the Michigan Supreme Court vacated the decision and remanded the issue in 2009, calling for the trial court to clarify its evaluative framework, particularly for the general prerequisites of typicality, adequacy, and commonality.

On remand, the court concluded that Dukes has “far-reaching implications for certification of class action lawsuits, including the present case.”  Accordingly the court “must reanalyze whether the commonality prerequisite to class certification was satisfied in this case."


Relying on the Supreme Court analysis in Dukes, the court changed its mind and denied certification based on a failure by plaintiffs to establish the commonality element, because of the absence of a “glue” to hold all of the plaintiffs’ claims together. The only common issue, said the court, was whether the defendant negligently released the chemical, so whether and how each class member was injured involved a highly individualized inquiry regarding issues such as the level and type of contamination allegedly on the specific properties, the different remediation needs of the properties, and the varying stages of ongoing remediation.

Similarly, even under the nuisance claim, it was clear that individual plaintiffs used and enjoyed their properties in different ways. “Whether plaintiffs have suffered an interference with or loss of use and enjoyment of their property requires an individualized factual inquiry into each plaintiff’s use and enjoyment of their property.”

The court rejected plaintiffs' argument that the allegation of "one defendant" with a supposedly singular act of pollution in "one discrete geographic area" distinguished this case from the Supreme Court's commonality concerns in the discrimination context. 

In light of the commonality failing, the court did not reach the reconsideration of the other factors, such as typicality and adequacy.

 


 

Dismissal of Bellwether Case in FEMA MDL Upheld

The plaintiff who at one time had been the first-in-line bellwether plaintiff in the FEMA Trailer MDL has lost her appeal of the dismissal of her claims. In Re: Fema Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litigation (Alana Alexander, plaintiff), No. 10-30451(5th Cir. June 24, 2011).

Plaintiffs sued the government, alleging exposure to potentially dangerous, high levels of formaldehyde in their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency housing unit. Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA provided EHUs to the displaced victims of the storms. The hurricanes’ destruction created an urgent and immediate need for an unprecedented number of EHUs. In response, FEMA purchased more than 140,000 new EHUs from manufacturers and dealers. Alexander and her children were among the Louisiana residents who received an EHU. The Alexander family moved into their EHU in May 2006 and almost immediately noticed a “chemical smell” in the unit that caused the children's asthma to worsen. Other physical manifestations allegedly  included  irritation, burning, and tearing of the eyes; irritation and burning of nasal membranes; eczema; headaches; difficulty breathing; wheezing; shortness of breath; and new allergies and worsening allergies.

Alexander admitted that she knew the smell came from the EHU. Shortly after moving in, Alexander claimed, she asked an unidentified Government representative or contractor about  the smell. She claimed that he told her that that the smell was “nothing to worry about.”

In July, 2008, Alexander submitted an administrative claim with FEMA and in early 2009 filed a complaint in the district court, alleging under the Federal Tort Claims Act that the Government was careless, reckless, grossly negligent, and acted with deliberate indifference by failing to disclose the exposure to potentially dangerous and high levels of formaldehyde in the trailers.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint as untimely (in cases where the government has waived sovereign immunity, the statute of limitations issue is jurisdictional). Although the FTCA does not define when a claim accrues, it is well-settled that a tort action under the FTCA accrues when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the alleged injury that is the basis of the action. The trial court dismissed the case, and plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, Alexander argued that the accrual of her claim was delayed or tolled pursuant to either: (1) the discovery rule, (2) equitable estoppel, or (3) the continuing tort doctrine. The 5th Circuit found these arguments were without merit.

There was no dispute that Alexander was aware of the injuries by May 2006. When the family moved into the trailer in May 2006, almost immediately, the asthma worsened, and the kids
experienced a plethora of other health issues. The primary dispute was thus whether  Alexander knew or in the exercise of reasonable diligence should have discovered the cause of the  injuries such that her claim accrued at that time.

Plaintiff claimed she did not discover the Government’s role in the alleged injuries until July 2007, when FEMA issued its second round of flyers about formaldehyde emissions in the EHUs. This argument was "not convincing."  The court of appeals held that plaintiff had enough information regarding the injury and its cause by May 2006 that would lead a reasonable person in plaintiff's  position to further investigate the specific cause of that injury. All the facts were not in the control of the putative defendant, unavailable to the plaintiff or at least very difficult to obtain. Plaintiff could have established FEMA’s connection to the EHU, from which the “chemical smell” was emanating.

Second, plaintiff argued that because she reasonably relied on the claims of the representative that there was “nothing to worry about,” the limitations period should be equitably tolled. Because the limitations periods in statutes waiving sovereign immunity are jurisdictional, the district court properly held that equitable tolling did not apply to this case. 

Finally, Plaintiff could not cite any Fifth Circuit case law indicating that accrual should be delayed when the plaintiff knows about the injury and could have discovered, with a reasonable inquiry, the putative defendant’s, here the Government’s, potential liability. The court thus declined the invitation to apply the continuing tort doctrine to the facts presented in this case.

Supreme Court Decides Global Warming Case

In the third of our trilogy this week, let's take a look at the Supreme Court's decision in  American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. 6/20/11).

Readers may recall from our previous posts that in 2004, two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing, and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources.

Plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, the Second Circuit held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced. In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract. Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated.

An equally divided Court affirmed the Second Circuit’s exercise of jurisdiction. (Justice Sotomayor took no part in the consideration or decision of this case because of her participation in the 2d Circuit.). But the Court then held that  the Clean Air Act displaces any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants. It was an academic question whether, in the absence of the Clean Air Act and the EPA actions the Act authorizes, the plaintiffs could state a federal common law claim for curtailment of greenhouse gas emissions because of their alleged contribution to global warming -- because any such claim would be displaced by the federal legislation authorizing EPA to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions.

When Congress addresses a question previously governed by a decision rested on federal common law, the Court explained, the need for such an unusual exercise of law making by federal courts disappears. Legislative displacement of federal common law does not require the same sort of evidence of a clear and manifest Congressional purpose demanded for preemption of state law.  The Court thus held that the Clean Air Act, and the EPA actions it authorizes, displace any federal common law right to seek abatement of carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel fired power plants. Precedent made plain that emissions of carbon dioxide qualify as air pollution subject to regulation under the Act, and it was equally plain that the Act “speaks directly” to emissions of carbon dioxide from the defendants’ plants.

If EPA did not set emissions limits for a particular pollutant or source of pollution, States and private parties could always petition for a rulemaking on the matter, and EPA’s response would be reviewable in federal court. The Act itself thus provides a means to seek limits on emissions of carbon dioxide from domestic power plants—the same relief the plaintiffs were seeking by invoking federal common law. The Court saw no room for "a parallel track."

The plaintiffs argued that federal common law should not be displaced until EPA actually exercises its regulatory authority, i.e., until it sets standards governing emissions from the defendants’ plants. The Court disagreed. The critical point was that Congress delegated to EPA the decision whether and how to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants; the delegation is what displaces federal common law.

Interestingly, although the split-court did not change the jurisdictional ruling, the Court did note that the appropriate amount of regulation in any particular greenhouse gas-producing sector cannot be prescribed in a vacuum: as with other questions of national or international policy, informed assessment of competing interests is required. Along with the environmental benefit potentially achievable, our Nation’s energy needs and the possibility of economic disruption must weigh in the balance.  The Clean Air Act entrusts such complex balancing to EPA in the first instance, in combination with state regulators. It was "altogether fitting" that Congress designated an expert agency, here, EPA, as best suited to serve as primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions. "The expert agency is surely better equipped to do the job than individual district judges issuing ad hoc, case-by-case injunctions."  A statement that sounds alot like defendant's jurisdictional argument. 

The Court went on: federal judges lack the scientific, economic, and technological resources an agency can utilize in coping with issues of this order. Judges may not commission scientific studies or convene groups of experts for advice, or issue rules under notice-and-comment procedures inviting input by any interested person, or seek the counsel of regulators in the States where the defendants are located. Rather, judges are confined by a record comprising the evidence the parties present. Moreover, federal district judges, sitting as sole adjudicators, lack authority to render precedential decisions binding other judges. 

Notwithstanding these disabilities, the plaintiffs proposed that individual federal judges determine, in the first instance, what amount of carbon-dioxide emissions is “unreasonable,” and then decide what level of reduction is “practical, feasible and economically viable.” These determinations would be made for the defendants named in the litigation, and then similar suits could be mounted against thousands of other defendants fitting the plaintiffs' description “large contributors” to carbon-dioxide emissions.

Thus, since the decision turned on the displacement by Congressional designation of EPA as the prime decision-maker on regulation of emissions, if efforts underway in Congress to take away EPA's authority succeed, this may affect future global warming cases.  The Court also declined to decide the plaintiffs’ state-law claims, leaving that battle for another day.  Nevertheless, the issues of judicial competence and discretion highlighted by the Court may serve to deter federal judges from making environmental policy under any substantive law.  Also left open is whether a State may sue to abate any and all manner of pollution originating outside its borders.

State Appeals Court Rejects Medical Monitoring

The Wisconsin court of appeals last week affirmed the dismissal of a plaintiff's medical monitoring complaint for failure to state a claim.  Alsteen v. Wauleco Inc.,  No. 2010AP1643 (Wis. Ct. App., 6/14/11).

Plaintiff alleged that, while living in a nearby neighborhood, she was exposed to carcinogenic
chemicals that defendant Wauleco allegedly released from the Crestline window factory. Alsteen did not allege that she suffered any present health problems due to this exposure; however, she contended she was at an increased risk of developing cancer in the future. She therefore sought damages for future medical monitoring expenses.

From approximately 1946 to 1986, operations at the Crestline site included treatment of wood products with a preservative called “Penta.”  Plaintiff alleged that Penta contains hazardous chemicals, including dioxins, pentachlorophenol, and benzene. These chemicals, plaintiff asserted, are harmful to human health and some are classified as possible carcinogens. As a result, the air, soil, surface water, and groundwater in her River Street neighborhood allegedly  became contaminated with dangerous levels of these hazardous chemicals. Current and former residents of the neighborhood had ingested, inhaled, and absorbed these chemicals, the complaint averred.

Some neighbors sued for personal injuries; others sued for property damage.  A third group, including plaintiff, sued for medical monitoring.  Readers know we have posted on medical monitoring issues before.

The trial court dismissed the action for failure to state a claim.  The key issue on appeal was whether Wisconsin law recognized a cause of action for medical monitoring, for increased risk of future disease in the absence of present injury. The court of appeals affirmed, relying on Wisconsin case law that requires actual injury before a plaintiff may recover in tort;  on the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision in Metro-North Commuter Railroad Co. v. Buckley, 521 U.S. 424 (1997)(asymptomatic railroad worker who had been exposed to asbestos could not recover medical monitoring expenses under FELA); and on the persuasive reasoning of courts in several other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue and have articulated sound policy reasons for refusing to recognize medical monitoring claims in the absence of actual injury.

Increased risk of future harm is not an actual injury under Wisconsin law.  Meracle v. Children’s Service Society of Wisconsin, 149 Wis. 2d 19, 437 N.W.2d 532 (1989), and mere exposure to a chemical is not an affront to plaintiff's body that constitutes an actual injury. Dyer v. Blackhawk Leather, LLC, 313 Wis. 2d 803, 758 N.W.2d 167 (2008).  The court recognized that while medical monitoring in essence substitutes the increased risk of future disease for the traditional tort injury element, this argument is inconsistent with Wisconsin law, which requires plaintiffs to prove present injury. This "argument turns tort law on its head by using the remedy sought —compensation for future medical monitoring — to define the alleged injury."  See also Henry v. Dow Chem. Co., 701 N.W.2d 684, 691 (Mich. 2005). Similarly, other courts have rejected the argument that the "need" for medical monitoring itself is an injury, reasoning, “With no injury there can be no cause of action, and with no cause of action there can be no recovery. It is not the remedy that supports the cause of action, but rather the cause of action that supports a remedy.” Wood v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 82 S.W.3d 849, 855 (Ky. 2002).

The state court also found persuasive the worries of the Supreme Court in Buckley: First, it recognized that medical monitoring claims present  special difficulties for judges and juries who will be forced to identify which costs are the extra monitoring costs, over and above those otherwise recommended. This problem is compounded by uncertainty among medical professionals about just which tests are most usefully administered and when. The Court also expressed concern that permitting a medical monitoring claim without actual injury could lead to unlimited and  unpredictable liability.

Importantly, the state court here recognized that many of the policy concerns identified in Buckley also apply in the context of a court-supervised medical monitoring fund (as opposed to damages). Specifically, the Supreme Court’s concerns regarding the difficulty of assessing the costs of the remedy, unlimited and unpredictable liability, and confusion over application of secondary sources of payment, apply regardless of the form of remedy.

Finally the court aligned itself with the trend in recent cases around the country to reject such claims: E.g., Henry, 701 N.W.2d 684; Hinton v. Monsanto Co., 813 So. 2d 827 (Ala. 2001); Lowe v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 183 P.3d 181(Or. 2008); Badillo v. American Brands, Inc., 16 P.3d 435 (Nev. 2001); Paz v. Brush Eng’d Materials, Inc., 949 So. 2d 1, 3, 5 (Miss. 2007).

The court accordingly refused to “step into the legislative role and mutate otherwise sound legal
principles” by creating a new medical monitoring claim that does not require actual injury.

 

.

 

Third Circuit Upholds Exclusion of Plaintiff's Causation Expert

The Third Circuit last week affirmed the exclusion of expert testimony in a toxic tort suit in which plaintiff alleged defendants' insecticide products gave him non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Pritchard v. Dow AgroSciences, et al., No.10-2168 (3d Cir. 2011).

Plaintiff claimed that he contracted cancer from a pesticide produced by defendant Dow AgroSciences. His wife claimed to have suffered derivative injuries. In support of their complaint, the Pritchards solicited the expert testimony of Dr. Bennet I. Omalu, who provided the District Court with a report and, later, a declaration, stating that Dursban caused the cancer.  Although the trial court found Dr. Omalu to be a qualified expert, it ruled (on Dow's motion) that his proposed testimony was unreliable and therefore inadmissible at trial under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, 509 U.S. 579 (1993). The exclusion of Dr. Omalu's testimony doomed the lawsuit, because plaintiffs had no other evidence of causation.  Plaintiffs appealed.

The appeal tried to raise the issues surrounding the intersection of federal law, rules of evidence underlying Daubert, and state law, which supplies the elements of a claim (including causation) in a diversity case. Plaintiffs argued that in the course of finding that Dr. Omalu's testimony was unreliable, the District Court erroneously relied on principles that were supposedly at odds with state (Pennsylvania) substantive law governing the level of certainty required to establish causation, having to do with idiopathic disease and epidemiological studies.

It is true that the trial court noted that Dr. Omalu did not rule out unknown or idiopathic causes; that the court considered the fact that the epidemiological study on which the doctor wished to rely showed only a relative risk of 2.0; and that the court observed that the proposed testimony was not grounded in science as Dr. Omalu has not presented any statistically significant evidence showing an association between the chemical agent at issue and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. See Pritchard v. Dow Agro Sciences, 705 F. Supp. 2d 471, 492, 486, 493 (W.D. Pa. 2010).

However, the trial court considered these factors among “a host of other deficiencies,” as components of a determination that the proffered testimony failed to satisfy the admissibility standard. The trial court did not adopt any bright-line rules, but instead evaluated the plaintiffs' proffer using a flexible approach as directed by the Court of Appeals in Heller v. Shaw Industries, 167 F.3d 146 (3d Cir. 1999).  This was an evidentiary ruling, separate and distinct from any substantive question regarding causation (which the court never had reason to reach).

Plaintiffs also argued that the court had engaged in some kind of improper balancing of plaintiffs' scientific evidence vs. defendants'. But the district court engaged in no such balancing. Instead, it rightly concluded that Dr. Omalu's proposed testimony was unreliable due to numerous cracks in its scientific foundation.  He cited only one specific study in support of his general causation conclusion that Dursban causes cancer — and in fact, he relied not on the study itself but on his own reinterpretation of the study's findings using a lower confidence interval. (That is, he recalculated the study's conclusions so as to serve plaintiff's litigation needs, said the court.)   Moreover, the plaintiffs offered no clear explanation of the methods through which he recalculated the study's results, leaving the court unable to evaluate the reliability of his methodology.

And the expert's specific causation conclusion that Dursban had caused Mr. Pritchard's illness was not supported by evidence in the medical records, discovery responses, deposition testimony, application records, or any other information regarding Mr. Pritchard's exposure to pesticides.  Significantly, Dr. Omalu also failed to adequately address possible alternative causes of the cancer.

Accordingly, the trial committed no error in excluding the expert testimony, and in the absence of proof of causation, the case was properly dismissed. Affirmed.

 

Fracking Meets Medical Monitoring

We have posted before about medical monitoring claims, and recently noted how plaintiff attorneys have cast their eyes on hydraulic fracturing operations as a new source of revenue.

Now let's see how they combine: some Pennsylvania residents are suing various drilling companies over hydraulic fracturing operations, alleging that such operations have increased their risk of future disease such that they need medical monitoring.  Fiorentino v. Cabot Oil & Gas Co., et al., No. 3:09-cv-02284 (M.D. Pa.).  Plaintiffs seek a medical monitoring trust fund, paid for by the drillers.

The case is in the discovery stages, and defendants, logically, are seeking medical records of the plaintiffs.  Those not familiar with medical monitoring may wonder why medical records would be relevant regarding those plaintiffs who do not allege a traditional present physical injury but only the risk of future injury.  Indeed, plaintiffs earlier this month filed a motion seeking to block defendants from obtaining the medical records.  

However, defendants correctly point out in response that, in Pennsylvania, plaintiffs must prove all of the following elements to succeed on a claim for medical monitoring:
(1) exposure greater than the normal background levels;
(2) to a proven hazardous substance;
(3) caused by the defendant’s negligence;
(4) as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease;
(5) a monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible;
(6) the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and
(7) the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonable necessary according to contemporary scientific
principles.
Redland Soccer Club, Inc. v. Dep’t of Army & Dep’t of Def. of U.S., 696 A.2d 137, 195-96 (Pa. 1997).

At the least, medical records are relevant to the sixth element, namely that “the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure.” For example, a plaintiff might already be undergoing testing because of an existing medical condition, or already be a candidate for screening because of other risk factors in his life, such as occupational exposure to toxins or a family history of disease or genetic risk factors, all
requiring their own medical monitoring regime which may overlap the claimed monitoring regime for the alleged exposure in this case. Without medical records, a medical monitoring defendant is denied a fair opportunity to attack plaintiff's proof on this element and to show a plaintiff is not able to satisfy the sixth element of the Redland test -- and, therefore, not prove a claim for medical monitoring. See, e.g., Barnes v. American Tobacco Co., 984 F. Supp. 842, 871-72 (E.D. Pa. 1997).

While arising here in a discovery context, this issue also is relevant to class certification claims in medical monitoring cases, as the individualized nature of the medical monitoring remedy demands that each plaintiff be evaluated to determine whether the medical monitoring on account of the alleged exposure to the class called for by plaintiff experts is any different from the medical monitoring a plaintiff is or should be receiving because of the separate and existing risk factors currently facing an individual proposed class member.  Such an individual issue weighs heavily against class certification.

In any event, several courts have found that a defendant is entitled to the records. See O’Connor v. Boeing North American, Inc., 185 F.R.D. 272, 283 (C.D. Cal. 1999);  Cook v. Rockwell Int’l Corp., 147 F.R.D. 237, 242 (D. Colo. 1993).

Appeals Court Upholds Summary Judgment Based on Daubert in Benzene Case

The Sixth Circuit last week upheld the dismissal of a plaintiff''s claim that benzene exposure caused her cancer. Pluck v. BP Oil Pipeline Co., No. 09-4572 (6th Cir.,  5/12/11).  The central issue was the exclusion of plaintiff's causation expert's opinion based on a "differential diagnosis" that failed to reliably rule in benzene exposure as a potential cause of plaintiff's cancer, and to rule out some other potential exposures.

This case arose from benzene contamination allegedly caused by gas-pipeline releases allegedly resulting in the seepage of gasoline into the surrounding soil and groundwater. Benzene, a component of gasoline, is a known carcinogen in sufficient doses under certain exposure circumstances, and is also ubiquitous in the ambient air and is a component or constituent of vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke, said the court. Plaintiffs purchased a home in the area,  and used well water to drink, wash, shower, and irrigate their yard and garden. In October,  1996, plaintiffs say they noticed a gasoline odor in their home and water, and benzene was first detected in the well on their property in the amount of 3.6 parts per billion (“ppb”).  They began drinking bottled water in lieu of tap water, although they claim to have resumed drinking tap water upon the drilling of a new, deeper well. Between 1997 and May 2002, the new well tested negative for benzene twenty-two times.

Mrs. Pluck was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma (“NHL”) in 2002 at age forty-eight. She filed suit, alleging claims of strict liability for hazardous activity, negligence, and loss of consortium. To support their claims, plaintiff and spouse retained Drs. Joseph Landolph and James Dahlgren as experts on causation to demonstrate that benzene is generally capable of causing NHL and specifically caused Mrs. Pluck’s NHL. Defendant filed motions in limine to exclude the testimony of Dahlgren and Landolph on the grounds that their testimony failed to satisfy the standard for reliability set forth in Daubert. In particular, BP argued that Dr. Dahlgren’s testimony on specific causation was unreliable because he formulated a specific causation opinion without evidence of dose, and subsequently performed an unreliable dose reconstruction in an attempt to support his opinion.  Dahlgren then submitted a supplemental declaration in which he evaluated Mrs. Pluck’s illness under a "differential-diagnosis" methodology. The district court granted the motions, and plaintiff appealed.

In a toxic tort case, as here, the plaintiff must establish both general and specific causation through proof that the toxic substance is capable of causing, and did cause, the plaintiff’s alleged injury.  As to specific causation, the plaintiff must show that she was exposed to the toxic substance and that the level of exposure was sufficient to induce the complained-of medical condition (based on a dose-response relationship). Both causation inquiries involve scientific assessments that must be established through the testimony of a medical expert. Without this testimony, a plaintiff’s toxic tort claim will fail.

The Plucks had to concede that the expert Dr. Dahlgren did not establish dose; they instead argued that Dahlgren used differential diagnosis to determine specific causation. Defendant argued that Dr. Dahlgren did not apply differential diagnosis in either his expert opinion or his deposition, but did so only in an untimely supplemental declaration filed five months after the deadline for expert reports. And in any event, his approach was flawed. The Sixth Circuit has recognized differential diagnosis, properly done, as an appropriate method for making a determination of causation for an individual instance of disease. Differential diagnosis -- originally a standard technique for determining what disease caused a patient's symptoms -- has been adapted in some courts as an acceptable scientific technique for identifying the cause of a medical problem by eliminating the likely causes until the most probable one is isolated. A physician who applies differential diagnosis to determine causation considers all ("rules in") relevant potential causes of the symptoms and then eliminates ("rules out") alternative causes based on a physical examination, clinical tests, and a thorough case history.

Even in courts that accept this adapted method, not every opinion that is reached via a differential-diagnosis method will meet the standard of reliability required by Daubert.  Calling something a “differential diagnosis” or “differential etiology” does not by itself answer the reliability question but prompts at least three more:

(1) Did the expert make an accurate diagnosis of the nature of the disease?

(2) Did the expert reliably rule in the possible causes of it?

(3) Did the expert reliably rule out the rejected causes?

If the court answers “no” to any of these questions, the court must exclude the ultimate conclusion reached.

Here the court agreed that Dahlgren could not reliably “rule in” benzene exposure as the cause of Mrs. Pluck’s NHL. In recognition of the fact that benzene poses a health concern at certain levels of exposure, the EPA has stated that the maximum permissible contaminant level for benzene in
drinking water is 5 ppb. 40 C.F.R. § 141.61(a)(2). Dahlgren, however, did not ascertain Mrs. Pluck’s level of benzene exposure, nor did he determine even whether she was exposed to quantities of benzene exceeding the EPA’s safety regulations. The levels of benzene in the Plucks’ wells never exceeded the maximum permissible contaminant level of 5 ppb designated by the EPA.

Dahlgren’s opinion that Mrs. Pluck’s “low-level exposure” to benzene caused her NHL was thus not grounded in “sufficient facts or data,”  nor did it reflect the “reliable principles and methods” required by Rule 702. It was, instead, pure conjecture.  Although the Plucks argued that the district court required too much specificity regarding Mrs. Pluck’s dose, this argument was also without merit. The mere existence of a toxin in the environment is insufficient to establish causation without proof that the level of exposure incurred could cause the plaintiff’s symptoms. See also McClain v. Metabolife Int’l, Inc., 401 F.3d 1233, 1242 (11th Cir. 2005) (causation “requires not simply proof of exposure to the substance, but proof of enough exposure to cause the plaintiff’s specific illness”).

Finally, even if Dr. Dahlgren had properly “ruled in” benzene exposure as the cause plaintiff's NHL, he failed to “rule out” alternative causes of her illness, as is required under the differential-diagnosis methodology. See also Wills v. Amerada Hess Corp., 379 F.3d 32, 50 (2d Cir. 2004) (expert’s opinion suffered from a “fatal flaw” when he acknowledged that cigarettes and alcohol were risk factors for developing squamous-cell carcinoma but failed to account for these variables in concluding that decedent’s cancer was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals such as benzene and PAHs).  In this case, Dahlgren acknowledged in his deposition that Mrs. Pluck was
exposed to other sources of benzene, from her extensive smoking habit and from other organic solvents.  Yet, Dr. Dahlgren neither identified these other solvents nor determined Mrs. Pluck’s potential level of exposure to these other possible sources of benzene.Thus, Dahlgren failed to “rule out” alternative causes of Mrs. Pluck’s NHL.

The court of appeals determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the expert did not perform a reliable differential diagnosis.  And summary judgment properly followed.

 

New Theory Emerges in Climate Change Litigation

Just as many eyes are focused on the climate change/global warming cases pending in the appellate courts, a group of activist environmentalists have enrolled new plaintiffs to bring an old legal theory into the climate change litigation mix. A case filed last week alleges that the atmosphere is a "public trust resource" and, as such, the government has a duty to act to protect it. See Loorz v. Jackson, No. CV11-2203 (N.D. Cal., 5/4/11).

Plaintiffs are youths, alleged to be "beneficiaries" of the "public trust," including the teenage head of the group, Kids v. Global Warming, which is also a named plaintiff. Defendants are the EPA and numerous federal agencies who allegedly could act to curb greenhouse gas emissions allegedly linked to global warming.

Plaintiffs' complaint contains the well-known litany of alleged effects of global warming, including rising seas, melting glaciers, warming oceans, changing precipitation, all as an alleged result of increasing CO2 levels.  It takes short term readings and phenomena and raises them to the level of global climactic changes, hypotheses into alleged scientific proof.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, on the theory that the atmosphere is a public trust; that under the public trust doctrine, the federal government has a fiduciary duty as trustee to protect the trust for the benefit of the benficiaries (plaintiffs); and that therefore the agencies should be ordered to act to reduce CO2 emissions by 6% a year beginning in 2013.

Thus, the claim moves beyond environmental statutes, such as the Clean Air Act, and tort doctrines such as public nuisance, both of which have been recognized as not applicable by most courts, to an even less applicable theory, the so-called public trust doctrine. This notion has a far more limited reach, with lakes and navigable streams being maintained for drinking, commerce, and recreation purposes under a public-trust doctrine -- or tidal and submerged lands not being given over to private ownership.

Media reports that similar lawsuits are being filed in several other courts, and that petitions for rulemakings by state administrative agencies will be filed in other states.

The cynical use of youthful plaintiffs (aren't we all "beneficiaries"?) may illustrate how clearly the environmental activists sees the challenges of persuading courts on the science and the law, that human emissions of carbon dioxide which comprises less than 0.04 percent of the atmosphere is somehow responsible for hurricanes and every other weather event we experience. 

Whatever the theory alleged, it seems likley that these cases will run headlong into the same issues that derail so much of the global warming agenda, the fact that these cases raise political questions that should be reserved for the political branches of government, not an inidvidual judge. Indeed, the legislative branch, acting within the confines of the common law public trust doctrine, is recognized in the calse law as the ultimate administrator of the trust and often is described as the ultimate arbiter of permissible uses of trust lands.


 

Medical Monitoring Class Actions

Last week I spoke at a CLE seminar on "Chemical Products Liability & Environmental Litigation."  The seminar was ably co-chaired by Ted Ray from ExxonMobil and Eric Sarner from Praxair.

My topic was Medical Monitoring Class Actions, with an emphasis on the trend by plaintiffs to seek (b)(2) certification, describing the money damages they want defendants to pay for future medical testing as some sort of court-supervised program and thus injunctive/equitable in nature.

By popular demand (ok, a handful of requests), I am making some slides on the topic available here.  Hope readers of MassTortDefense find them a useful resource.

Plaintiff's Constitutional Challenge to EMF's Rejected

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit last week upheld the trial court's dismissal of a plaintiff's allegations that several utilities exposed her to high levels of electromagnetic fields in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Barnett v. Carberry,  No.10-1342-cv (2d Cir. 4/20/11).

Here at MassTortDefense we often explore the creative approaches of the plaintiffs' bar.  Here's a real "creative" one.

Plaintiff brought a purported Section 1983 civil rights action against a state licensing agency and  several  utility companies alleging that they exposed her home to unusually high levels of electromagnetic fields ("EMFs") in violation of her property and privacy rights and her rights to due process and equal protection of law.  Barnett claimed that she and her husband suffer from significant health problems allegedly caused by EMF emissions from a power line located 40 feet away from their home. They also allege that their home is now unmarketable.

The district court rejected the federal claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over any pendent state law claims. On appeal, Barnett emphasized that she was not asking the court to declare that there is a constitutional right to a healthful environment. See MacNamara v. Cnty. Council of Sussex Cnty., 738 F. Supp. 134, 141-43 (D. Del.), aff'd, 922 F.2d 832 (3d Cir. 1990). Rather, she was asking that the court recognize that the asserted constitutional right to be safe and secure in one's home includes the right to be free from an "unreasonable" level of EMFs under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

The court of appeals reviewed the relevant case law and, not surprisingly, concluded that no case establishes a constitutional or common-law privacy or property right to be free from an unreasonable level of EMFs.  The related privacy argument asserted, at best, that the government and utilities "failed" to protect her home from EMF emissions -- again never recognized. To the extent that plaintiff  challenged defendants for permitting her home to be "intruded upon" by unreasonably high levels of EMFs, she was forced to concede at argument that no legislature or administrative agency has even determined what levels of EMFs would be "unreasonably high." Indeed, that is a scientific policy question better decided by the legislature than the courts. Cf. City of New Orleans v. Dukes, 427 U.S. 297, 303 (1976) (stating that the judiciary may not "sit as a super-legislature to judge the wisdom or desirability of legislative polic[ies]" in areas that do not implicate fundamental rights or suspect classifications); Cellular Phone Taskforce v. FCC, 205 F.3d 82, 91 (2d Cir. 2000) (characterizing argument that agency should increase safety margin as "a policy question, not a legal one").

Plaintiffs, at least for now, need to stick to conventional tort theories. And defense counsel won't get to practice toxic torts and constitutional law at the same time.

 

Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in Second Circuit "Global Warming" Case

We have posted before about the climate change or so-called global warming litigation. Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in one of the seminal cases in this area, American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10).

Readers will recall that the issues include whether a cause of action to cap carbon dioxide emissions can be implied under federal common law; and whether claims seeking to cap carbon dioxide emissions based on a court's weighing of the potential risks of climate change against the utility of defendants' conduct can be adjudicated through judicially discoverable and manageable standards, and whether they could ever be resolved without  the policy determinations clearly of a kind judges should not be making. (Justice Sotomayor, on the panel below, was recused.)

Extended time was given. The Court did not seem persuaded by the arguments of the defendants and the Justice Department that the case should be thrown out on procedural  grounds.  But on the merits, there appeared to be much skepticism about how a district court could ever proceed to a final decision in these kinds of cases.  Counsel for plaintiffs, the six states, had great difficulty  describing how to get there from here, how to have a manageable lawsuit against a small group of greenhouse gas emitters (among the billions of sources), and one focused on alleged  emission-reduction technology that they supposedly should have used. Counsel could muster not a single example of a similar suit that had proceeded to resolution.

Justice Ginsburg observed that the relief sought sounds like "the kind of thing EPA does..... You are setting up a District Judge as a kind of ‘super EPA.’”  And the rest of the Court's traditionally liberal wing seemed to suggest that this was an issue for the EPA.  Justice Kagan suggested that the suit overlapped the typical work of regulatory agencies; Justice Breyer asked an interesting hypothetical about whether the trial court could impose a remedy that was in essence a per-ton tax on carbon emissions, and assuming the finding was that this would be cost-effective, it would lead to substitution, it would "actually bring about a world without global warming." Plaintiffs answered in the negative.  But if there is no "power to enter that order, which could be proved to be extremely effective, and least possible harm to the consumer, why does [the court] have the power to enter the order you want?"

Justice Scalia wondered about the slippery slope, and if this suit could proceed against a handful of utilities, why couldn't the states sue every farmer who owned a cow, or every home that emitted from their home HVAC system?

Justice Alito took another approach to the difficulties of the litigation, noting that if a certain reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is ordered, that will increase the cost of electricity by a certain amount, and that will produce certain consequential effects. It will result in the loss of a certain number of jobs; it will mean that consumers will have less money to spend on other products and services; it will mean that some people will not be able to have air conditioning in the summer. That will have health effects on the elderly and people with breathing issues.  "How is the district judge -- what standard does the district judge have to decide those" questions?

Counsel for defendants correctly noted that the states were in essence asking a judge to perform a legislative and regulatory function, and balance a set of issues that is among the most complex, multifaceted, and consequential of any policy issues now before the country.

Chief Justice Roberts observed that a central issue when dealing with global warming is that there are costs and benefits on both sides, and a policy maker has to determine how much to readjust the world economy to address the global warming.  There are inevitable trade-offs. "I think that's a pretty big burden to impose on a district court judge."

Good news for the defendants: none of the eight justices appeared to voice any significant support for the plaintiffs' position.

 

Class Rep Who Dismisses Individual Claim Lacks Standing to Appeal Denial of Certification

A proposed class representative who voluntarily dismisses his individual claims lacks standing to appeal the denial of certification of the class claims, according to the Fourth Circuit.  Rhodes v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., No. 10-1166 (4th Cir.,  4/8/11).

The plaintiffs were residents of the City of Parkersburg in Wood County, West Virginia, and  customers of the Parkersburg City Water Department  which supplied water to homes located in Wood County.  DuPont operated a manufacturing facility in Wood County. For an extended period of time, DuPont’s plant  allegedly discharged perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) into the environment
surrounding the plant. Measurable quantities of PFOA were allegedly detected in the water that is pumped by the Water Department into the plaintiffs’ residences.

In 2006, the plaintiffs filed a complaint against DuPont in the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia. Defendant removed. The plaintiffs asserted six common law claims, individually and on behalf of a class of customers of the Water Department, addressing the contamination of their municipal water supply and the alleged resulting presence of PFOA in their blood. The plaintiffs sought damages and injunctive relief to obtain medical monitoring for latent diseases on behalf of a class of Water Department customers allegedly exposed to PFOA beginning in 2005.

After conducting a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b), the district court concluded that the elements of a medical monitoring claim could not be proved on a class-wide basis using the type of evidence presented by the plaintiffs. The district court therefore denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification of their stand alone medical monitoring claims. The district court further held that the plaintiffs had not met their burden under Rule 23 for certification of a class to pursue medical monitoring relief based on the plaintiffs’ claims of negligence, gross negligence, battery, trespass, and private nuisance, the common law torts. The district court then denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification of the traditional common law tort claims for damages also.

DuPont filed motions seeking summary judgment on all the plaintiffs’ claims. The district court granted in part and denied in part DuPont’s motions. The district court granted DuPont’s
motions with respect to all the plaintiffs’ traditional common law tort claims, Rhodes v. E.I. Du Pont De Nemours and Co., 657 F. Supp. 2d 751, 762-73 (S.D.W. Va. 2009), but denied summary judgment with respect to the plaintiffs’ individual claims of medical monitoring.

Rather than proceed to trial on those remaining individual claims, in order to appeal immediately the adverse summary judgment and certification rulings, the plaintiffs filed a stipulation of voluntary dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1) of their individual claims for medical monitoring.

The court of appeals affirmed the summary judgments, but what will be of more interest to our readers is DuPont’s argument that the 4th Circuit lacked appellate jurisdiction to address the merits of plaintiff’s appeal of the denial of class certification of their medical monitoring claims. DuPont asserted that the plaintiffs no longer had standing to advance this argument on appeal because, by voluntarily dismissing their individual claims for medical monitoring, the plaintiffs abandoned their interest in litigating the certification question. As a result, DuPont contended, the plaintiffs had no personal stake in this issue and did not satisfy the requirements for Article
III standing.

In response, the plaintiffs maintained that litigants routinely are permitted to dismiss various claims in order to appeal other claims and, that under federal precedent, this court could review the denial of class certification for a particular claim even though no plaintiff presently was advancing individual claims asserting that cause of action. The plaintiffs further argued that by its plain terms, their stipulated dismissal applied only to their individual medical monitoring claims. Thus, the plaintiffs contended that they did not abandon their stake in the certification question.

As a general matter, circumstances may change while a case is pending, thereby leaving a plaintiff
without the personal stake necessary to maintain Article III standing. For example, claims can expire, or parties can settle or dismiss their claims entirely. In such situations, the district court or appellate court must dismiss the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. On the other hand, generally, a class representative not only has a "personal stake" in the substantive claim he or she asserts, but also a distinct procedural right to represent the interests of similarly situated individuals. This second, representative interest sometimes gives a putative class representative a sufficient "stake" in the class certification question to appeal an adverse certification ruling even after the putative class representative’s claim is mooted by intervening events.

Two conditions must be met, however, to retain Article III jurisdiction, according to the 4th Circuit. The imperatives of a dispute capable of judicial resolution must be sharply present, and there must be self-interested parties vigorously advocating opposing positions.

Other federal circuit courts addressing this issue have reached different conclusions on the question whether a plaintiff may voluntarily settle or dismiss his or her individual claims and still
appeal a certification denial. Some courts have held that standing is maintained when a named plaintiff expressly reserves the right to appeal a certification denial. See Richards v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 453 F.3d 525 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (express reservation of class claim preserves standing of class
representative to appeal certification denial); Dugas v. Trans Union Corp., 99 F.3d 724 (5th Cir. 1996) (reservation of right sufficient to give putative class representative who settles individual claims standing to appeal denial of class certification). Cf. Narouz v. Charter Commc’ns, LLC, 591 F.3d 1261 (9th Cir. 2010) (putative representative retains standing to appeal unless releases interest in class claims in settlement agreement). Other courts have held that even an express reservation of right is not sufficient to satisfy Article III standing requirements. See Muro v. Target Corp., 580 F.3d 485 (7th Cir. 2009) (recitation in settlement agreement that plaintiff reserves right to appeal denial of class certification not sufficient to create concrete interest in class certification issue); Anderson v. CNH U.S. Pension Plan, 515 F.3d 823 (8th Cir. 2008) (same).

Although several of these cases held that the language of a plaintiff’s settlement agreement is determinative of that plaintiff’s "stake" in an appeal, the 4th Circuit seemed less concerned about the language of the dismissal than the fact of dismissal. It concluded that when a putative
class plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the individual claims underlying a request for class certification, as happened in this case, there is no longer a "self-interested party advocating" for class treatment in the manner necessary to satisfy Article III standing requirements.

The court held that it thus did lack jurisdiction to decide the issue whether the district court abused its discretion in denying the plaintiffs’ request for class certification of their medical monitoring
claims.

Court of Appeals Vacates Class Certification in Toxic Tort Case

The Fifth Circuit has vacated the decision of the trial court in granting class status to a group of plaintiffs alleging that a refinery exposed them to toxic dust. Madison v. Chalmette Refining LLC, No. 10-30368 (5th Cir. 4/4/11).

Back in 2007, a number of schoolchildren, chaperoned by parents and teachers, participated in a historical reenactment at the Chalmette National Battlefield, the site of the January 8, 1815, Battle of New Orleans, the last great battle of the War of 1812 and “the site along the Mississippi River where Andrew Jackson gave the British their comeuppance.” D. BRINKLEY, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America,p. 414 (2009). Adjacent to the battlefield is the Chalmette Refinery, which allegedly released an amount of petroleum coke dust that migrated over the battlefield. Plaintiffs sued on behalf of a class of all persons or entities located at the Chalmette National Battlefield in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, in the early afternoon of Friday, January 12, 2007 and who sustained property damage, personal injuries, emotional, mental, or economic damages and/or inconvenience or evacuation as a result of the incident.

The District Court granted the motion to certify, and defendants appealed. The court of appeals reviews the district court's decision to certify a class for an abuse of discretion. See, e.g., McManus v. Fleetwood Enters., Inc., 320 F.3d 545, 548 (5th Cir. 2003). The decision to certify is within the discretion of the trial court, but that discretion must be exercised within the framework of Rule 23. Castano v. Am. Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 740 (5th Cir. 1996).  The Supreme Court requires district courts to conduct a rigorous analysis of Rule 23 prerequisites.

The crux of this appeal was the legal basis for and sufficiency of evidence supporting the district court’s findings of superiority and predominance under Rule 23(b)(3). Before certifying a class under Rule 23(b)(3), a court must determine that questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy. Determining whether the plaintiffs can clear the predominance hurdle set by Rule 23(b)(3) requires district courts to consider how a trial on the merits would be conducted if a class were certified.

Chalmette Refining cited the advisory committee note to Rule 23(b)(3), which has been quoted numerous times by the Fifth Circuit as highlighting the “relationship between predominance and superiority in mass torts.” See Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 745 n.19 (5th Cir. 1996). According to the note, a  “mass accident” resulting in injuries to numerous persons is ordinarily not appropriate for a class action because of the likelihood that significant questions, not only of damages but of liability and defenses to liability, would be present, affecting the individuals in different ways. In these circumstances an action conducted nominally as a class action would degenerate in practice into multiple lawsuits separately tried.

Here, the district court abused its discretion by failing to afford its predominance determination the “rigorous analysis” that Rule 23 requires. In particular, the district court did not meaningfully consider how plaintiffs’ claims would be tried.  Plaintiffs cited, and the trial court relied on, two cases that are among the very few certifying a tort injury class action. In Watson v. Shell Oil, the court certified a class of over 18,000 plaintiffs seeking damages stemming from an explosion at a Shell plant. 979 F.2d 1014, 1016 (5th Cir. 1992). Notably the court of appeals now clarified that "whether Watson has survived later developments in class action law–embodied in Amchem and its progeny–is an open question."  But even in Watson, the district court had a detailed four-phase plan for trial. Similarly, in Turner v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., the district court granted class certification to a class of plaintiffs who suffered damages resulting from a post-Hurricane Katrina oil storage tank spill. 234 F.R.D. 597, 601 (E.D. La. 2006). Critical to the court’s predominance inquiry was the fact that plaintiffs had submitted a detailed proposed trial plan to the court, calling for bifurcation of certain issues.

In contrast, here there was no analysis or discussion regarding how the court would administer the trial.  Robinson v. Tex. Auto. Dealers Ass’n, 387 F.3d 416, 425–26 (5th Cir. 2004). The court failed to identify the substantive issues that would control the outcome, assess which issues will predominate, and then determine whether the issues are common to the class. Absent this analysis, it was impossible for the court to know whether the common issues would be a significant portion of the individual trials, much less whether the common issues predominate.  Instead, the trial court appears to have "adopted a figure-it-out-as-we-go-along approach." 

Even among the named class representatives, significant disparities existed, in terms of exposure, location, and whether mitigative steps were taken. The primary issues left to be resolved would turn on location, exposure, dose, susceptibility to illness, nature of symptoms, type and cost of medical treatment, and subsequent impact of illnesses on individuals.

 


 

Marital Privilege Over Emails Rejected in Oil Spill Litigation

The massive litigation over the Gulf oil spill has spawned a wide range of significant legal issues.  Here's an interesting little one. The magistrate judge in the MDL has held that a BP drilling engineer cannot assert marital privilege regarding e-mails to his spouse sought by the plaintiffs. In re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL 2179 (E.D. La., 3/28/11).

Mr. Morel was employed by BP as a drilling engineer on the Macondo Well.  Plaintiffs and several defendants wanted to depose him.  The witness asserted the marital privilege as to certain email communications which were produced by BP to the Plaintiff Steering Committee. He contended that 93 documents containing email communications between himself and his wife should be returned to him or destroyed. His wife was a production engineer for BP, with no duties relating to the well. 

All of the email communications at issue were made through their BP email accounts. But the witness urged that: (1) BP permitted the personal use of company email; (2) it did not indiscriminately or randomly monitor its employees’ emails; (3) no third party other than BP had a right to access Mr. Morel’s email account.  The court framed the issue as whether BP’s notification
statements and email policies were sufficient to defeat Mr. Morel’s assertion of the marital privilege over the emails.

BP computer screens included the statement that “[w]ithin the bounds of law, electronic transmissions through internal and external networks may be monitored to ensure compliance with internal policies and legitimate business purposes."  BP’s Code of Conduct Policy provided that: Personal data, information or electronic communications created or stored on company computers or other electronic media such as hand-held devices are not private.

Mr. Morel, however, argued that the determination of privilege should not be made on the basis of the written BP policies but on how those policies were implemented.

There are a number of cases finding that when an employer has a rule prohibiting personal computer use, an employee cannot reasonably expect privacy in their prohibited communications.   Miller v. Blattner, 676 F.Supp.2d 485 (E.D.La. 2009); Thygeson v. U.S. Bankcorp, 2004 WL 2066764 (D. Or.); Kelleher v. City of Reading, 2002 WL 1067442, *8 (E.D. Pa.).

BP had no such prohibition, but BP notified its employees that electronic communications could
be monitored and accessed by BP. There are a few cases indicating that policies short of a prohibition of personal use can defeat an expectation of privacy. Muick v. Glenayre Electronics, 280 F.3d 741 (7th Cir. 2002); United States v. Etkin, 2008 WL 482281 (S.D.N.Y); Sims v. Lakeside School, 2007 WL 2745367, *1 (W.D. Wash.).

Based on these cases, this court found that it was not objectively reasonable for an employee to have an expectation of privacy where the employers’ policies clearly demonstrate that the employee’s electronic communications may be monitored and accessed by the employer; and thus they were subject to production by a subpoena.
 

Plaintiffs Bar Looking to Attack Exploration of Shale Gas

Many of our readers may have seen the recent cover story in Time noting how natural gas from shale rock promises to provide cleaner, abundant energy for the U.S.   While the fuels of the future were often said to be solar, wind, or nuclear (before Japan perhaps?), new drilling methods allow companies to tap into huge quantities of gas from shale rock. New estimates show that we have enough of this natural gas to last 100 years at current consumption rates.

The second biggest natural gas field in the world -- the Marcellus -- runs through your humble blogger's home state of Pennsylvania. The energy, jobs, taxes, and independence that tapping into this domestic resource will bring has spurred much interest and anticipation. The method to extract the gas from the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, which like any technology, carries potential risks.

As detailed in the Legal Intelligencer, however, the potential drilling into the Marcellus Shale has caught the attention of the plaintiffs' bar, including personal injury and environmental class action lawyers.  Plaintiffs lawyers are openly speculating about everything from gas leaks and fires,  to environmental groundwater impacts,  to the problems of large tanker trucks on small rural roadways.

Some plaintiff firms are reportedly trolling for clients, among local residents and workers on Marcellus Shale drill sites as well.

Out west, there has already been litigation filed. See Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp., No. 2011CV2218 (Colo. Dist. Ct., Denver Cty., 3/24/11).  Plaintiffs sued the gas exploration company and drilling equipment contractor, alleging that the hyrdrofracking contaminated their well water. Of more interest to our readers, perhaps, is the count for medical monitoring. Plaintiffs lawyers say they have other case to file, and are quoted as planning other medical monitoring class actions.

Medical monitoring is recognized under Pennsylvania law, and a handful of other states, and a plaintiff must prove:

1. exposure greater than normal background levels;

2. to a proven hazardous substance;

3. caused by the defendant's negligence;

4. as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease;

5. a monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible;

6. the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and

7. the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.

Redland Soccer Club v. Dep't of the Army, 548 Pa. 178, 696 A.2d 137, 145-46 (Pa.1997).

A number of these elements implicate individual issues that should defeat class certification under the predominance or cohesiveness analyses of Rule 23.  Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise to industry that this vital economic activity comes with litigation risks as well.



 

Interesting Case Management Issue in Welding MDL

We have posted about the welding fumes MDL before. Call it case management by option-- as the court has worked through the bellwether trials, it is interesting that the MDL court gave the next-up plaintiff (in the Street trial) a choice.  Plaintiff could either (1) maintain his existing trial date of June 1, 2011, at which trial he may not offer the opinions of his expert Dr. Sanchez-Ramos; or (2) postpone the starting date for trial of his case until on or about November 1, 2011, and the Court would conduct a Daubert hearing on the admissibility of Dr. Sanchez-Ramos’s opinions during the summer of 2011.

Plaintiff Street chose the second option. Accordingly, the MDL Court has set the Daubert hearing to begin on August 24, 2011, with the expectation the hearing will last two days. The parties were directed to negotiate a schedule for briefing, expert depositions, and so on, and provide it to the Special Master as soon as possible. The schedule will include a deadline of April 5, 2011, for provision by Dr. Sanchez-Ramos of a supplemental expert report and literature review list.


Trial of the Street case was accordingly postponed to November 1, 2011. The Court said it will
discuss trial preparation deadlines with the parties during the next case management teleconference.  In re Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation,  No. 1:03-CV-17000 (N.D. Ohio, 3/25/11).  

Jury Rejects Medical Monitoring Claim in Coal Dust Litigation

A West Virginia jury last week ruled in favor of defendant Massey Energy Co. in a class action accusing the company of exposing plaintiffs from an elementary school to toxic coal dust. Dillon et al. v. Goals Coal Co. et al., No. 05-c-781 (Circuit Ct. Raleigh County, W.Va.).

The plaintiffs first filed suit in 2005, complaining about a coal silo near the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Raleigh County.  Coal dust allegedly drifted from the silo into the school, exposing the plaintiffs, and putting them at increased risk of lung disease.  The court eventually certified a class of about 300.

Plaintiffs sought a medical monitoring program to early detect the alleged effects of the exposure.  In order to sustain a claim for medical monitoring expenses under West Virginia law, the plaintiff must prove that (1) he or she has, relative to the general population, been significantly exposed; (2) to a proven hazardous substance; (3) through the tortious conduct of the defendant; (4) as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has suffered an increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease; (5) the increased risk of disease makes it reasonably necessary for the plaintiff to undergo periodic diagnostic medical examinations different from what would be prescribed in the absence of the exposure; and (6) monitoring procedures exist that make the early detection of a disease possible.  See Bower v. Westinghouse Electric Corp., 522 S.E.2d 424 (W. Va. 1999).

The defense challenged both the significant exposure and increased risk prongs. The jury rejected the medical monitoring claim after a 2 week trial.

Negligence Ruling in Florida Chinese Drywall Litigation

The judge overseeing one part of the litigation involving Chinese drywall -- the Florida class action -- has issued an important ruling on the negligence claims. Bennett v. Centerline Homes Inc. et al., No. 2009-ca-014458 (Palm Beach County, Fla.)

Defendants moved to dismiss the negligence claims, arguing they had no duty to protect the plaintiffs from the unknown and unforeseeable harm of the drywall.  The court found that there was no duty to inspect or test the drywall for a latent defect, and thus to warn the plaintiffs.  Florida law does not impose a duty to inspect a product for a latent defect, or to warn others about a latent defect, unless the product is inherently dangerous (which drywall is not).

Home builders, installers or suppliers of allegedly defective Chinese drywall could only be held negligent if it is established that the companies were aware that the drywall was defective, through actual or implied notice.  But the issue whether a defendant had notice of a defect must be
determined on an individual, case-by-case basis.  Thus, the court declined to grant the motion on an omnibus basis. 

As we have noted before, according to the allegations of the litigation, a shortage of drywall made in the U.S. caused many builders to use imported Chinese drywall during Florida's construction boom between 2004 and 2006. Much of the drywall was used in construction after Hurricane Katrina.  Lawsuits filed over the drywall issues allege that excessive sulfur levels in the Chinese-made products are causing health effects and problems with air conditioning systems, appliances, internal wiring and other electrical systems. The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated the lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.  Other defendants, including building supply distributors, general contractors and installers, face  litigation in state courts, like this one.

Showdown Over Regulation of Greenhouse Gas Looming in Congress

We have posted before about a number of issues related to greenhouse gas regulation and climate change litigation.  Now comes word that a potential showdown in the U.S. Senate over competing proposals to either strip the EPA of asserted authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions or to delay the implementation of such rules has been put off until Senators return from their recess at the end of this month.

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans offered an amendment to the Small Business Reauthorization Act (S. 493) that would end all EPA authority to address emissions related to global climate change and block all current and future emissions rules. And the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 15 approved an identical, stand-alone measure (H.R. 910), which we have posted on before.  The committee vote was along party lines. Also in play is an alternative offered by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that would impose a two-year delay of enforcement of EPA's rules regarding power plants and other large emitting facilities. 

There is also speculation about other measures short of a complete ban on EPA regulation, including a  proposal to exempt the agricultural sector from EPA's greenhouse gas rules.   

All this may come to a head when the Senate reconvenes in April. Meanwhile in the litigation, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court last week (on behalf of Respondents New York, Connecticut, California, Iowa, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the city of New York) asking the Court to  to recognize the right of states to sue various power companies as contributors to global warming. American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S., brief filed 3/11/11).  The case is set for oral argument on April 19.

Appeals Court Applies Sophisticated User Doctrine

A California appeals court earlier this month affirmed a trial court's dismissal of a product liability failure to warn claim, based on the sophisticated user doctrine. Walkowiak v. MP Associates, No. B220494, (Cal. Ct. App., 2d App. Dist., 3/9/11)(not published).

Plaintiff Christopher Walkowiak began working for a special effects company in the movie industry in 1994. His boss had a Class 1 Pyrotechnic Operator license, and Walkowiak received on-the-job training in special effects. He obtained a Class 3 Pyrotechnic Operator license in 1995 and a Class 2 license in 1998. In order to obtain these licenses, Walkowiak had to obtain references from pyrotechnicians and pass a written examination. The written examination was general in nature and did not cover every specific types of explosive device used in productions.

Defendant MP Associates (MP) manufactures pyrotechnic devices. Defendant Roger George Rentals (RGR) rents and sells special effects supplies, including pyrotechnic devices manufactured by MP. Its primary clientele is the entertainment industry. One of the products they sold was a simulated stinger missile (SSM). The SSM consists of a cardboard tube with a red plastic cap on one end and a white plastic cap on the other end. The tube contains pyrotechnic materials near the end with the red plastic cap. Prior to ignition, the white plastic cap is to be removed. Upon ignition, a pellet of pyrotechnic material is propelled out of the end of the tube by gunpowder. It produces bright white light and smoke, and it travels about 200 feet. It simulates the appearance of a missile. Pretty clever, and can fool the camera.

The SSM had a sticker on the side of the cardboard tube which read, “Dangerous. Handle With Care. Keep Fire Away.” This was a standard warning that MP placed on all of the pyrotechnic devices it sold. The SSM also had a piece of tape over the white plastic cap which read, “Remove Before Ignition. This Side Up.” Once the tape was removed, there was nothing on the SSM to indicate which end was to face up. Packaging materials which came with the SSM included a list of “Dos and Don’ts” which applied to pyrotechnic devices in general. The list included the warning not to “use any explosive material unless completely familiar with safe procedures for their use, or under the direction of competent, experienced persons.” However, the packaging materials did not include any specific instructions for use of the SSM.  The manufacturer sold SSMs only to purchasers with a Class 1 or Class 2 Pyrotechnic Operator license. And the company would personally discuss use of the SSM with the purchaser. Since 1998, MP had reportedly sold over 20,000 SSMs. Until the accident in this case, there had been no misfires or injuries resulting from the use of an SSM.

On January 18, 2007, Walkowiak was working on the movie set for “Charlie Wilson’s War.”  His supervisor instructed Walkowiak to test fire an SSM that had been leftover from a previous production, using the same shoulder launcher that had been used in “Over There.” The shoulder launcher consisted of a steel tube bolted to a rifle stock. The steel tube was closed at the end bolted to the rifle stock. The SSM was loaded into the open end of the steel tube. It was fired by means of a battery-operated power switch which was connected to the SSM by wires. Walkowiak’s Class 2 license allowed him to use the SSM fired from a shoulder launcher under the supervision of a Class 1 license holder.

But Walkowiak had not worked on “Over There.” He had never fired an SSM before or seen an SSM loaded into a shoulder launcher. He had not seen any instructions for using the SSM. What he did know was that the SSM was a controlled pyrotechnic device that was potentially dangerous. He knew that he should get questions regarding its use answered before using it. Walkowiak called one of the defendants and asked how to operate the shoulder launcher. Defendant told him how to wire and prepare the launcher. He did not tell Walkowiak how to load the SSM into the launcher, however. Before loading the SSM into the shoulder launcher, Walkowiak saw tape with printing on one end of the SSM. He did not recall seeing the words “Remove Before Ignition” or “This Side Up” on the tape. However, he understood these words to mean that the cap and tape should be removed before discharging the SSM, and “This Side Up” referred to the discharge end of the SSM.

Walkowiak removed the cap and the tape from the SSM. Walkowiak made the decision as to how to load the SSM into the shoulder launcher. Walkowiak loaded the SSM into the shoulder launcher and connected the wires. He believed he was loading the device safely and correctly. He knelt down and pointed the shoulder launcher toward a wall. After a countdown, Walkowiak fired the device. There was an explosion and a bright flash of light. The SSM exploded in the steel tube. The steel tube broke off the rifle stock and hit Walkowiak in the face, causing severe injury. It was determined that he had loaded the SSM in backwards.

Plaintiff sued the various parties in the chain of distribution of the SSM.  The trial court dismissed the claim.  The trial court explained that merely because an accident has occurred, there is no presumption of a defect or negligence.  In this case, Walkowiak had not shown that the device had any physical, manufacturing or design defect. There was no evidence of even a single incident where the device was used properly but caused this kind of injury.  Therefore, the trial court noted, the only potential basis for imposing liability on defendants was the breach of a duty to warn of a danger. The court added, however, that product liability cannot be based on failure to warn of a danger that is known or obvious to a user, under California law. Failure to warn of a danger that is generally known and recognized does not, by itself, render a product dangerous.

Plaintiff appealed. The court of appeals discussed the doctrine of sophisticated user. In explaining the development of the sophisticated user defense, the state Supreme Court had begun with the general principle that manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers about the hazards inherent in their products. This enables consumers to avoid the hazards through careful use of the products or refraining from using the products altogether.  However, the sophisticated user defense exempts manufacturers from their typical obligation to provide product users with warnings about the products’ potential hazards. It provides that sophisticated users need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware or should be aware. Because these sophisticated users are charged with knowing the particular product’s dangers, the failure to warn about those dangers is not the legal cause of any harm that product may cause. The rationale supporting the defense is that the failure to provide warnings about risks already known to a sophisticated purchaser usually is not a proximate cause of harm resulting from those risks suffered by the buyer’s employees or downstream purchasers. This is because the user’s knowledge of the dangers is the equivalent of prior notice.

In California, a manufacturer is not liable to a sophisticated user of its product for failure to warn of a risk, harm, or danger, if the sophisticated user knew or should have known of that risk, harm, or danger. An objective test applies, because it would be nearly impossible for a manufacturer to predict or determine whether a given user or member of the sophisticated group actually has knowledge of the dangers because of the infinite number of user idiosyncrasies. Hence, even if a user was truly unaware of a product’s hazards, that fact is irrelevant if the danger was objectively obvious to the expert user.  And, the defense applies to both negligence and strict liability causes of action.

Here, Walkowiak’s own deposition testimony supported the finding that he was a sophisticated user of pyrotechnics. He had a Class 2 Pyrotechnic Operator license and years of experience in special effects. He knew that the SSM was a controlled pyrotechnic device and potentially dangerous. He understood the nature of the warnings provided on and with the SSM. He knew to ask for instructions on how to operate the device, and in fact asked for some information. In other words, said the court, Walkowiak knew or should have known of the risk involved in use of the SSM.

That Walkowiak did not have experience using the SSM and could only use it under supervision did not establish that he was unaware of the risks associated with its use. His testimony established that he was aware of the risks: he knew the SSM was dangerous, and he understood the nature of the warnings on the device, “Remove Before Ignition” and “This Side Up.” He simply did not know how to use the SSM with the shoulder launcher. Plaintiff could cite no authority, however, that would require a manufacturer not only to apprise a user of the risks associated with use of its product but also to provide instruction on how to use the product in a device it did not manufacture. 

(The court remanded the design defect claim, under the risk benefit test, as the trial court had jumped the gun on its conclusion that an alternate design would make the SSM unsuitable for other uses.)


 

Court of Appeals Vacates Premature Class Certification

The 11th Circuit earlier this month vacated the district court's premature certification of a class of property owners allegedly harmed by releases from a nearby industrial facility.  Sher v. Raytheon Corp., No. 09-15798 (11th Cir. 3/9/11).

Plaintiffs alleged that Raytheon, through improper disposal and/or storage of hazardous waste at its St. Petersburg, Florida facility, was responsible for the release of toxic waste into the  groundwater of surrounding neighborhoods.

To demonstrate the predominance of common issues under Rule 23(b)(3), plaintiffs’ offered a groundwater expert, Dr. Philip Bedient, who identified the impacted area as a toxic underground plume stretching approximately one mile long and 1.7  miles wide from the Raytheon facility. The need to show on an individual basis the impact of the pollution on each property is a major reason these kinds of property damage class claims are not certified. To try to show here that damages for alleged property injury to 1000 class members could be appropriately resolved in a single class action, plaintiffs presented the affidavit of their damages expert, Dr. John A.  Kilpatrick, who stated that he could develop a hedonic multiple regression model to determine diminution-in-value damages without resorting to an individualized consideration of each of the various properties.

Defendants, in turn, challenged Dr. Bedient’s methodology for defining the impacted area, or really the putative class, as “inconsistent with applicable professional standards.”  Dr. Bedient’s area of impact apparently encompassed many properties on which no contamination had been detected at all.  Raytheon also introduced its damages expert, Dr. Thomas O. Jackson. Dr. Jackson’s report stated that the Plaintiffs’ expert’s “proposed method of analysis of property value diminution using mass appraisal/regression modeling would be unacceptable for this purpose, and would not eliminate the need to evaluate each property in the proposed class area on an individual basis.”

So, notwithstanding the general rule that the court should not delve too deeply into the merits at the class certification stage, the court was confronted with dueling experts, and, more importantly, a serious challenge to the methodology of plaintiffs' experts.

As a threshold matter, the district court punted-- finding that it was not necessary at this stage of the litigation to declare a "proverbial winner in the parties’ war of the battling experts" or choose between the dueling statistics and chemical concentrations. This type of determination would require the court to weigh the evidence presented and engage in a Daubert-style critique of the proffered experts qualifications, which would be "inappropriate" at this stage of the litigation.  More specifically, an inquiry into the admissibility of plaintiffs’ proposed expert testimony as set forth in Daubert would be inappropriate, "because such an analysis delves too far into the merits of Plaintiffs’ case."

On appeal of the certification order, the court of appeals found the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 600 F.3d 813 (7th Cir. 2010), to be persuasive. We posted on that before. The issue before the Seventh Circuit in American Honda was whether or not the district court should have conclusively ruled on the admissibility (versus the weight of, as also in this case) of expert opinion prior to certifying the class. In American Honda, the Seventh Circuit found that “when an expert’s report or testimony is critical to class certification, as it is here . . . , a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert’s qualifications or submissions prior to ruling on a class certification motion.” Id. at 815-16. The American Honda court found that, if the situation warrants, the district court must perform a full Daubert analysis before certifying the class. Id. at 816. “A district court is the gatekeeper. It must determine the reliability of the expert’s experience and training as well as the methodology used." Id. “The [district] court must also resolve any challenge to the reliability of information provided by an expert if that information is relevant to establishing any of the Rule 23 requirements for class certification.” Id.

Accordingly, here, in its Rule 23 analysis, the district court erred as a matter of law by not sufficiently evaluating and weighing conflicting expert testimony on class certification. It was error
for the district court to decline to declare a proverbial, yet tentative winner of the Daubert issue. Plaintiffs are required to prove, at the class certification stage, more than just a prima facie case, i.e., more than just a “pretty good case.” A district court must make the necessary factual and legal inquiries and decide all relevant contested issues prior to certification. Thus, the court erred in granting class certification prematurely. Tough questions must be faced and squarely decided, said the court, not side-stepped in an overly cautious attempt to avoid the merits. 

 

  

District Court Upholds Punitives in Surprising Decision

In a surprising and somewhat questionable decision, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio recently upheld a jury verdict awarding punitive damages with a ratio of more than 6-1 between punitive and compensatory damages. Cooley v. Lincoln Electric Co., No. 1:2005-cv-17734 (N.D. Ohio, 3/7/11).

The case was part of the welding fumes mass tort.  Plaintiff Curt Cooley used welding rods at work and home for about 40 years. After being diagnosed with a form of manganese poisoning, Cooley  sued several welding rod manufacturers, alleging that defendants knew that inhaling welding fumes presented a risk of irreversible neurological injury but failed to adequately warn of the risk.

The overwhelming majority of welding rod verdicts have been for defendants, but here a jury returned a verdict for plaintiffs, awarding $787,000 in compensatory damages, after reduction for the allocated plaintiff's comparative fault of 37%, and $5 million in punitive damages.

In post-trial motions, defendants moved, inter alia, for reduction of the punitive damages. In BMW
of North America, Inc. v. Gore
, the Supreme Court articulated three guideposts for lower courts to use in evaluating whether a punitive damages award is excessive. These guideposts are: (1) “the degree of reprehensibility” of defendants’ conduct; (2) “the disparity between the harm or potential harm suffered by [Cooley] and his punitive damages award;” and (3) “the difference between this remedy and the civil penalties authorized or imposed in comparable cases.”  The court here seemed overwhelmed by the first factor and gave insufficient weight to the second and third.

In State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Campbell, the Supreme Court articulated five criteria for evaluating the degree of reprehensibility: (1) “the harm caused was physical as opposed to economic;”  (2) “the tortious conduct evinced an indifference to or a reckless disregard of the health or safety of others;” (3) “the target of the conduct had financial vulnerability;” (4) “the conduct involved repeated actions or was an isolated incident;” and (5) “the harm was the result of intentional malice, trickery, or deceit, or mere accident.”

The trial court found that the first two criteria allowed the jury to find a high degree of  reprehensibility. Here, the harm to Cooley was physical, but not fatal. Yet, the court rejected defendants' argument that this factor is not as strong as it is in cases where a person died as a result of a defendant's conduct.  The court concluded  that the jury was entitled to conclude defendants knew manganese in welding fumes could cause permanent neurological injury, but chose to give an inadequate warning.

The second guidepost looks to the mathematical relationship between compensatory and
punitive damages. The trial court stressed that the Supreme Court has avoided imposing a bright-line ratio between compensatory and punitive damages, and ignored the numerous cases questioning high single-digit multipliers, which are less likely to comport with due process. The trial court rejected the observation that for some defendants the ratio was close to 9-1. The jury awarded $1.25 million in compensatory damages, but assigned 37% fault to Cooley,
reducing the compensatory award to $787,500. It awarded punitive damages in the total amount of
$5 million, allocated among the defendants as: ESAB, $1.75 million; Hobart, $1.75 million; Lincoln, $750,000; and BOC, $750,000. Using a logical approach, the ratios are as follows: ESAB, 8.9:1; Hobart, 8.9:1; Lincoln, 3.8:1; and BOC, 3.8:1. But, if, instead, the ratio is not calculated for each individual defendant, the overall ratio is still $5 million divided by $787,500, or 6.3:1. The court was persuaded by the fact that all of these ratios, using either of these different approaches, are single-digit.  The court also found that the reprehensible conduct supported a higher ratio.

The court went on to twist the next factor - the comparison of punitives to compensatories-  right around.  It noted that whether viewed as $1.25 million or $787,500, the compensatories were "not large considering Cooley’s circumstances."   For example, Cooley testified he is depressed and
impotent, which are symptoms of manganese poisoning. All things considered, the jury’s award of
compensatory damages was "relatively conservative, making for a low denominator in the ratio." And since the denominator was "conservative" and "low," the higher ratio when compared to punitives was permitted.  However, the same jury that found punitive damages level conduct, found plaintiff 37% at fault, and awarded all of the damages it thought were appropriate to fully compensate the plaintiff.  This is not a case where the multiplier was high because the  compensatory damages are merely a nominal sum in recognition of an injury difficult to quantify in monetary terms.  As the court noted, this case involves a significant injury, and the jury awarded what it awarded.  The court seemed to be approaching the line of substituting its assessment of damages for the jury's, and upholding the punitive award because the compensatory award was too "conservative."

Defendants also argued that the punitive damages award was excessive because, using the factor of comparison to other fines and penalties, civil penalties under OSHA would be limited to approximately $70,000, the maximum fine per violation. The court rejected this because OSHA has never found a violation or fined defendants, and thus "analysis of this issue is necessarily speculative."  In fact, the comparison is not just to actual fines assessed, but to potential fines in order to give the court an idea of how the legislature and society would assess a penalty for the conduct alleged. If it was is unclear whether OSHA would treat the conduct in plaintiff's workplace as a single violation subject to a maximum fine of $70,000, as defendants argued, or impose a fine separately for pieces of the conduct, as plaintiff argued, the issue should have been decided, not pushed aside.

Finally the court rejected any relevance to any aspect of the punitive damages ratio analysis of the fact that Cooley's injury might have been avoided had he read a warning or a Material Safety Data Sheet, particularly those sent in the last decade of his career. This was only relevant to comparative fault for compensatory damages, said the court. But, in reality, it should have been considered a major factor in the reprehensibility analysis.

 

 

Court of Appeals Explores Obvious Danger Doctrine

The 5th Circuit last week affirmed a grant of summary judgment to defendants in a case of a plaintiff allegedly injured when he used a gasoline-soaked rag to start a diesel engine while wearing a polyester and cotton uniform. Spears v. Cintas Sales Corp., No. 09-30750 (5th Cir., 2/28/11).

At the time of his accident, Spears was employed as the shop foreman for Apeck Construction, Inc., and was the head mechanic in charge of servicing and repairing equipment used by Apeck in its business. While performing his duties, Spears wore a Cintas uniform that Apeck had purchased for him. The uniform was 65% polyester and 35% cotton.The agreement between Apeck and Cintas specified that the garments were not flame-retardant, and the employer promised to tell its employees that their garments are not designed for use in areas of flammability risk or where contact with hazardous materials is possible.

Spears was injured while attempting to start a dump truck powered by a diesel engine.  Spears used a gasoline-soaked rag, a procedure he had used “thousands of times” to attempt to start an engine.The dump truck backfired, and Spears’s uniform caught on fire. As the uniform burned, it melted and fused to his body.

Spears filed suit in state court under the Louisiana Product Liability Act, alleging that the Cintas
uniform was an unreasonably dangerous product. Cintas moved for summary judgment, arguing that Spears could not present sufficient evidence to prove two elements of his claim: (1) that his damages were proximately caused by a characteristic of the Cintas uniform that rendered it unreasonably dangerous; and (2) that the damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the uniform. The district court found that Spears’s use of the uniform was not a reasonably anticipated use and granted summary judgment in favor of Cintas. Plaintiff appealed.

Under the LPLA, a manufacturer of a product shall be liable to a claimant for damage proximately caused by a characteristic of the product that renders the product unreasonably dangerous when such damage arose from a reasonably anticipated use of the product. If a plaintiff’s damages did not arise from a reasonably anticipated use of the product, then the unreasonably dangerous question need not even be reached. Reasonably anticipated use means a use or handling of a product that the product’s manufacturer should reasonably expect of an ordinary person in the same or similar circumstances. The court said  this is an objective inquiry that requires a court to ascertain what uses of its product the manufacturer should have reasonably expected at the time of manufacture.

A plaintiff’s use of a product is not reasonably anticipated in a situation where a manufacturer provides an express warning cautioning against a use of the product for which the product was neither designed nor intended, and where the plaintiff acts in direct contravention of that warning. Even if the warning did not reach the users, if the danger from a particular use of a product is obvious, then it is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA. If the plaintiff acts in contravention of an express warning, the plaintiff’s use may still be reasonably anticipated if the plaintiff presents evidence that despite the warnings, the manufacturer should have been aware that users were using the product in contravention of the warnings.

Cintas did not dispute that the warning did not reach Spears. Instead, Cintas argued that Spears’s use was not a reasonably anticipated use because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears. The record demonstrated that Spears knew that his uniform was not flame retardant. Furthermore, Spears’s testimony established that Spears knew that his poly-cotton uniform would melt.  Because the danger of exposing the uniform to flammability risks was obvious to Spears, his use of the uniform is not a “reasonably anticipated use” under the LPLA.

Plaintiff spent considerable effort arguing about the foreseeability of the danger involved in starting the engine with a gasoline-soaked rag. But the 5th Circuit said that was the wrong issue; it may be relevant in assessing a plaintiff’s comparative negligence, but it was not relevant to whether Spears’s use of the uniform was a reasonably anticipated use. The correct obvious-danger analysis in this case related to what Spears argues that Cintas should have warned against—that the uniform would melt when exposed to flame -- whatever the source. Furthermore, the court pointed out, Spears’s argument that he did not know the engine would backfire was contradicted by his other argument that Cintas should have reasonably anticipated that he would be exposed to flammability risks while wearing his uniform. If Spears, an expert mechanic, supposedly did not know that there was a risk that the engine would backfire when he attempted to start it, Cintas could not reasonably anticipate that its uniform would be exposed to the backfire of a diesel engine.

 

State Supreme Court Affirms Exclusion of Unsound Expert Opinion

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld recently the decision of a state trial court to bar a methodologically unsound expert report that sought to link fertilizer to a child's cancer.  Green v. George's Farms Inc., No. 10-26 (Ark. 2/17/11).

Defendants/Appellees were engaged in the poultry-production business in northwest Arkansas. For decades, their feeds have included the additive 3-Nitro, an FDA-approved product that is used to promote growth and prevent disease. Feed turns into excrement. Growers typically remove the chicken litter from poultry houses once a year, and the litter is then applied as fertilizer -- in this case to the fields surrounding plaintiffs' home, including areas near several schools. The chicken litter is spread primarily in the spring and fall, commonly at a ratio of two tons per acre. Sounds like good recycling.  But, said the court, roxarsone, an organic derivative of arsenic, comprises twenty percent of the ingredients contained in 3-Nitro. Arsenic, said the court, is a carcinogen and is considered both a cancer-causing agent and a promoter of cancer. The roxarsone that is fed to the chickens degrades into an inorganic form of arsenic that is excreted by the chickens.

Plaintiff Michael Green, was born and raised in the neighborhood near the schools and fields. In the fall of 1999, he experienced unexplained bruising, and was eventually diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia called chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). He sued, alleging that the arsenic-laced litter produced by roxarsone-fed chickens polluted the air as a result of ventilating the chicken houses, and that dust clouds formed when the litter is spread, and that exposure to this inorganic arsenic caused his leukemia. (Other plaintiffs joined in the complaint, but the trial court severed the claims of the other plaintiffs.)  

In pretrial rulings, the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on the issue of causation. Additionally, the court excluded under the Daubert rule all testimony pertaining to certain parts of a report entitled “Exposures to Carcinogenic Arsenicals and Other Toxic Substances in Washington County, Arkansas,” prepared by plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Rod O’Connor.

On the (first) appeal the supreme court held that a question of fact remained on the issue of causation. Green I, 373 Ark. at 396, 284 S.W.3d at 42–43. However, the court found no abuse of discretion in the circuit court’s decision to exclude the testimony. Id. at 408, 284 S.W.3d at 51. On remand, the trial court granted a directed verdict, and this, the second appeal, ensued.

Noting that the lack of publication and peer review had influenced the court’s earlier decision, appellants asserted that Dr. O’Connor’s work had since been peer reviewed and published, and thus it should have been admitted on remand. Defendants responded that the law-of-the-case
doctrine precluded reconsideration of this issue. The trial court found that the published article utilized the same unreliable methodology to estimate peak air exposure concentration that it had previously ruled inadmissible. The trial court also stated that the expert's calculations were based on unreasonable assumptions and scientifically unsound mathematical extrapolations from dust samples collected in the area, and that Dr. O’Connor continued to use a formula that the EPA had warned should only be used to determine air levels of lead. The trial court found that the theory advanced by the expert had never been tested and still had not been sufficiently tested by any other scientist.

The doctrine of law of the case prohibits a court from reconsidering issues of law and fact that have already been decided in a case. The doctrine also provides that a decision of an appellate court establishes the law of the case for the trial upon remand and for the appellate court itself upon subsequent review. The law-of-the-case doctrine in some forms also prevents consideration of an argument that could have been raised at the first appeal and is not made until a subsequent appeal.  The doctrine serves to effectuate efficiency and finality in the judicial process, and its purpose is to maintain consistency.  The law-of-the-case doctrine is conclusive only where the facts on the second case/appeal are substantially the same as those involved in the prior appeal, and it does not apply if there was a material change in the facts.

And that was one of the issues here. The record reflected that the rejected parts of Dr. O’Connor’s report included his calculations relating to inhalation exposure reconstruction that were based on a formula for converting measurements of arsenic in dust to measurements of arsenic in air.  Plaintiffs argued that publication and peer review of his methodology represented a material change in circumstances that would permit reconsideration of this issue. However, the court recognized that publication is not a talisman or "get out of jail free" card from our favorite old board game. It was not apparent to the court whether the specific inhalation exposure reconstruction reflected in the report was indeed subjected to peer review in the article. The fact of publication (or lack thereof) in a peer reviewed journal thus is a relevant, though not dispositive, consideration in assessing the scientific validity of a particular technique or methodology on which an opinion is premised. 

Here, the absence of peer review and publication was but one factor in the overall assessment of the validity of Dr. O’Connor’s methodology. Given the serious flaws exposed in the expert's methods, the court was not persuaded that the publication of the article in a peer-reviewed journal constitutes a new fact that is sufficiently material to overcome the law-of- the-case doctrine. Further, plaintiffs’ argument that criticisms of his methods should only affect the weight but not the admissibility of the evidence was also barred by law of the case.

 

New Report on Asbestos and Silica Litigation in Texas

The Texas Civil Justice League has released a new report, "A Texas Success Story: Asbestos and Silica Lawsuit Reform."

Established in 1986, the Texas Civil Justice League is a non-partisan, statewide business coalition committed to legal reform and public policy research. The League makes legislative recommendations in vital issue areas, such as administration of the courts, general business liability, mass torts, and products liability.

The purpose of this special report is to document the current state of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas state courts. Part one provides a brief history of asbestos and silica litigation in the United States and an overview of the legislative efforts in Texas to address abuses in asbestos and silica litigation.  The report then offers a description of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas’s two multidistrict litigation courts handling asbestos and silica cases, and the impact of reform legislation (S.B. 15) on the state MDLs.

The report then turns to recent issues in asbestos litigation, specifically to the science-based evidentiary standards required by the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores.

Next are the issues relating to asbestos claimant compensation, starting with the role of bankruptcy trusts in compensating asbestos claimants; the bankruptcy trust payment system can provide substantial compensation to asbestos victims, but is a “black box” system that remains hidden from public scrutiny.

Lots of good info, worth a read.

New Report on Asbestos and Silica Litigation in Texas

The Texas Civil Justice League has released a new report, "A Texas Success Story: Asbestos and Silica Lawsuit Reform."

Established in 1986, the Texas Civil Justice League is a non-partisan, statewide business coalition committed to legal reform and public policy research. The League makes legislative recommendations in vital issue areas, such as administration of the courts, general business liability, mass torts, and products liability.

The purpose of this special report is to document the current state of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas state courts. Part one provides a brief history of asbestos and silica litigation in the United States and an overview of the legislative efforts in Texas to address abuses in asbestos and silica litigation.  The report then offers a description of asbestos and silica litigation in Texas’s two multidistrict litigation courts handling asbestos and silica cases, and the impact of reform legislation (S.B. 15) on the state MDLs.

The report then turns to recent issues in asbestos litigation, specifically to the science-based evidentiary standards required by the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores.

Next are the issues relating to asbestos claimant compensation, starting with the role of bankruptcy trusts in compensating asbestos claimants; the bankruptcy trust payment system can provide substantial compensation to asbestos victims, but is a “black box” system that remains hidden from public scrutiny.

Lots of good info, worth a read.

Legislation Proposed to Curb EPA Greenhouse Gas Authority

As we have noted in previous posts, one of the many important questions lurking in the climate change/global warning cases currently being litigated is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court. Should a single judge set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue? Judges in subsequent cases could set standards for other utilities or industries, or even conflicting standards for these same utilities. At the sane time, many observers question whether the current EPA regulatory direction offers sufficient protection for the jobs and the still shaky economy.

A number of bills have been introduced that could affect this equation. The Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-Mich.), last week spoke of draft legislation that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.  The Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 would bar the EPA from regulating the so-called greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act by precluding the agency from taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas due to concerns regarding possible climate change.

Joining in support of this approach were Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
Senator Inhofe reportedly plans to introduce a Senate version of the bill soon. 

Already in the Senate, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) re-introduced the EPA Regulations Suspension Act of 2011 (S. 231) which would delay for two years EPA's greenhouse gas emissions rules covering stationary sources.  Co-sponsors include Democrats: Sens. James Webb (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), and Kent Conrad (N.D.).  Rockefeller's version would apparently continue to allow EPA regulation of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.  Wyoming Republican Senator John Barrasso introduced a more sweeping Senate bill (S. 228) that would reduce federal authority to regulate such emissions under not just the Clean Air Act, but also the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

The White House announced last year that the President would veto efforts to curb EPA authority over these greenhouse gas emissions. But many have expressed concern that the EPA regulations could hurt job growth, particularly for heavy manufacturing states.
 


 

Climate Change Case Update

A quick update to one of the key climate change cases pending in the federal courts. Readers may recall that the U.S. Supreme Court announced late last year that it will indeed hear the challenge to a court of appeals decision allowing several states to pursue a public nuisance suit against various utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10).

Last week the federal government weighed in and asked the Court to overturn the court of appeals' decision in this public nuisance suit against American Electric Power Co. and other utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions, but on relatively narrow grounds. The brief filed by the Acting Solicitor General argues that the plaintiffs lacked “prudential standing” and that their suit should therefore be dismissed.  We have noted here before that a central issue is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court. Should a single judge set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue? Judges in subsequent cases could set standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.  A second issue is whether controlling power plant emissions' alleged effects on the climate is a political question beyond the reach of the courts. Recall that the Southern District of New York dismissed the suit in 2005, holding that the claims represented a political question. Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 406 F. Supp. 2d 265.

The government position is that plaintiffs bring claims under the federal common law of public nuisance against six defendants alleged to emit greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. But if plaintiffs' theory is correct, virtually every person, organization, company, or government across the globe also emits greenhouse gases, and virtually everyone will also sustain climate-change-related injuries. Principles of prudential standing do not permit courts to adjudicate such generalized grievances absent statutory authorization, particularly because EPA, which is better-suited to addressing this global problem, has begun regulating greenhouse gases under the CAA. As a result, plaintiffs’ suits must be dismissed.  EPA began regulating greenhouse gas emissions from certain sources in January, although members of Congress are moving to delay or block EPA's authority to do so, which we will post on later this week.

The federal government brief concedes that plaintiffs have Article III standing based on their interest in preventing the loss of sovereign territory for which they are also the landowners.  It asks that the Court not decide whether plaintiffs’ suits are barred by the political question doctrine, although noting that this case does indeed raise separation-of powers concerns highlighted by the second and third factors used in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), to describe the political question doctrine: a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving it; or the impossibility of deciding without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.

The AEP brief is available for interested readers.


 

Partial Settlement Proposed in FEMA Trailer Litigation

Defendants and certain plaintiffs in the FEMA TRAILER FORMALDEHYDE PRODUCTS
LIABILITY LITIGATION, MDL NO. 07-1873(E.D. La.) have filed a joint motion seeking approval of a partial settlement of the litigation.

Readers may recall from our previous posts that plaintiffs had filed claims against the United States and several manufacturers alleging that they were exposed to high levels of formaldehyde contained in emergency housing provided to them by FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The plaintiffs proposed litigating the claims in six subclasses, including four subclasses for residents divided by state (Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi), a medical monitoring (“future medical services”) subclass, and an economic loss subclass.  The court denied the personal injury class, and then the medical monitoring class.   The court then adopted a bellwether trial approach.  We posted on the federal jury in Louisiana returning a defense verdict in just such a bellwether plaintiffs' suit over alleged exposure to formaldehyde fumes while living for several months in a FEMA-provided trailer.  Indeed, all three bellwether trials have resulted in losses for plaintiffs. There are currently two appeals pending from previous bellwether trial verdicts. The MDL court also found last year that FEMA itself could not be held liable for the alleged formaldehyde in the trailers.
 

Now, several maker of the emergency mobile homes used after hurricanes Katrina and Rita have agreed to pay approximately $2.6 million to settle certain claims that plaintiffs were allegedly sickened by levels of formaldehyde in the homes.  The proposed settlement covers FEMA mobile homes issued to victims of the hurricanes, not the travel trailers, which actually formed the majority of emergency housing made available after the hurricanes. 

Under the proposed settlement, a whopping 48% of that total will be set aside for plaintiff attorneys' fees.  According to the settlement agreement, the size of the potential settlement class is more than 1,000.  In addition to the trial results, the joint motion makes reference to the MDL court ruling that precluded plaintiffs from arguing for liability under varied (and higher) state standards, rather than a uniform federal level.

Multi-State Coalition On Chemicals Management Formed

Readers have been following our posts on new state efforts on chemical regulation, such  as California's Green Chemistry initiative. Now comes word that environmental officials from 10 state and local governments have formed an umbrella organization - the Interstate Chemicals Clearinghouse (IC2) - with the stated goals of promoting a clean environment, healthy communities, and a vital economy through the development and use of safer chemicals and products.

The states joining IC2 include California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and Washington.

The goals of the IC2 are to:

  • Avoid duplication and enhance efficiency and effectiveness of state, local, and tribal initiatives on chemicals through collaboration and coordination
  • Build agency capacity to identify and promote safer chemicals and products
  • Ensure that state, local, and tribal agencies, businesses, and the public have ready access to high quality and authoritative chemicals data, information, and assessment methods

Launched under the auspices of the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA), the new Clearinghouse says it will support state, local, and tribal health and environmental agencies with development and implementation of programs to promote use of safer chemicals and products; support the development of alternative assessment methods and identification of safer alternatives; share data and information on chemical use, hazard, exposure, and alternatives; share strategies and outcomes on chemicals prioritization initiatives; and build the capacity of agencies by sharing materials, strategies, and trainings.  IC2 has a number of projects planned in these areas.

The Northeast Waste Management Officials Association's announcement of the IC2 comes just as many chemical manufacturers are expecting that the federal government (including through an update to TSCA) will take the lead in regulating chemical products, not state regulatory agencies and legislatures.

Industry groups, including the American Chemistry Council, continue to believe that a patchwork of state and local programs has the potential to create more confusion for consumers and manufacturers, and may ultimately simply hamper investment, and threaten future job creation.  As we have noted, some of the bills introduced in the last Congress would have set an impossibly high hurdle for all chemicals in commerce, and were guaranteed to produce significant technical, bureaucratic and commercial barriers. Of particular concern to readers of MassTortDefense would be efforts to eliminate the current risk-based review system under TSCA and force EPA to use the so-called precautionary principle.

It seems more supportable that any overhaul of TSCA should include the notion that scientific reviews must use data and methods based on the best available science and risk-based assessment; must include cost-benefit considerations for the private-sector and consumers; must protect proprietary business information, and should logically prioritize reviews for existing chemicals.



 

Third Circuit Affirms Forum Non Conveniens Dismissal

We have posted before about how foreign plaintiffs desire to take advantage of U.S. product liability law and remedies.  The Third Circuit last week affirmed the granting of a forum non conveniens motion against the claims of hundreds of Australian plaintiffs seeking to sue Alcoa Inc. in the U.S. over injuries allegedly caused by emissions at three refineries in Western Australia. See Cameron Auxer et al. v. Alcoa Inc., No. 10-2131(3d Cir. 1/20/11).

These five consolidated cases involved 244 plaintiffs who claim to have suffered personal injuries caused by their alleged exposure to emissions from three alumina refineries in Western Australia.  The plaintiffs filed suit in June, 2009, alleging that Alcoa was liable for exposing them to a variety of  toxic chemicals from the Wagerup, Kwinana and Pinjarra refineries, and allegedly intentionally concealing the dangers of the pollution.  Alcoa produces alumina or aluminum oxide at its Western Australia facilities. 

FYI, the state of Western Australia is Australia’s face on the Indian Ocean. Its capital, Perth, is closer to Singapore and Jakarta than it is to Canberra. The majority of people live in and around Perth. Western Australia is the largest Australian State. With an area of more than 2,500,000 sq km, a 12,500 km coastline, and spanning 2,400 km from north to south, it occupies a third of the continent.

Defendant moved to dismiss, and the lower court dismissed the five consolidated suits on forum non conveniens grounds. Plaintiffs appealed.

While plaintiffs acknowledged that their exposure, injuries, diagnoses, and medical treatment all occurred exclusively in Western Australia, and that none of the operative facts material to causation, injuries, diagnoses and treatments occurred in Pennsylvania, they insisted that the witnesses and documentary evidence necessary for the plaintiffs to prove liability are located at defendant’s corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.  Thus, the cases should proceed in Pennsylvania.

The key issues to be considered in reaching a decision on the appropriate forum are: (1) what degree of deference is to be given the plaintiffs’ choice of forum, (2) whether there is an adequate alternative forum, (3) whether a balancing of the private factors weighs in favor of dismissal, and (4) whether a balancing of public factors weighs in favor of dismissal. See, e.g., Lacey v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 862 F.2d 38, 43 (3d Cir. 1988).

The court of appeals addressed the lower court's treatment of factors 2-4.  On the second, Alcoa was registered to do business and subject to service of process in Western Australia; the courts of Western Australia had jurisdiction over cases of this kind and recognize theories of liability for negligence, reckless conduct, and “damage caused by hazardous activities,” and, the applicable foreign court rules provide for discovery of documents, interrogatories, and the compelling of the attendance of witnesses and production of documents at trial by court-ordered subpoenas. For these reasons, numerous federal courts have found Australia to be an adequate alternative forum and dismissed on grounds of forum non conveniens. Some have specifically held that the mere absence of pretrial depositions does not render an alternative forum inadequate.

On factor three, the court observed that Pennsylvania evidence from a party would be much more accessible to plaintiffs for trial in a Western Australian forum than Western Australian evidence from non-parties would be for Alcoa for trial in a Pennsylvania forum. Because of this distinction between access to party and non-party witnesses and documents and the primary importance of a party’s being able to present its case at trial, the District Court correctly had concluded that this factor weighed heavily in favor of dismissal.

On the final factor, the lower court was fully aware that plaintiffs alleged culpable conduct in Pennsylvania and expressly recognized at the outset of its public interest factor discussion that it must consider the locus of the alleged culpable conduct and the connection of that conduct to plaintiff’s chosen forum.  But, said the Third Circuit, even if the District Court had failed to take this interest of Pennsylvania into account, it would not alter the outcome of these appeals. The applicable precedent does not suggest that, where culpable conduct takes place in a mass tort case in both jurisdictions and injury in only one, the interests of the two are in any way “comparable.”  This issue is "not a close call."

Supreme Court Refuses to Reinstate 5th Circuit Global Warming Case

The U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to reinstate the climate change tort suit brought by Mississippi property owners against energy companies alleging a link between their greenhouse gas emissions and alleged harm from Hurricane Katrina.  In re: Comer, No. 10-294 U.S. petition for writ of mandamus denied 1/10/10).

We have posted on the climate change litigation, including inexplicable decisions such as the putative class action alleging that -- follow the chain -- dozens of oil and chemical companies emitted greenhouse gasses which contributed to an impact on the atmosphere which contributed to a rise in temperature of some parts of the ocean which contributed to making Hurricane Katrina stronger which contributed to additional damages to plaintiffs' property. Such decisions represent a clear and dangerous trend within certain courts to usurp Congress, warp the traditional nuisance doctrine, and plunge the federal courts into what are essentially political questions.

The procedural posture of the case was unique. The trial court properly dismissed the suit on political question and standing grounds. The Fifth Circuit panel reversed and ruled that private property owners under Mississippi law may have standing to bring climate change-related nuisance and trespass claims for both property and punitive damages.  The court then issued an order last Spring granting the defendants' petition for a rehearing en banc, vacating the panel decision. Then came a letter from the clerk noting the cancellation of en banc oral arguments. Apparently, since the en banc court was constituted, new circumstances had arisen that made it necessary for various judges to recuse, leaving only eight members of the court able to participate in the case. Consequently, said the clerk, the en banc court had lost its quorum. (Several members of the court had previously recused themselves from the case.) The court then asked for supplemental briefing on what should happen next.

Following the briefing, in an opinion of the majority of the remaining judges, the 5th Circuit held that it could not give the climate-related lawsuit full court review because of the recusal issues. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir. 2010). As a result, the court let stand the lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in this case then filed a petition seeking a writ of mandamus that would overturn the dismissal of their appeal. They raised not the merits of their convoluted causation theory, but the procedural questions about when an en banc court loses its quorum after granting rehearing but before hearing argument en banc, what happens to the appeal? And when an en banc court loses its quorum before deciding an appeal on rehearing en banc, does the original panel somehow still maintain control over the case? But the Supreme Court has declined to hear this.


The case was the second in which the Supreme Court has been asked to review an appeals court decision regarding suits against emitters of greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court, as we posted, had said last month that it would hear a challenge to another court of appeals decision allowing several states to continue with their public nuisance suit against American Electric Power Co. and other utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions. American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari granted 12/6/10). 

 

Supreme Court Passes on Case Involving State Retention of Private Counsel

The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to review a California Supreme Court ruling that permitted cities and counties to engage private attorneys for public nuisance litigation against lead paint defendants on a contingency fee basis.  See Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Santa Clara County, Calif., No. 10-546 (U.S. cert. denied 1/10/11).

Readers may recall our previous posts on the important issue of  the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation.  One case we posted on was County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, Cal., No. S163681 (7/26/10), in which a group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint.

The state supreme court permitted the use of contingency fee counsel with restrictions. To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. Accordingly, when public entities have retained the requisite authority in appropriate civil actions to control the litigation and to make all critical discretionary decisions, the impartiality required of government attorneys prosecuting the case on behalf of the public has been maintained, said the court. 

We noted that the list of specific indicia of control identified by the court seem quite strained, and to elevate form over substance, written agreements over human nature. Defendants sought cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public. The amici argued that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers to impact the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raised another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

These kinds of contingency fee prosecutors threaten to diminish the public's faith in the fairness of civil government prosecutions. These arrangements frequently result in allegations that government officials are doling out contingency fee agreements to lawyers who make substantial campaign contributions.


 

California Postpones Green Chemistry Regulations

California has postponed final adoption of its green chemistry rules pending further review to address a variety of stakeholder concerns. As readers know from previous posts, "green chemistry" is the state's effort to require that chemical products be designed in such a way as to reduce the use or generation of hazardous substances and reduce health and environmental risks, with a clear emphasis on finding alternatives to "chemicals of concern."

Two bills passed in 2008 by the legislature mandated that DTSC develop regulations for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern, to create methods for analyzing alternatives to existing chemicals, and to create a mechanism for regulatory response, including possible restrictions or bans on certain chemicals. The laws also created a Green Ribbon Science Panel to advise DTSC, and provided for a Chemical Information Clearinghouse that will make chemical risk information more accessible to the public.

Now, the state environmental head, Secretary Linda Adams, has announced that the California Department of Toxic Substances Control will reconvene the Green Ribbon Science Panel to take another look at the proposed regulations. Those regulations, released by the DTSC last November, drew strong commentary  from both industry and environmental groups.  According to Adams, a wide range of stakeholders, including those from industry, environmental groups, scientists, and legislative leaders, have raised "substantive and valid concerns" about the most recent draft of the regulations. 

 


 

Dismissal of FEMA Trailer MDL Bellwether Plaintiff Affirmed

With the recognition by many courts of the inappropriateness of the use of the class action device for personal injury claims, the use of other methods to manage mass torts has emerged.  One approach frequently seen within MDLs is the bellwether trial.  Only a proportion of the cases are selected for case specific discovery; only a fraction of them go into a trial pool; and only a percentage of them are selected for trial, to serve as bellwethers for the remaining cases. The hope is that the trial-selected cases provide sufficient information, about claims and defenses, and case values, to inform and propel the disposition of the remaining cases. Such trials may force plaintiffs' counsel to prepare their standard trial package, and the trials may give some sense of how sound that package is. The bellwether trials may give the court a context to resolve legal questions that arise at a trial as witnesses begin to take the stand. Bellwether trials may test the expert witnesses and theories, and give both parties a sense of how much it costs to try a case to verdict. In theory, test trials are to produce valuable information that will allow the parties to assess the strength and settlement value of all the related cases. Accordingly, which cases go first, from among the hundreds or thousands in the mass tort can be extremely significant.

The process for selection of the bellwether cases is crucial.  If plaintiffs are permitted to handpick their best cases to go first, the process works only if plaintiffs lose their best cases; if they win their best cases, that comes as no surprise to anyone.  Ideally the court would pick truly representative cases. 

A significant, although less well recognized issue, is what happens when a bellwether plaintiff cannot or will not go to trial.  Plaintiffs often adopt this tactic to replace a plaintiff whose claim turns out to be, after discovery, not as strong as originally expected.  In the FEMA trailer formaldehyde MDL, the Fifth Circuit recently confirmed that plaintiffs cannot play fast and loose with the procedure, dropping plaintiffs from the line for trial without some sanction. The court of appeals refused to resuscitate a bellwether claim that was dismissed with prejudice after the plaintiff said he could not go forward with trial. In re: FEMA Trailer Formaldehyde Products Liability Litig., No. 09-31131 (5th Cir. 12/14/10).

Raymond Bell and his mother, like thousands of other plaintiffs, filed suit against multiple defendants who participated in the government’s program to supply temporary housing for victims of the devastating 2005 hurricanes. These cases were assigned by the Multi-District Litigation Panel for pretrial management by Judge Engelhardt in New Orleans. The MDL court set dates in 2009 and 2010 for four bellwether cases, each to be prosecuted by a plaintiff against one of the four trailer manufacturers estimated to have the most units at issue in the suits. The case of Diana Bell, Raymond’s mother, was identified as the bellwether case against Keystone RV, manufacturer of the trailer in which her family had lived.  Diana then dropped out, and voluntarily dismissed her case with prejudice. After consulting with counsel, the court promptly selected Raymond Bell as the next bellwether plaintiff in order to maintain the benefit of trial preparation concerning the particular trailer they both had lived in. The next Bell, however, also moved to substitute a new bellwether plaintiff or obtain a continuance of the 2010 trial date.

He made three arguments in support of this dual motion. He asserted he could not take two weeks off from his job to attend trial;  he could not afford to forego at least one week of income; and the trial dates would interfere with his participation in Community College classes at the beginning of the spring semester.

The trial court concluded that Raymond Bell really did not want to go to trial. He moved for a dismissal without prejudice and attached an affidavit asserting as fact the arguments noted above. He expressed doubt about the curative impact of the judge’s proposed instruction if he were to be absent from part of the trial.  The MDL court noted that plaintiffs’ counsel should take notice that all plaintiffs who assert claims in an MDL have to be ready and willing to serve as bellwether plaintiffs, if called upon to do so. The claims of those plaintiffs who refuse to do so, when called upon, will be dismissed with prejudice.

The reasoning was that the parties had expended much time, effort, and money into readying the case involving the Bell trailer for trial. Based on the decisions of the plaintiffs, all the pre-trial work and discovery relating to the Bell trailer was rendered utterly useless. All of the resources spent in preparing this case for trial had been wasted. Because the parties had to choose another bellwether plaintiff, which will involve conducting discovery on an entirely different trailer and readying a completely different case for trial, the claims of Mr. Bell, like those of Mrs. Bell, should be dismissed with prejudice.   Not doing so would possibly cause other bellwether plaintiffs to “jump ship” at the last minute; this is obviously a tactic that any MDL court does not wish to encourage.

On appeal the Fifth Circuit found that it was not hard to justify the court’s decision to deny the plaintiff's alternative motions. Raymond Bell’s attempt to withdraw as plaintiff or to continue seemed contrived, especially in light of his mother’s less than diligent prosecution of a claim bearing on the same trailer. Nothing in his motion papers distinguished Bell’s inconvenience in going forward with trial from the inconvenience that any plaintiff may suffer from having to try the case he has filed. The case had been pending for months, the parties had been actively preparing for trial.

Plain legal prejudice would have accrued to defendants from an unconditional dismissal of Raymond Bell’s case without prejudice. The court would have to realign Keystone RV with a new bellwether plaintiff who resided in a different trailer and whose suit would almost surely add a different group of subsidiary defendants. Not only would Bell be able to refile his suit, but the appellees were in no way spared the continuing costs of legal defense. Defendants'  investment in trial preparation for Bell’s case was wasted. Moreover, other plaintiffs in the FEMA trailer formaldehyde litigation were disadvantaged by the tactics employed on Bell’s behalf as they were delayed in acquiring trial information important for their cases. The size and scope of this multiparty litigation inescapably heightened the prejudice from Bell’s motion to dismiss.

Bottom line is that Bell wanted to have his cake and eat it too by withdrawing from a bellwether
trial and then sitting back to await the outcome of another plaintiff’s experience against the appellees. When a plaintiff files any court case, however, sitting back is no option. He must be prepared to undergo the costs, psychological, economic and otherwise, that litigation entails. That the plaintiff becomes one of a mass of thousands pursuing particular defendants lends urgency to this reality. Courts must be exceedingly wary of mass litigation in which plaintiffs are unwilling to move their cases to trial. Any individual case may be selected as a bellwether, and no plaintiff has the right to avoid the obligation to proceed with his own suit, if so selected.

 

 

State Supreme Court Reverses Plaintiff Verdict in Welding Rod Litigation

While a handful of large plaintiff verdicts has garnered much of the media attention, most of the trials involving welding fume claims have been favorable to defendants. Something like 26 out of 31 trials have resulted in defense verdicts. Since January 2006, thousands of plaintiffs have abandoned their claims. In fact, plaintiffs have dismissed about 2/3 of the cases they had certified as trial‐worthy in the federal MDL court. Plaintiffs are now actively pursuing fewer than 750 cases in the MDL proceeding, a reduction of approximately 85 percent from the number of pending MDL cases in 2005.

The latest development in this mass tort sees the Mississippi Supreme Court overturning
a $1.86 million jury verdict in favor of a welder who claimed welding rods manufactured by
The Lincoln Electric Co. and ESAB Group Inc. caused his magnesium-related neurological
disease. Lincoln Electric Co. et al. v. McLemore, No. 09-CA-00320 (Miss. 12/9/10).

Plaintiff Stanley McLemore worked as a welder for almost thirty years. In the course of his
career, McLemore worked all over the country, with two long stints at Grand Gulf Nuclear
Power Station from 1980 through 1984 and from 1993 through 1998. He developed symptoms in 2001 and went to the doctor. While McLemore saw a host of physicians between December 2001 and his trial date in 2008, they determined that he had some form of Parkinsonism. A few considered manganism, but ultimately decided against that diagnosis. Dr. Swash was McLemore’s main expert witness at trial. This doctor was the only physician to diagnose McLemore with manganism. According to Dr. Swash, manganism is a syndrome with features of atypical Parkinsonism that is caused by exposure to manganese.

McLemore stated that he first learned that he suffered from manganism in 2005, and then he sued in late 2005. However, defendants claimed he had been diagnosed with a welding-related  neurological illness in early 2002.  McLemore filed various lawsuits claiming neurological injuries from exposure to welding products as early as February 2004, against various corporations for injuries suffered from those defendants’ sale and/or distribution of defective welding consumables. The complaint did not name either Lincoln Electric or ESAB.

Mississippi has a three year statute of limitations, and defendants therefore sought summary judgment. McLemore contended that he had no cause of action until he knew that he had manganism. Pursuant to Mississippi law, a plaintiff’s cause of action accrues at the point at which he discovered, or by reasonable diligence should have discovered, the injury. Therefore, the Court had to consider the application of the latent-injury/discovery rule and whether McLemore’s statute of limitations began to run when either (1) he knew of his diagnosis of Parkinsonism, or (2) he knew of the diagnosis of manganism. 

In Angle v. Koppers, Inc., 42 So. 3d 1 (Miss. 2010), the state Court determined that the plain
language of the state act supported an interpretation “that the cause of action accrued upon
discovery of the injury, not discovery of the injury and its cause.” Id. at 5. Applying Angle to the instant case, McLemore knew of his injury in September, 2002. At that time, his doctor informed him of the correlation between his symptoms and welding; that is, informed McLemore that he had Parkinsonism and that it might have been related to his welding work.. The statute does not require a plaintiff to know the actual cause of the injury before accrual of the cause of action.  McLemore
thereafter sought legal advice which resulted in an initial filing of a lawsuit in 2004 claiming
“serious neurological injury” from exposure to manganese products. Consequently,
McLemore’s argument that he had no knowledge of his injury and its relation to welding
until his diagnosis of manganism failed. The Court rejected the plaintiff's distinction between knowledge of a diagnosis of a welding-related illness (Parkinsonism) and a welding-related injury (manganism).

Court of Appeals Affirms Exclusion of Plaintiff Causation Experts in Toxic Tort Case

Insecticide manufacturers held on to summary judgment as the Eight Circuit affirmed the lower court's causation ruling under DaubertJunk v. Terminix International Co., No. 08-3811 (8th Cir., 12/9/10).

The plaintiffs'  home had been infested with spiders during the mother's pregnancy, and she contacted Terminix about the problem.  Defendant thereafter sprayed a pesticide inside and outside the Junks' home, approximately 20 times, the last occurring two years after her son's birth. Junk alleged that the child's multiple medical conditions were caused by exposure to ingredients in Dursban, an insecticide manufactured by Dow, distributed by Terminix.

The defendants moved to exclude the causation testimony of plaintiffs' two medical experts, and for summary judgment.  The trial court first excluded the testimony of Dr. Richard Fenske, who had been retained to determine whether the son had been exposed to an unsafe level of the insecticide during his mother's pregnancy and after his birth. Dr. Fenske testified that when making toxic exposure and dosage estimates he usually relied on a "deterministic modeling" method in which he creates an exposure model that accounts for numerous variables. In this case, however, he did not have sufficient data to perform such an analysis. Instead, he compared what he knew about the circumstances of the child's exposure with those in published studies. This comparative analysis led him to conclude that plaintiff had been exposed to an unsafe level. Observing that Dr. Fenske had not followed his own usual methodology and concluding that he had relied on a number of ungrounded assumptions in his comparative approach, the district court excluded his opinion on the ground that his methodology was not sufficiently reliable.

Dr. Cynthia Bearer's testimony was also excluded. She was a neonatologist and board certified pediatrician whom Junk retained to give her opinion on general and specific causation.  Because Dr. Bearer's opinion on specific causation relied on Dr. Fenske's conclusions, after the court excluded Dr. Fenske's testimony, it found Dr. Bearer's opinion on specific causation also lacked a scientific factual basis and declined to admit it.

Plaintiffs appealed.

The court of appeals agreed that Dr. Fenske's comparative analysis depended on various unsupported assumptions. He did not account for differences between conditions in the Junk household and those described in the articles he consulted. In one instance, his only basis for comparison was the fact that the Junk household and those in a particular study were all treated with the Dursban ingredient chlorpyrifos. In another, he relied on a study where the only common variable between the Junks' experience and the homes studied was the total amount of chlorpyrifos applied. Dr. Fenske thus disregarded other important variables such as where and how chlorpyrifos was applied in the household and whether the homes in a comparison study were the same size as the Junks' home.


While Dr. Fenske was not required to produce a mathematically precise table equating levels of exposure with levels of harm, he was required to have a "scientifically valid" method to estimate that plaintiff's exposure exceeded a safe level. The expert's failure to follow his own general practice and his reliance on unfounded assumptions in his comparative method created "too great an analytical gap" between his opinion and the data on which it relied.

Because Dr. Bearer's differential diagnosis depended on Dr. Fenske's opinion on exposure, the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding it. A differential diagnosis begins with an expert's "ruling in" plausible causes of an injury. See Kudabeck v. Kroger Co., 338 F.3d 856, 860–61 (8th Cir. 2003). Then the expert "rules out" less likely causes until the most likely cause remains. Without a scientific basis for including unsafe chlorpyrifos exposure in her differential, her opinion amounted to speculation.

To succeed in her claims, Junk needed to present expert testimony showing that the chlorpyfiros could have caused the son's injuries and that it did in fact cause those injuries. Junk's  experts did not survive the district court's Daubert analysis. After the court properly excluded Dr. Bearer's
testimony, Junk could not prove specific causation as required under Iowa law. As there was no longer a genuine issue of material fact as to that necessary element, Dow and Terminix were entitled to judgment.

 

 
 

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Greenhouse Gas Case

The U.S. Supreme Court announced earlier this month that it will indeed hear the challenge to a court of appeals decision allowing several states to pursue a public nuisance suit against various utilities for their greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. certiorari petition granted 12/6/10).

Readers may recall the issues from previous posts.  Two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing, and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources. Plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court, 406 F. Supp. 2d 265, 268 (S.D.N.Y. 2005),  correctly held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, 582 F.3d 309 (2d Cir. 2009), the court of appeals held that the district court, had erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced. In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract. Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated.

AEP and three other power companies filed a petition for writ of certiorari Aug. 2, asking the Supreme Court to review the decision. The federal government (Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned company), urged the Supreme Court to overturn this decision that allowed Connecticut and several other states to move forward in their suit seeking greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance theory. A dozen states  joined the Administration, and a variety of amici, in urging the Supreme Court to review the decision by the Second Circuit.

One central issue is whether the EPA will be the primary regulator of greenhouse gas emissions or whether private parties will be permitted to go directly to court.  Should a single judge set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue?  Judges in subsequent cases could set standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.
A second issue is whether controlling power plant emissions is a political question beyond the reach of the courts.

Note that Justice Sotomayor was a member of the Second Circuit when it heard oral arguments in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co.  Thus it appears only eight justices will hear the case.
Justice Anthony Kennedy may turn out to be the pivotal vote in the case, based on his vote in Massachusetts v. EPA, 127 S. Ct. 1438 (2007).  The Supreme Court may not be eager to see a flood of common law litigation against greenhouse gas sources.

  

Use of Contingency Fee Private Counsel Appealed

A variety of business groups have weighed in as amici, asking the Supreme Court to recognize how contingency fee arrangements by California counties and cities pursuing lead paint litigation violated the due process rights of the defendants. Atlantic Richfield Co. v. County of Santa Clara, No. 10-546 (U.S., amicus curiae brief submitted 11/24/10).

Readers may recall our previous posts about how the California supreme court had taken a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had limited the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation. County of Santa Clara v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County, No. S163681 (Cal. 7/26/10).

A group of public entities composed of various California counties and cities were prosecuting a public-nuisance action against numerous businesses that manufactured lead paint. Defendants moved to bar the public entities from compensating their privately retained counsel by means of contingent fees. The lower court, relying upon People ex rel. Clancy v. Superior Court, 39 Cal.3d 740 (1985), ordered that the public entities were barred from compensating their private counsel by means of any contingent-fee agreement, reasoning that under Clancy, all attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance actions must be “absolutely neutral.”

The state supreme court acknowledged that Clancy arguably supported defendants' position favoring a bright-line rule barring any attorney with a financial interest in the outcome of a case from representing the interests of the public in a public nuisance abatement action. The court proceeded to engage in a reexamination of the rule in Clancy, however, finding it should be "narrowed," in recognition of both (1) the wide array of public-nuisance actions (and the corresponding diversity in the types of interests implicated by various prosecutions), and (2) the different means by which prosecutorial duties may be delegated to private attorneys supposedly without compromising either the integrity of the prosecution or the public's faith in the judicial process.

The state court had previously concluded that for purposes of evaluating the propriety of a contingent-fee agreement between a public entity and a private attorney, the neutrality rules applicable to criminal prosecutors were equally applicable to government attorneys prosecuting certain civil cases. The court had noted that a prosecutor's duty of neutrality stems from two fundamental aspects of his or her employment. As a representative of the government, a prosecutor must act with the impartiality required of those who govern. Second, because a prosecutor has as a resource the vast power of the government, he or she must refrain from abusing that power by failing to act evenhandedly.

But then, the court concluded that to the extent Clancy suggested that public-nuisance prosecutions always invoke the same constitutional and institutional interests present in a criminal case, that analysis was "unnecessarily broad" and failed to take into account the wide spectrum of cases a state may bring. The court described a range of cases; criminal cases require complete neutrality. In some ordinary civil cases, neutrality is not a concern when the government acts as an ordinary party to a controversy, simply enforcing its own contract and property rights against individuals and entities that allegedly have infringed upon those interests. The nuisance cases fall between these two extremes on the spectrum of neutrality required of a government attorney. The case was not an “ordinary” civil case in that the public entities' attorneys were appearing as representatives of the public and not as counsel for the government acting as an ordinary party in a civil controversy. The case was being prosecuted on behalf of the public, and, accordingly, the concerns identified in Clancy as being inherent in a public prosecution were, indeed, implicated.

But, despite that, state supreme court found that the interests affected in this case were not similar in character to those invoked by a criminal prosecution or the nuisance action in Clancy. The case would not have resulted in an injunction that prevents the defendants from continuing their current business operations. The challenged conduct (the production and distribution of lead paint) has been illegal in the state since 1978. Accordingly, whatever the outcome of the litigation, no ongoing business activity would be enjoined. Nor would the case prevent defendants from exercising any First Amendment right. Although liability may be based in part on prior commercial speech, the remedy would not involve enjoining current or future speech, said the court.

While a heightened standard of neutrality was required for attorneys prosecuting public-nuisance cases on behalf of the government, that heightened standard of neutrality is not always compromised by the hiring of contingent-fee counsel to assist government attorneys in the prosecution of a public-nuisance abatement action. Use of private counsel on a contingent-fee basis is permissible in such cases if neutral, conflict-free government attorneys retain the power to control and supervise the litigation.

In so finding, the court downplayed the reality that the public attorneys' decision-making conceivably could be influenced by their professional reliance upon the private attorneys' expertise and a concomitant sense of obligation to those attorneys to ensure that they receive payment for their many hours of work on the case.To pass muster, neutral government attorneys must retain and exercise the requisite control and supervision over both the conduct of private attorneys and the overall prosecution of the case. Such control of the litigation by neutral attorneys supposedly will provide a safeguard against the possibility that private attorneys unilaterally will engage in inappropriate prosecutorial strategy and tactics geared to maximize their monetary reward. .

The list of specific indicia of control identified by the state supreme court seem quite strained, however, and to elevate form over substance, and written agreements over human nature. The authority to settle the case involves a paramount discretionary decision and is an important factor in ensuring that defendants' constitutional right to a fair trial is not compromised by overzealous actions of an attorney with a pecuniary stake in the outcome.  In reality, even if the control of private counsel by government attorneys is viable in theory, it fails in application because private counsel in such cases are hired based upon their expertise and experience, and therefore always will assume a primary and controlling role in guiding the course of the litigation, rendering illusory the notion of government “control”.

Defendants are seeking cert review. In amicus filings, various trade organizations including the American Chemistry Council, the American Coatings Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, have argued that the financial incentives inherent in contingency-fee agreements simply distort the decision-making of both the government lawyers and the private attorneys they retain. Inadequately grounded contingency fee arrangements distort the state's duty of even-handedness not only to defendants, but also to the public.  The amici argue that public nuisance cases are not typical tort lawsuits because they claim to be pursued in the public interest. It violates due process for the type of personal financial assessment made by contingency fee private lawyers impacts the decisions in a public nuisance action brought in the government's sovereign capacity. The briefing also raises another important practical issue: the attorney-client privilege and work-product doctrines will block any meaningful inquiry into whether the government is actually exercising the appropriate control that he state court said would solve these issues.

Update on Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting

The White House Office of Management and Budget has reportedly completed its review of the draft final rule to set greenhouse gas emissions reporting requirements for oil and natural gas wells and related equipment, as well as locations that produce fluorinated greenhouse gases. Completion of OMB review is typically the final step before a proposed rule is released by the Environmental Protection Agency for publication.

Readers may recall these rules were proposed in Spring, 2010, and would require oil and natural gas wells and related equipment that emit more than the equivalent of 25,000 metric tons per year of carbon dioxide to report their greenhouse gas emissions. EPA estimates that the proposal would apply to about 3,000 facilities, which would be required to begin collecting data on Jan. 1, 2011.  According to EPA, fluorinated gases account for about 2 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed rule for oil and natural gas systems, like many related rules, seem to impose burdensome testing requirements on natural gas systems rather than calling for use of arguably more cost-effective estimating techniques.  Also controversial is EPA's effort to include smaller facilities by aggregating multiple facilities of a company in a region.

The Nov. 2 elections put Republicans in charge of the House and reduced the Democratic margin in the Senate; this may impact greenhouse gas regulation, and climate change legislation (such as cap and tax) is probably off the table for the next two years. Industry groups may seek to lobby for delay in EPA's greenhouse emissions rules through a variety of techniques, including via the EPA spending bill. Several top House Republicans have been quoted as saying such rules are a priority target.  On the Senate side, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and a few other Democrats have favored a delay in implementing the EPA regulations for two years, so the new math there may also create road blocks.

Another aspect of this is seen in statements, such as those by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who may be in line to chair the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; he has stated that he will call for oversight hearings on EPA activities, including in this area. Organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers have argued that if the EPA is allowed to continue forward with an "overreaching agenda" on greenhouse gasses that puts additional and unnecessary burdens on manufacturers and drives up energy costs, it will cause economic harm and instill even more uncertainty into our already fragile economy, and will destroy jobs.

 

Inside Counsel Explores California Green Chemistry Regs

Your humble blogger is quoted in the latest edition of the fine publication INSIDE COUNSEL.  See “Proposed Regulation Requires Companies To Go Green,” Inside Counsel, November 1, 2010.

Readers know we have posted on California's Green Chemistry program.  This new article explores its potential impact, which will likely reverberate far beyond that state’s borders.  for example, I spoke to the publication about the impracticality of making two versions of many products, one for California and one for the rest of the nation. 

The article also suggests that plaintiffs attorneys will likely find plenty of litigation opportunities in the initiative, including the argument that changes made to comply with the regulation could and should have been made earlier, as I discussed with the author.

I also pointed out that there doesn’t appear to be an easy mechanism for getting a chemical or product off the state's target list once it’s finalized, highlighting the importance of the initial comment period.

 

DTSC Green Chemistry Symposium

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) and the state's Department of Public Health (DPH) are hosting a brown-bag symposium, "Green Chemistry through the Lens of Public Health," next week.  The program will examine the potential and intended effects of Green Chemistry on public health. It is set for Monday, October 18, 2010, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
 

We have posted on the California Green Chemistry Initiative, from the introduction of legislation for the program, to the proposal of draft regulations, to the final rule making stages.  As readers know from previous posts, "green chemistry" is the state's effort to require that chemical products be designed in such a way as to reduce the use or generation of hazardous substances and reduce health and environmental risks, with a clear emphasis on finding alternatives to "chemicals of concern."  Two bills passed in 2008 by the legislature mandated that DTSC develop regulations for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern, to create methods for analyzing alternatives to existing chemicals, and to create a mechanism for regulatory response, including possible restrictions or bans on certain chemicals. The laws also created a Green Ribbon Science Panel to advise DTSC, and provided for a Chemical Information Clearinghouse that will make chemical risk information more accessible to the public.

The symposium is scheduled to feature interactive discussions with physicians, scientists and some stakeholders on the impact of the new chemicals policy on public health. The keynote speakers are Dr. Margaret Kripke, Ph.D., immunologist, and Steve Owens from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

The event is open to the public and is supposed to be accessible via a live webcast at www.dtsc.ca.gov/greenchemistry.
 

 

European Regulators Reaffirm Stance on BPA

Readers of MassTortDefense are accustomed to European regulatory approaches that are much stricter than in North America, under a co-called "precautionary" approach.  So what does it say about the hysteria in the U.S. over BPA when the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concludes that there is no new evidence to suggest the tolerable daily intake (TDI) for bisphenol A  needs to be changed?  EFSA recently reconfirmed that current levels of exposure pose no significant threat to human health.

Bisphenol A is a chemical used as a monomer in polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, in food contact materials used in the manufacture of some plastic bottles and food and drink can linings.  EFSA had an expert panel perform a detailed and comprehensive review of recent scientific literature and studies on the toxicity of bisphenol A at low doses.  The latest work carried out by EFSA scientists followed a request from the European Commission to: a) carry out a review of recent scientific literature on the toxicity of BPA to assess whether the TDI should be updated; b) assess a new study on possible neurodevelopmental effects (i.e. possible effects to the brain and central nervous system) of BPA in rats, known as the Stump study; and c) advise on the BPA risk assessment by Denmark’s DTU Food Institute.

The agency reaffirmed its positions stated over the last couple years, and concluded that it would maintain the current TDI of 0.05mg/kg/bodyweight.  The scientists on the EFSA CEF Panel concluded they could not identify any new evidence which would lead them to revise the current Tolerable Daily Intake for BPA as set by EFSA in its 2006 opinion and re-confirmed in its 2008 opinion. (In 2006, EFSA set the TDI for BPA at 0.05 mg BPA/kg body weight (b.w.)/day. This is based on the No-Observed-Adverse-Effect-Level (NOAEL) of 5 mg/kg b.w./day that has been identified in multi-generation reproductive toxicity studies in rodents, where the critical effects were changes in body and organ weights in adult and offspring rats and liver effects in adult mice, respectively. In 2008, EFSA reaffirmed this TDI, concluding that age-dependent toxicokinetics differences of BPA in animals and humans would have no implication for the TDI.) 

Moreover, the research pointed to by those out to ban BPA had “many shortcomings” and uncertain relevance to human health.   In particular, the panel dismissed concerns over the alleged neurobehavioral toxicity of BPA attributed to the Stump study and a risk assessment by Denmark's National Food Institute,  finding the alleged link uncertain and pointing out a variety of flaws in the analysis of the Stump data after further evaluation from EFSA’s Assessment and Methodology group. The careful review of the scientific literature failed to provide any convincing evidence that BPA has any adverse effects "on aspects of behavior, such as learning and memory.”

EFSA's conclusions, after intense scientific scrutiny, get little play in the mainstream press, but continue to reaffirm the safety of BPA in food contact applications.

  

Oil Spill MDL May Appoint Special Master

The judge overseeing the Gulf oil spill  MDL has given notice of its intent to appoint Duke Law Professor Francis McGovern, as a special master to help the parties address several complex issues arising from the Deepwater Horizon accident.  In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico, on April 20, 2010, MDL No. 2179 (E.D. La.).

In the order last week, the court accordingly, pursuant to Rule 53 of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure, provided notice to the parties of its intention to appoint a special master.  In mass tort litigation, courts often appoint special masters to assist in managing the matters, especially the discovery. Rule 53 permits the court to appoint a master for pretrial matters that cannot be addressed effectively or in a timely manner by the court. Appointment of a special master to supervise discovery may be appropriate where the financial stakes justify imposing the expense on the parties, and where the amount of activity required would impose undue burdens on a judge.

The Manual for Complex Litigation says that it is preferable for the court to appoint the special master with the parties' consent, and here the court is giving the parties an opportunity to weigh in.  The success of the special master in the role the court assigns depends in the first instance on the person selected.  Prof. McGovern is well known to our readers, having served as special master or mediator in dozens of major mass torts, including several asbestos matters, DDT toxic exposure litigation, the Dalkon-Shield controversy, and silicone gel breast implant litigation.  As an academic, he has advocated for enhanced roles for court appointed special masters as "case managers" and "settlement masters." As a practicing case manager, he has helped courts to organize the pretrial administration of a case, and used ADR techniques to help the parties agree on efficient discovery approaches and schedules. (But note the Manual for Complex Litigation advises against referral of extensive pretrial management to a special master, at Section 10.14). His role as settlement master in some cases has required that he develop innovative ways to implement potential settlements. In the Dalkon Shield litigation, he helped organize and administer the distribution of the $2.4 billion trust established to compensate 100,000 women who had sued the maker of the device.

He is also a prolific author on mass torts issues, including A Model Mass Tort: The PPA Experience, 54 Drake Law Review 621-638 (2006); A Model State Mass Tort Settlement Statute, 80 Tulane Law Review 1809-1826 (2006); and A Proposed Settlement Rule for Mass Torts, 74 UMKC Law Review 623-636 (2006).

The final order appointing the special master will specify the scope of the reference, the circumstances under which ex parte communication will be deemed appropriate, and other relevant details.  Ordinarily, the special master will produce a report on the matters in his or her charge, with findings of fact and conclusions of law which would be reviewed by the district court.

 

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.

California's Proposed "Green Chemistry" Regulations Move Forward

California's proposed "green chemistry" regulation took another step closer to completion last week, as the state Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) submitted the draft regulations to begin the final official rulemaking process.  The public has until Nov. 1, 2010 to make comments.  Under state law passed in 2008, the regulations must be finalized before 2011.

As readers know from previous posts, "green chemistry" is the state's effort to require that chemical products be designed in such a way as to reduce the use or generation of hazardous substances and reduce health and environmental risks, with a clear emphasis on finding alternatives to "chemicals of concern."  Two bills passed in 2008 by the legislature mandated that DTSC develop regulations for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern, to create methods for analyzing alternatives to existing chemicals, and to create a mechanism for regulatory response, including possible restrictions or bans on certain chemicals.  The laws also created a Green Ribbon Science Panel to advise DTSC, and provided for a Chemical Information Clearinghouse that will make chemical risk information more accessible to the public.

Earlier in 2010, the agency released a draft Safer Consumer Product Alternatives regulation, then held public meetings and workshops and took written comments.  Last week, the final, slightly revised draft, was issued. DTSC’s regulations call for identifying and prioritizing chemicals in consumer products, for conducting an alternatives assessment, and then an appropriate  regulatory response.

The proposed regulations call for creation of a proposed initial list of Chemicals under Consideration by June 1, 2012, and, from that an eventual list of Priority Chemicals by July 1, 2012. Similarly, the agency is to create a proposed initial list of Products under Consideration (because they contain the relevant chemicals) by March 1, 2013, and eventually a final list of Priority Products by December 1, 2013. In making this determination, the regulations offer a long list of relevant factors, including usage, distribution, disposal and life cycle issues, use by sensitive sub-populations, and a host of toxicity parameters.  One thing for manufacturers to watch: it is unclear how the DTSC will weigh and balance these and other factors. Especially important will be the relative emphasis on realistic, feasible exposure scenarios and dose, as opposed to theoretical risks in the lab.  A second area of potential concern here is that while the proposed regulations include a fairly detailed (and likely lengthy) petition process to challenge regulatory response decisions, they apparently do not include a similar ready process to seek removal of a chemical or product from the priority lists.  Thus, manufacturers and relevant trade associations will have to closely monitor the draft/proposed lists and jump into the comment period before the lists are finalized. Food, drugs, and a few other products are exempt, but the potential list of "consumer products" is quite large.

In the second phase involving Alternative Assessments, product makers will have to provide what may become a quite complex and expensive assessment of potential alternatives to the chemical/product, including a look at hazards, potential exposures, and life cycle.  For example, if the lead of the assessment team works for the manufacturer, the Assessment must be reviewed and verified by an independent third-party consultant.  It is unclear what data DTSC will want to see here, including whether the agency will require additional, new toxicity testing of a product or an alternative.  This may be especially onerous for smaller companies, and for newer technologies (think nano?) in which the existing body of data may not be as robust. One area for companies to watch here is the protection, or lack thereof, of trade secret information.  Ingredients in a product, and possible alternatives that make the product safer, are often a key part of intellectual property, a competitive advantage.  The regulations purport to offer some trade secret protection, but it s not crystal clear how the DTSC will apply this principle.

After receiving the Alternative Assessment, the DTSC is to decide on the best method, if any, to mitigate paternal risks with the product, ranging from no further action to recalls and bans.

The regulations offer a good reminder to double-check company knowledge and comfort with the supply chain, components and agreements, risk sharing provisions, insurance coverage, etc.

Multiple States Urge Reversal of Second Circuit Greenhouse Gas Decision

A dozen states have joined the Administration, and a variety of amici, in urging the Supreme Court to review a decision by the Second Circuit which would permit a suit against various utilities in federal court over their greenhouse gas emissions. See American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174, (U.S., amicus brief filed 9/3/10).

As we have posted, the Second Circuit held in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 2009 WL 2996729 (2nd Cir. 9/21/09), that two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, could sue several electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources. The plaintiffs' theory is that carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the earth's atmosphere, and that as a result of this trapped heat, the earth's temperature has risen over the years and will continue to rise in the future. Pointing to an alleged “clear scientific consensus” that global warming has already begun to alter the natural world, plaintiffs predicted that it “will accelerate over the coming decades unless action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.”

When thinking about "global climate" changes, MassTortDefense has always been sobered by the fact that humans have been trying to measure temperature consistently only since the1880s, during which time advocates think the world may have warmed by about +0.6 °C -- which is less than the margin of error on our ability to measure the Earth's temperature!

Anyway, plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. 406 F. Supp. 2d 265.

On appeal to the Second Circuit, in a lengthy opinion, the two judges (Justice, then-Judge Sotomayor had to drop out) held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced by other federal law.

In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which had held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract. Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated. The Supreme Court has further stated that the asserted injury must be actual or imminent, certainly impending and immediate --not remote, speculative, conjectural, or hypothetical. The court rejected defendants challenge that the contentions of future injury at some unspecified future date are not the kind of “imminent” injury required. The court also gave short shrift to the argument that plaintiffs could neither isolate which alleged harms will be caused by defendants' emissions, nor allege that such emissions would alone cause any future harms.

As we noted here, several defendants have filed a cert petition that raises the important, recurring question whether states and private plaintiffs have standing to seek, and whether federal common law provides authority for courts to impose, a non-statutory, judicially created regime for setting caps on greenhouse gas emissions based on vague and indeterminate nuisance concepts. It also asks the Court to decide whether judges, in addition to Congress and the EPA, may regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the behest of states and/or private parties and, if so, under what standards. Under the Second Circuit's ruling, a single judge could set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue. Judges in subsequent cases could set different standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.

This latest brief in support of review focuses on the issue whether claims seeking to cap defendants’ carbon dioxide emissions at “reasonable” levels, based on a court’s weighing of the potential risks of climate change against the socioeconomic utility of defendants’ conduct, could somehow be governed by “judicially discoverable and manageable standards” or could be resolved without initial policy determinations of a kind clearly for nonjudicial discretion.  These amici argue that given that every industry, and indeed every living mammal, constantly emits CO2, such emissions cannot simply be banned outright, no matter what the harm to the environment. Someone has to make a policy determination as to how much is acceptable and how much is too much. That someone should not be the federal judiciary. The point at which the volume of CO2 emissions justifies regulation admits of no discernible, judicially manageable principle.

While the Second Circuit called this an ordinary tort suit, this litigation seeks to transfer to the judiciary nearly standard-less authority for some of the most important and sensitive economic, energy, and social policy issues presently before the country. Federal nuisance law is neither sufficiently developed nor sufficiently detailed to substitute for actual regulation. Thus, at stake is the financial health and security of numerous sectors of the economy. Indeed, virtually every entity and industry in the world is responsible for some emissions of carbon dioxide and is thus a potential defendant in climate change nuisance actions under the theory of this case. The threat of litigation, and the indeterminate exposure to monetary and injunctive relief that it entails, could substantially impede and alter the future investment decisions and employment levels of all affected industries, and ultimately every sector of the economy.

The US government weighed in previously, taking a different approach, asking the Court not to accept the case for full review, but rather to simply vacate the decision and direct the Second Circuit to reconsider two issues: whether the plaintiffs have standing to bring the lawsuit, and whether recent actions by the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions supplant the reason given by the Second Circuit for allowing the lawsuit to go forward. Since the initial decision below, EPA has issued final rules establishing reporting requirements for major emitters of greenhouse gases; issued a finding that greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks endanger public health and welfare; and established new greenhouse gas emissions limits for cars and light trucks. In addition, EPA has signed off on a final rule requiring that additional categories of sources begin to track and report greenhouse gas emissions under EPA's earlier GHG reporting rule. The Second Circuit decision was seemingly predicated on the "now-obsolete conclusion" that EPA had not taken action to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from stationary sources.

Joining on the latest brief were Indiana, Arkansas, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming.

Think-Tank Report on Environmental Litigation Worth A Look

A new think-tank report discusses the evolution in environmental and toxic tort litigation. The Manhattan Institute Center for Legal Policy publishes reports and updates that shed light on the size, scope, and inner workings of what they call "America's lawsuit industry" at TrialLawyersInc.com.

The new report, "Un-natural Claims," discusses the trend to use litigation to supplant or supplement regulation and legislation of environmental and toxic hazards.  Because tort law is necessarily retrospective, not prospective (plaintiffs traditionally must show that they have actually been injured and that the party being sued caused the injury), and because it makes sense to prevent environmental injuries in advance, instead of addressing them after they occur, advanced economies have developed regulatory regimes that place boundaries around economic activities that risk generating environmental damage.

Nuisance suits, for example, do not manage environmental harms well. Injuries are sometimes too dispersed to be remedied by damage awards to individuals, and causation too speculative or remote to meet historical legal norms. Lay juries are generally ill-equipped to make scientific judgments on complex environmental questions, argues the report.  Yet, increasingly, plaintiffs and activists have sought to use tort law to supplant regulation, often by seeking broad injunctive relief. The report argues that such suits seek to circumvent statutory and regulatory schemes and turn the courts into alternative environmental regulators.

The report offers the recent global warming litigation as a dire example.  In such suits, activist groups—or state attorneys general seeking their support—are trying to make an end run around regulators or legislatures to achieve policy goals. The report warns that one should not assume that pecuniary motives are absent from such suits: in addition to earning themselves substantial publicity, the state AGs often receive the largesse of lawyers involved in the form of direct or in-kind campaign assistance; and trial lawyers get to enlist the state attorneys general to press for judicial rulings that would make future litigation more profitable. In some cases, they get hefty contingency fees for doing the states’ work.

Worth a look.

 

 

Federal Appeals Court Vacates Class Action Verdict In Radiation Case

Last week, a federal appeals court vacated a $926 million judgment against Rockwell International  and Dow Chemical over alleged plutonium contamination. See Cook v. Rockwell International Corp., No. 08-1224 (10th Cir., 9/3/10).

The owners of properties near the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant (“Rocky Flats”) filed a proposed class action against the facility’s operators under the Price-Anderson Act, alleging trespass and nuisance claims arising from the alleged release of plutonium particles onto their properties. Rocky Flats, located near Denver, Colorado, was established by the US in the 1950s to produce nuclear weapon components. The government contracted with Dow to operate the facility from 1952 to 1975, and then with Rockwell from 1975 to 1989.

Some radiation cases seem to last longer than the half-life of uranium.  The complaint here was filed in 1990.  A class was certified in 1993. After over fifteen years of litigation, the district court conducted a jury trial between October, 2005 and January, 2006, resulting in a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff class, which numbered about 15,000.

This appeal ensued, and a main issue was the jury instructions (we leave for another day the preemption and PAA statutory issues). In accordance with the district court’s construction of Colorado law, the jury instructions did not require plaintiffs to establish either an actual injury to their properties or a loss of use of their properties. With respect to the nuisance claims, the district court instructed the jury that plaintiffs could establish defendants’ conduct interfered with the use and enjoyment of the class properties by proving defendants’ conduct exposed plaintiffs to “some increased risk of health problems” or caused conditions “that pose a demonstrable risk of future harm" to their property area.  As to plaintiffs’ trespass claims, the district court instructed the jury that plaintiffs were not required to show that plutonium is present on the class members' properties at any particular level or concentration, that they suffered any bodily harm because of the plutonium, or that the presence of plutonium damaged these properties in some other way.

First, the nuisance theory. Under Colorado law, a plaintiff asserting a nuisance claim must establish an interference with the use and enjoyment of his property that is both “substantial” and “unreasonable.”  A jury may find the presence of radioactive contamination creates an actual risk to health and thereby interferes with a plaintiff’s use or enjoyment of his land if the contamination disturbs the plaintiff’s comfort and convenience, including his peace of mind, with respect to his continued use of the land.  But, said the court,  a scientifically unfounded risk cannot rise to the level of an unreasonable and substantial interference. To the extent plaintiffs here relied on anxiety from an increased risk to their health as an interference with the use and enjoyment of their properties, that anxiety must arise from scientifically verifiable evidence regarding the risk and cannot be wholly irrational. No reasonable jury could find that irrational anxiety about a risk that cannot be scientifically verified tips this balance so as to render the interference "unreasonable."  So the charge was wrong to the extent it permitted any subjective anxiety to suffice for an unreasonable interference.

The court of appeals then turned to the trespass theory.  And here, the issue turned on whether the plaintiffs' claim was a traditional trespass theory or a so-called "intangible trespass."  The parties agreed that to prevail under a traditional trespass claim, a plaintiff must establish only a physical intrusion upon the property of another without the proper permission from the person legally entitled to possession. A plaintiff need not establish any injury to his legally protected interest in the land or damage to the land itself.  Unlike a traditional trespass claim, however, the court made clear that an intangible trespass claim requires an aggrieved party to prove physical damage to the property  caused by such intangible intrusion. 

So is the invasion of plutonium particles onto real property a traditional or intangible trespass claim?  The cases suggest that “intangible” is something that is impalpable, or incapable of being felt by touch. Noise intrusion and electromagnetic fields emitted by power lines are examples of the intangible. Neither can be perceived by any of the senses.   Here,  plaintiffs had to concede that the plutonium particles allegedly present on their properties are impalpable and imperceptible by the senses. Although the particles in question have mass and are "physically present" on the land, because the particles are impalpable, the trespass alleged here must be tried as an intangible trespass.

Consequently, the instructions on this point were also in error, and on remand, plaintiffs will be required to prove the plutonium contamination caused “physical damage to the property” in order to prevail on their trespass claims.

Interestingly, because the district court’s class certification analysis failed to consider whether
plaintiffs could establish various elements of their claims, properly defined, the 10th Circuit also reversed the district court’s class certification ruling. Upon remand, the district court will have to  revisit the class certification question to determine whether plaintiffs can establish the proper elements of their claims on a class-wide basis.  Obviously, the need to show unreasonable interference and physical damage may each create predominating individual issues.

 

Court of Appeals Vacates Jury Verdict for Plaintiff in Welding Case

The Sixth Circuit last week vacated one of the rare plaintiff verdicts in the welding rod litigation.  Tamraz  v. Lincoln Electric Co., et al., 2010 WL  3489002 (6th Cir. 9/8/10).  The key issue in the appeal was the trial court's decision to allow a causation expert, Dr. Walter Carlini, to testify on behalf of the plaintiff Jeff Tamraz over defendants' Daubert challenge.

From roughly 1979 to 2004, Jeff Tamraz worked as an independent-contracting welder in California, on bridges and buildings.  Plaintiffs contended that Mr. Tamraz suffers from manganese-induced Parkinsonism as a result of exposure to manganese-containing welding fumes on these jobs.

The case went to trial in 2007, and the jury in the Northern District of Ohio (plaintiffs are from Oregon) returned a plaintiff verdict, awarding $17.5 million to Jeff Tamraz in compensatory damages and $3 million to his wife, Terry Tamraz, for loss of consortium.

Defendants, including Lincoln Electric, Hobart Brothers Co. and ESAB Group Inc., appealed on various grounds, including the trial court's decision to permit the testimony of Dr. Carlini on causation issues despite the Daubert challenge.

The opinion offers a number of useful observations for toxic tort litigation, especially on the almost-always central issue of causation.

It begins with a nice overview of the science on the spectrum of movement disorders often termed "parkinsonism" that have different causes and different but overlapping symptoms.  No one disputed that plaintiff here suffered from parkinsonism; the questions were what kind and from what cause. Apparently, every doctor to examine Tamraz reached a different conclusion about one or both of those issues.  Plaintiff's expert concluded that Tamraz suffers from “manganese-induced parkinsonism,” but not in the sense of a manifestation of the disease "manganism," as that phrase is sometimes used in these welding cases. Rather, he believed that manganese exposure caused something closely akin to traditional Parkinson's Disease in Tamraz.  Dr. Carlini hypothesized that Tamraz might have a genetic predisposition to Parkinson's Disease, and that manganese in lower levels than necessary to cause true manganism might nevertheless “trigger” the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease, like “the straw that broke the camel's back.” He did not believe that Tamraz has Parkinson's Disease in the strict medical sense, but manganese caused a disease that he believed to be otherwise similar to Parkinson's Disease. 

Defendants disputed this conclusion that manganese exposure caused the illness; that is, they challenged Dr. Carlini's etiology (what caused the disorder diagnosed?), not the methodology to arrive at his general spectrum diagnosis (what disorder caused the set of symptoms observed?).  And the Sixth Circuit agreed there were serious issues here. The problem here was that, when Dr. Carlini testified that manganese exposure caused Tamraz's condition, he went beyond the boundaries of allowable testimony under Rule 702.

The opinion was at most a working hypothesis, not admissible scientific “knowledge.” Fed.R.Evid. 702. His theory was a "plausible hypothesis. It may even be right. But it is no more than a hypothesis."  For example, the expert admitted that the literature hypothesizing a link between environmental toxins and latent genetic Parkinson's Disease was “all theoretical.”  He also conceded there were no studies finding a link between manganese and true Parkinson's Disease.  He further he conceded that he was speculating that Tamraz had an underlying predisposition to Parkinson's Disease, even though Tamraz had no family history of Parkinson's Disease. 

And finally, even if manganese could cause Parkinson's Disease in someone like Tamraz, that did not show that manganese did cause Tamraz's Parkinson's Disease. Parkinson's Disease occurs commonly in the general population and usually without any known cause. Any given case of Parkinson's Disease thus might have occurred regardless of the manganese exposure, making it hard to attribute one case to manganese exposure over all of the other possible causes.

Plaintiffs stressed on appeal that Dr. Carlini opined “with a reasonable degree of medical certainty,” but the court of appeals correctly noted that the phrase --the conclusion by itself-- does not make a causation opinion admissible. The “ipse dixit of the expert” alone is not sufficient to permit the admission of an opinion. General Elec. Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 146 (1997). Minus that one phrase, nothing in this testimony took the opinion beyond speculation, theory, hypothesis. 

Plaintiffs, understandably, also tried to bolster the opinion by emphasizing areas of agreement among experts on the general diagnosis of some parkinsonism disorder.  But in conflating “manganese-induced parkinsonism” with manganism, plaintiff conflated diagnosis with etiology, erasing the distinction between Tamraz's disease and what caused it. Diagnosis and etiology, however, both were in play in this case. Because Dr. Carlini diagnosed Tamraz with something akin to Parkinson's Disease, not manganism, and because Parkinson's Disease unlike manganism has no standard etiology and lots of idiopathic cases, Dr. Carlini's etiology opinion had to rise or fall on its own.

Plaintiffs also trotted out the standard "differential diagnosis" argument, the tent that supposedly (and too often does) covers all kinds of unreliable causation opinions from medical experts.  The court here made some very useful observations about this issue. 

1) Most treating physicians have more training in and experience with diagnosis than etiology. See D. Faigman, Judges as “Amateur Scientists”, 86 B . U. L.Rev. 1207, 1221-22 (2006); E. Imwinkelried, The Admissibility and Legal Sufficiency of Testimony About Differential Diagnosis (Etiology), 56 Baylor L.Rev. 391, 405 (2004); M. Henefin, Reference Guide on Medical Testimony, in Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence 439, 471-72 (2d ed.2000). 

2) When physicians think about etiology in a clinical setting, moreover, they may think about it in a different way from the way judges and juries think about it in a courtroom. 

3) Getting the diagnosis right matters greatly to a treating physician, as a bungled diagnosis can lead to unnecessary procedures at best and death at worst. See Bowers v. Norfolk S. Corp., 537 F.Supp.2d 1343, 1361 (M.D.Ga.2007). But with etiology, the same physician may often follow a precautionary principle: If a particular factor might cause a disease, and the factor is readily avoidable, why not advise the patient to avoid it? Such advice  --telling a worker, say, to use a respirator-- can do little harm, think the doctors, and might do some good. See J. Hollingsworth & E. Lasker, The Case Against Differential Diagnosis: Daubert, Medical Causation Testimony, and the Scientific Method, 37 J. Health L. 85, 98 (2004). A lower threshold for making a causation decision serves well in the clinic but not in the courtroom, said the court. 

Of course, some courts permit the physician to testify as to etiology using this methodology, e.g., Hardyman v. Norfolk & W. Ry. Co., 243 F.3d 255, 260-67 (6th Cir.2001), but even these courts must apply the Daubert principles carefully in considering it. The ability to diagnose medical conditions is not remotely the same as the ability to deduce, in a scientifically reliable manner, the causes of those medical conditions. Gass v. Marriott Hotel Servs., Inc., 501 F.Supp.2d 1011, 1019 (W.D.Mich.2007), rev'd on other grounds, 558 F.3d 419 (6th Cir.2009). Doctors thus may testify to both, at least in the Sixth Circuit, but the reliability of one does not guarantee the reliability of the other. 

Thus, whether plaintiffs described Dr. Carlini's causation methodology as “differential etiology” or “differential diagnosis,” that label does not make it reliable. Using the differential diagnosis method is not some "incantation that opens the Daubert gate.”  The issues remain, did the expert make an accurate diagnosis of the nature of the disease? Did the expert reliably rule in the possible causes of it? Did the expert reliably rule out the rejected causes? If the court answers “no” to any of these questions, the court must exclude the ultimate conclusion reached. See Best v. Lowe's Home Ctrs., Inc., 563 F.3d 171, 179 (6th Cir .2009).

Here, Dr. Carlini's opinion failed the last two prongs because his efforts to “rule in” manganese exposure as a possible cause, or to “rule out” other possible causes, turned on speculation and theory and hypothesis, not a valid methodology. 

While expressing sympathy for the plaintiffs, the court observed that ignoring Rule 702 — allowing the law to "get ahead of science" — would be just as unfair. Such an approach eventually would destroy jobs and stifle innovation unnecessarily, because it would impose liability on business based on speculation, not science.

Case remanded for new trial, with different evidence obviously. 

(The dissent would have found the challenge going to the weight, not admissibility of the testimony, and the trial court's decision not an abuse of discretion.)

Proposed CFA Class Action on Bath Products Is Dismissed

A federal court has dismissed a putative class action accusing Johnson & Johnson Consumer Co. Inc., L'Oreal USA Inc., Kimberly-Clark Corp., and other defendants, of selling children's bath products that contain toxic and carcinogenic substances. See Herrington v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Co. Inc., et al., No. 09-cv-01597 (N.D. Calif. 9/1/10).

Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the defendants failed to disclose that their products contain probable carcinogens, other unsafe contaminants, and/or ingredients that have not been shown to be safe. Plaintiffs further contended that defendants deceived consumers by affirmatively misrepresenting the safety of their products.  Plaintiffs averred that they purchased the products for use on their young children, and contended that, had defendants disclosed the contaminants in their children’s products and the fact that all ingredients were not "proven safe," they would not
have purchased the products at all.

To evidence the alleged hazards, plaintiffs cited a press release and a report entitled “No More Toxic Tub,” both of which were published by an extremist anti-business group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In the report, the Campaign points to trace amounts of chemicals such as formaldehyde allegedly in defendants’ products.

They sued for alleged violations of California’s false advertising statute, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500, et seq.; California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200, et seq.; and California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.; and
various other state unfair and deceptive trade practices acts, as well as making common law claims for misrepresentation; fraud; and breach of warranties.  Plaintiffs noted they intended to move for certification of a nationwide class and various subclasses.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss.  They first argued that plaintiffs did not have standing to sue
because they cannot show that they have suffered a concrete, actual injury-in-fact. Plaintiffs responded that they pleaded two injuries sufficient to confer standing: “(1) risk of harm to their children resulting from their exposure to carcinogenic baby bath products; and (2) economic harm resulting from the purchase of these contaminated, defective bath products.”

The court rejected this plaintiff argument, noting that plaintiffs did not cite controlling authority that the “risk of harm” injury employed to establish standing in traditional environmental cases in some states applies equally to what is, at base, a product liability action. To the extent that an increased risk of harm could constitute an injury-in-fact in a product liability case such as this one, in any event, plaintiffs would have to at lease plead a credible or substantial threat to their health or that of their children to establish their standing to bring suit.  But plaintiffs did not allege such a threat. They made general statements about the alleged toxicity of various chemicals, but did not allege that the amounts of the substances allegedly in defendants’ products have caused harm or create a credible or substantial risk of harm.  {Fundamental principle of toxicology - dose matters.}  Plaintiffs did not plead facts sufficient to show that a palpable risk exists. In fact, plaintiffs' own pleading noted that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has stated that, although the presence of certain chemicals “is cause for concern,” the CPSC is merely continuing “to monitor its use in consumer products.”  Seemed a far cry from substantial risk.

The court found this case analogous to Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 2008 WL 2938045 (D.N.J.), aff’d, 2010 WL 1169958 (3d Cir. 2010), which we posted on before, and which was dismissed on standing grounds. There, the plaintiff was a regular user of the defendants’ lipstick, which, according to another report by the same Campaign group, contained lead.  The plaintiff alleged that she had been injured “by mere exposure to lead-containing lipstick and by her increased risk of being poisoned by lead.”  However, she did not complain of any current injuries. The district court concluded, and the Third Circuit affirmed, that the plaintiff’s allegations of future injury
were “too remote and abstract to qualify as a concrete and particularized injury.” Id. at *5.

The court here also held that the various counts failed to state a claim. For example the fraud-related claims failed to plead, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b), “the who, what, when, where, and how of the alleged fraud.” See Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 317 F.3d 1097, 1106 (9th Cir. 2003).  While plaintiffs tried to argue that their consumer fraud act claims are different from common law fraud, the Ninth Circuit has held that Rule 9(b) applied to a plaintiff’s claims under the CLRA and UCL when they were grounded in fraud.  Also, plaintiffs did not not plead the circumstances in which they were exposed to the alleged false statements. Nor did they plead which of these alleged misrepresentations they relied on in making their purchase of products.  Again, plaintiffs cited In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009), to argue that they were not required to allege which representations they specifically saw. That case was factually distinguishable on many grounds.  And, in any event, to the extent In re Tobacco II provides that to establish UCL standing, reliance need not be proved through exposure to particular advertisements under some unique factual circumstance, the case does not stand for, nor could it stand for, a general relaxation of the pleading requirements under Federal Rule 9(b).

Similarly, plaintiffs made the general allegation that defendants engaged in unfair business acts or practices but did not allege facts suggesting that consumers have suffered an injury based on the defendants’ alleged conduct. Thus, for the same reasons they lacked Article III standing, they failed to state a claim for those types of claims as well. 

The court gave plaintiffs leave to try to file an amended complaint.

 

Climate Change Litigation Update

Latest round in the "global warming" litigation -- Coming as no surprise, a group of property owners asked the U.S. Supreme Court last week to address issues arising in the appeal of their climate change tort lawsuit.  The suit seeks to hold a group of energy companies liable for alleged hurricane damage to their properties.  See In re: Comer, No. 10-294 (U.S. petition for writ of mandamus filed 8/26/10). The causation allegation in this particular case is arguably even more attenuated than the long, convoluted causation chain in many other global warming cases; plaintiffs asserted that defendants' greenhouse gases didn't cause but contributed to global warming, which made the waters in the Gulf of Mexico warmer, which didn't create but made Hurricane Katrina more intense, which then caused their alleged property damage to be worse. That stands as perhaps the most attenuated, least supportable, causal link in tort history. 

The procedural history is fascinating.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi dismissed the complaint in August, 2007 for lack of standing and as a non-justiciable political question. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 2007 WL 6942285 (S.D.Miss. 2007). The district court correctly held that tort suits against electric power companies and other alleged large greenhouse gas emitters should not proceed in federal court because, among many reasons,  climate change, and tort claims based on alleged climate change, is fraught with national political and policy considerations.

Plaintiffs appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed that decision in October, 2009.  But the defendants petitioned for a rehearing en banc, and the Circuit ordered en banc rehearing of the case. Comer et al. v. Murphy Oil USA et al., No. 07-60756 (5th Cir.). That vacated the panel opinion.

Then came a letter from the clerk noting the cancellation of en banc oral arguments. Apparently, since the en banc court was constituted, new circumstances had arisen that made it necessary for various judges to recuse, leaving only eight members of the court able to participate in the case. Consequently, said the clerk, the en banc court had lost its quorum. (Several members of the court had previously recused themselves from the case.)  The court then asked for supplemental briefing on what should happen next.

Following the briefing, in an opinion of the majority of the remaining judges, the 5th Circuit held that it could not give the climate-related lawsuit full court review because of the recusal issues. See Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, 607 F.3d 1049 (5th Cir. 2010).  As a result, the court let stand the lower court's dismissal of the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in this case have now filed a petition seeking a writ of mandamus that would overturn the dismissal of their appeal. They raise not the merits of their convoluted causation theory, but the procedural questions about when an en banc court loses its quorum after granting rehearing but before hearing argument en banc, what happens to the appeal? And when an en banc court loses its quorum before deciding an appeal on rehearing en banc, does the original panel somehow still maintain control over the case?

Thus, the case is not positioned like the Second Circuit appeal in which the federal government (Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned company), recently urged the Supreme Court to overturn a court of appeals decision that allowed Connecticut and several other states to move forward in their suit seeking greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance theory. American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S., brief filed 8/24/10).

Readers know that writs of mandamus are rarely granted by the Supreme Court,  and the rule has traditionally been that once a court of appeals takes a case for en banc decision, the original panel decision is vacated, null and void, regardless of whatever happens next.  The 5th Circuit cannot legally reinstate a decision that no longer has any legal effect.  But stay tuned.

 

CPSC Finds No Product Link to Alleged Diaper Injuries

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, aided by Health Canada, has not been able to identify any link between new technology diapers and reports of alleged diaper rash-like injuries in users. CPSC says it looked into nearly 4,700 reports of diaper rash from April to August, 2010, but cannot identify a "scientific connection.”

Readers may recall that we posted about plaintiffs who have sued the Procter & Gamble Co. in a proposed national class action, alleging that new Pampers diapers containing “Dry Max” technology is causing rashes and "chemical burns" in some infants. See Clark, et al. v. Procter & Gamble Co., No. 10-301 (S.D. Ohio, 5/11/10).  What was most interesting for our readers, perhaps, is the fact that this litigation was apparently spurred by the social networking site, Facebook, where some parents have been blaming the new diapers for rashes. This has spread not only word of the incidence of a possible problem, but also the non-scientific, non-expert attribution of causation.

The CPSC said the on-line activism was part of what prompted them to try to get to the bottom of the alleged diaper issues. But it now has reported that the review has not identified any specific cause linking Dry Max diapers to diaper rash. CPSC notes that nearly 85 percent of the complaints came in May and then dropped off significantly -- which, MassTortDefense notes,  wouldn't make sense if the diapers actually were causing problems.

As part of its technical evaluation, staff from each agency considered certain characteristics of the diaper, including the materials used, the construction of the diaper, and heat and moisture retention issues.  In addition, CPSC staff reviewed clinical and toxicological data found in published, peer-reviewed medical literature. CPSC also critically reviewed data submitted by Procter & Gamble and the results of a human cumulative irritation patch study conducted by P&G in May 2010. Further, chemistry, toxicology and pediatric medicine information provided by Health Canada was reviewed by CPSC.

Both agencies say they will continue to evaluate consumer complaints related to Pampers Dry Max diapers and will provide parents with updated information if this assessment of no link somehow changes. Parents and caregivers were advised to seek the attention of a medical professional if they have any concerns about adverse health reactions to any baby product.  But most babies exhibit diaper rash at least once in their lifetime. At any given moment, more than 250,000 babies will experience a serious rash.  Diaper rash is not only very common, it is sometimes severe, regardless of the diaper used. Disposable diapers in fact have helped reduce the incidence of rash by more than 50 percent since they were first introduced in the 1960s because they pull wetness away from a baby's skin.

Class Certification Denied in Microwave Popcorn Litigation

A federal court has denied class certification in a proposed consumer fraud class action arising from the sale of microwave popcorn with artificial butter flavoring. See Courtney Fine v. Conagra Foods, Inc., No. CV 10-01848 SJO (C.D. Calif., Aug. 27, 2010).

The facts: Diacetyl is a naturally occurring chemical in butter, and was also used in artificial butter flavors for decades. In 2007 defendant Conagra, maker of microwave popcorn, issued a press release to the public stating it was no longer adding the compound diacetyl, which has been associated with lung injury in factory workers exposed to high doses, to its butter-flavored microwave popcorn products. Since the announcement, defendant "reformulated" all butter-flavored varieties of Orville Redenbacher's and Act II microwave popcorn in response, it said, to consumer uncertainty regarding the ingredients of the microwave popcorn. Conagra also redesigned the packaging for these products to display the words "No Added Diacetyl."

Plaintiff alleged that she understood the advertising claim to be there was no diacetyl in the new popcorn, as opposed to no added diacetyl, and alleged she relied on defendant's claims that there was "no diacetyl" in the popcorn products when making the purchases. Plaintiff asserted, however, that diacetyl is still present in the products (as part of natural butter). Plaintiff further asserted that had she known the representation regarding the diacetyl was false, she would not have made the purchases.

Plaintiff alleged causes of action for: (1) false and misleading representation of material facts, constituting unfair competition within the meaning of California Business & Professions Code §§ 17200, et seq. ("UCL"); and (2) false advertising in violation of Business & Professions Code §§ 17500, et seq. ("FAL"). She further alleged that she suffered a monetary loss as a result of defendant's alleged actions, which were in violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act ("CLRA"), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.

Last March, Conagra removed the case from state court to federal (Judge Otero). Then they filed a Motion to Dismiss based on various grounds, including that: (1) Plaintiff does not allege a cognizable injury resulting from defendant's products and therefore lacks standing; (2) Plaintiff fails to state a claim under the UCL, FAL, and CLRA as a matter of law under Rule 12(b)(6). The gist of the final argument was that plaintiff "received exactly what she paid for."  But, the court was persuaded that plaintiff adequately asserted that she did not get what she paid for, as she was under the impression that defendant's popcorn products were free of diacetyl. That is, she asserted that Conagra’s placement of "No Diacetyl Added" on the packaging is a material misrepresentation, and that reasonable consumers could (somehow) have taken the label to mean that diacetyl did not exist in the product at all.

Plaintiffs then moved for certification of a class consisting of all persons residing in the state of California who purchased Orville Redenbacher's brand Light Butter, Movie Theater Butter Light microwave popcorn, and/or ACT II brand 94% Fat Free Butter, Light Butter, and Butter Lover's microwave popcorn for personal use and not for resale since September 1, 2007. Plaintiff sought certification under Rule 23(b)(3) and 23(b)(2), but argued her "primary goal is to obtain injunctive relief by way of an order enjoining Defendant from its continued practice of making misleading advertising and label claims about its butter flavored microwave popcorn products."

The court denied the motion for class certification on three related grounds. The first problem was that in the court's prior Order Denying Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (6/29/10), the court had ruled that plaintiff established standing for herself because she alleged that she incurred injury as a result of defendant's allegedly improper conduct. That is, plaintiff's spending money on defendant's popcorn in reliance of defendant's placing "No Added Diacetyl" on the packaging.

In the class Motion, plaintiff sought to certify a class that includes "all persons residing in the State of California who purchased [Defendant's] popcorn for personal use and not for resale since September 1, 2007."  Named plaintiff made no mention of the proposed class being comprised only of members who made the purchase as a result of defendant's allegedly false statements, which would be necessary in order to establish standing for the rest of the class.  The court noted that other courts have held that class definitions should be tailored to exclude putative class members who lack standing; each class member need not submit evidence of personal standing but, nonetheless, a class must be defined in such a way that anyone within it would have standing. Burdick v. Union Sec. Ins. Co., 2009 WL 4798873, at *4 (C.D. Cal. 2009).

Accordingly, class certification was improper here, given that plaintiff's proposed class included many people who may not have relied on defendant's alleged misrepresentations when making their purchasing decisions.

Second, a related problem was the Rule 23(a) requirement that plaintiff’s claims be typical of the class claims. The court agreed with Conagra that plaintiff failed to adduce facts suggesting that other class members have been injured by the same course of conduct that she asserts injured her. There could be no serious question, said the court, that the vast majority of putative class members here never read (let alone considered) the defendant's statement at issue, do not know what diacetyl is, and did not base their popcorn purchases on diacetyl-related issues. Plaintiff purchased popcorn, she said, because of defendant's allegedly misleading statements regarding diacetyl. Plaintiff's injury was established due to her alleged reliance on defendant's statements. But plaintiff sought to certify a class that would likely include people with varying rationales behind their purchases – many who purchased popcorn based on factors like flavor or brand. Plaintiff thus failed to establish that she could be a typical representative of the class, whose members were buying for all sorts of reasons unrelated to diacetyl.

Third, because the court found that plaintiff was not a typical representative, the court also held that plaintiff was not an adequate representative under Rule 23(a)(4).

What is refreshing about this short opinion is the recognition that Rule 23(a) matters too.  Often we see courts giver very cursory analysis of the (a) elements and/or emphasize that regardless of the initial prerequisites the issues of predominance, manageability and superiority dictate the certification result.  While the fact that class members undoubtedly bought microwave popcorn for many reasons would impact predominance of individual issues, it also does in fact suggest that the class representative's claims were not typical of the the class, as defined.

(NB. Your humble blogger is involved in the diacetyl litigation, but not this case.)

 

Update on Gulf Oil Spill Litigation

Couple of interesting issue being debated in the Gulf Oil Spill Litigation.  In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL-2179 (E.D. La.).

The first concerns control over the testing of key components of the rig, once they are recovered.  Readers know how important such testing can be in supporting or refuting causation theories. But the very act of testing, even if not destructive, potentially alters the condition of the product.  Who goes first; what tests get run in what order; who does the testing; how tests are done... all of these can be vitally important issues in accident investigation and product liability litigation.

Defendant Transocean Ltd. unit has asked the judge in the MDL to grant a motion for a protective order that would block the government's apparent plan to unilaterally control testing of the oil rig's blowout preventer. Press reports suggest the blowout preventer could be recovered from the Gulf floor in the near future. Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc. and several other defendants thus filed a motion last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana for an expedited hearing on the protective order covering the blowout preventer.

The federal government has indicated that it wants to take exclusive control of the blowout preventer, transport it to a government site, and then contract for forensic testing and analysis. The motion argues that while the government has solicited input from other parties on testing protocol, it never said it would pay attention to any of those suggestions.

The second issue is a battle between Transocean and co-defendant BP over document discovery. Transocean attorneys are claiming that BP has been withholding documents and limiting Transocean's access to sensitive information connected to the accident, including records of tests on the blowout preventer, lab reports on components of the rig such as the well cement mix, and data on equipment used to keep well pipes in place during cementing.  BP, for its part, calls the claim a "publicity stunt” designed to divert attention from Transocean's alleged role in the accident.  BP claims it has already turned over thousands of pages of documents, including materials on the initial exploration plan, lab tests and daily drilling reports, and mud log reports.

Third, the American Petroleum Institute and other parties who are defendant-intervenors have asked the MDL judge to remand one of the many coordinated cases.  Gulf Restoration Network et al. v. Salazar et al.  This one is the suit brought by environmental groups against the federal government, and the argument is that it is fundamentally different from the other cases because it focuses on administrative law issues regarding the government’s approval of offshore drilling plans.

The Gulf Restoration Network, along with the Sierra Club, accused the U.S. Department of the Interior of ignoring environmental regulations when it allegedly waived safety regulations to allow BP and Transocean to conduct offshore drilling exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

The discovery for negligence claims at the core of the MDL, these moving parties assert, will not materially assist or advance a case that stems from the legal issue whether the federal government took proper steps in granting the companies the offshore drilling exploration permits.  In fact, the argument goes, keeping Gulf Restoration in the MDL would unreasonably delay what would normally be a quick resolution to an administrative law action.

 


 

State Court Allows Double-Dipping Asbestos Claim

A state appeals court has ruled that an employer may face liability under New Jersey law for allegedly exposing a plaintiff to asbestos through contact with her husband's work clothes, even if she also had worked for the employer as a direct employee herself. See Anderson v. A.J. Friedman Supply, et al., No. A-5892-07T1, 2010 WL 3289061 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div.,  8/20/10).

Plaintiffs alleged that Bonnie Anderson contracted mesothelioma from one or both exposures to asbestos at the Linden Bayway Refinery owned by defendant Exxon Mobil Corporation (and home of the state's largest Christmas tree apparently).  The first was bystander exposure from laundering her husband John's asbestos-laden work clothes during his employment with Exxon from 1969 to 2003. (In Olivo v. Owens-Illinois Inc., 186 N.J. 394 (2006), the court had found that an employer could be liable for indirectly exposing family members to the asbestos fibers found on an employee's work clothes.)  The second was alleged direct exposure during Bonnie's own employment with Exxon from 1974 to 1986.

At trial, plaintiffs focused on the bystander exposure, and tried to downplay any significant exposure at work.  A defense expert agreed that the only epidemiologically established cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure; it is commonly accepted today that it's possible that women can get mesothelioma from asbestos dust brought home on the clothing of a husband or parent; and that mesothelioma has an average latency period of thirty-two years.

The trial court charged the jury that asbestos brought home by John need not have been the sole cause of plaintiff's asbestos-related injuries, but it must be a substantial contributing factor, and if the jury were to find that Bonnie's exposure occurring during the course of her employment was the sole cause of her injury or disease, it should return a verdict for Exxon.

Exxon appealed  from a judgment in favor of plaintiffs, awarding more than $7 million to the Andersons in compensatory damages.

The appellate court noted that this case presented a novel scenario of a single injury arising after a long latency period caused by one of two, or both, asbestos exposures.  The court of appeals framed the question as whether Mrs. Anderson could continue to assert a claim against Exxon if she was exposed as a result of washing the clothes but she was also an employee with possible direct exposure at that time. 

As to that question, the court turned to the "dual persona doctrine," which under New Jersey law generally provides that an employer may become like a third person, vulnerable to tort suit by an employee, outside the normal bar of the exclusivity of the workers compensation system, if and only if it possesses a second persona so completely independent from and unrelated to its status as employer that by established standards the law recognizes that persona as a separate legal person.

The court could find no close precedents, but one might think that the role of the defendant as employer of husband and wife and its supposedly distinct role in the alleged exposure due to the husband's work-related clothing do not rise to the the level of separate legal persons.  But the court affirmed the trial court's reasoning that Exxon had such a dual persona, having an employer capacity for an eight year period, but then having a separate "relationship" to Mrs. Anderson as a bystander for 20 years. It was thought unfair to the plaintiff not to let her pursue her claim based on her bystander exposure, which had "absolutely nothing" to do with her employment relationship with Exxon. That is, although Exxon could not be held liable based on her direct occupational exposure, it could be held liable pursuant to her separate exposure to the asbestos brought home by John from his Exxon job.

One might assume that if the employer was a "separate legal person" who was not protected by the workers comp scheme for purposes of the alleged bystander exposure, then at least the defendant could get some recognition on the verdict form of this separate legal entity/status.  But even though the trial judge viewed Exxon as "standing in two different pairs of shoes," the court refused Exxon's request to have the two legal persons listed on the verdict sheet, and declined to direct the jury to allocate fault between Bonnie's direct asbestos exposure as an Exxon employee and any bystander exposure from washing John's work clothes.

The court of appeals agreed, reasoning that the jury could not allocate any fault to Exxon as Bonnie's employer, because Exxon was immune from suit pursuant to the Workers Comp Act. The state's comparative fault doctrine provides that fault shall be allocated among each "party" in the case. The workers' compensation bar precluded Exxon from being a "party" in this litigation in its status as Bonnie's employer.

Thus, defendants like Exxon get the worst of both worlds: no safe haven under workers' compensation for having been the plaintiff's employer, and no allocation of fault to the "distinct" exposure because it was the employer under the workers comp scheme!

 

U.S. Urges Reversal of 2d Circuit Global Warming Nuisance Decision

The federal government (Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a government-owned company), last week urged the Supreme Court to overturn a court of appeals decision that allowed Connecticut and several other states to move forward in their suit seeking greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance theory. American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S., brief filed 8/24/10).

Readers may recall from earlier posts that in Connecticut v. American Electric Power Co., 2009 WL 2996729 (2nd Cir. 9/21/09),  two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued several electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources. The plaintiffs' theory is that carbon dioxide acts as a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the earth's atmosphere, and that as a result of this trapped heat, the earth's temperature has risen over the years and will continue to rise in the future. Pointing to an alleged “clear scientific consensus” that global warming has already begun to alter the natural world, plaintiffs predicted that it “will accelerate over the coming decades unless action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.”

When thinking about "global climate" changes, MassTortDefense has always been sobered by the fact that humans have been trying to measure temperature consistently only since the1880s, during which time advocates think the world may have warmed by about +0.6 °C -- which is less than the margin of error on our ability to measure the Earth's temperature!

Anyway, plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. 406 F. Supp. 2d 265.

On appeal to the Second Circuit, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, the two judges (Justice, then-Judge Sotomayor had to drop out) held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced by other federal law.

In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract.  Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated. The Supreme Court has further stated that the asserted injury must be actual or imminent, certainly impending and immediate --not remote, speculative, conjectural, or hypothetical. The court rejected defendants challenge that the contentions of future injury at some unspecified future date are not the kind of “imminent” injury required. The court also gave short shrift to the argument that plaintiffs could neither isolate which alleged harms will be caused by defendants' emissions, nor allege that such emissions would alone cause any future harms.

As we noted here, several defendants have filed a cert petition that raises the important, recurring question whether states and private plaintiffs have standing to seek, and whether federal common law provides authority for courts to impose, a non-statutory, judicially created regime for setting caps on greenhouse gas emissions based on vague and indeterminate nuisance concepts. It also asks the Court to decide whether judges, in addition to Congress and the EPA, may regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the behest of states and/or private parties and, if so, under what standards. Under the Second Circuit's ruling, a single judge could set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue. Judges in subsequent cases could set different standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.

While the Second Circuit called this an ordinary tort suit, this litigation seeks to transfer to the judiciary nearly standard-less authority for some of the most important and sensitive economic, energy, and social policy issues presently before the country. Federal nuisance law is neither sufficiently developed nor sufficiently detailed to substitute for actual regulation. Thus, at stake is the financial health and security of numerous sectors of the economy. Indeed, virtually every entity and industry in the world is responsible for some emissions of carbon dioxide and is thus a potential defendant in climate change nuisance actions under the theory of this case. The threat of litigation, and the indeterminate exposure to monetary and injunctive relief that it entails, could substantially impede and alter the future investment decisions and employment levels of all affected industries, and ultimately every sector of the economy.


Now the government brief takes a different approach, asking the Court not to accept the case for full review, but rather to simply vacate the decision and direct the Second Circuit to reconsider two issues: whether the plaintiffs have standing to bring the lawsuit, and whether recent actions by the EPA  to regulate greenhouse gas emissions supplant the reason given by the Second Circuit for allowing the lawsuit to go forward.  Since the initial decision below, EPA has issued final rules establishing reporting requirements for major emitters of greenhouse gases; issued a finding that greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks endanger public health and welfare; and established new greenhouse gas emissions limits for cars and light trucks. In addition, EPA has signed off on a final rule requiring that additional categories of sources begin to track and report greenhouse gas emissions under EPA's earlier GHG reporting rule.  The Second Circuit decision was seemingly predicated on the "now-obsolete conclusion" that EPA had not taken action to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions from stationary sources. 

The TVA brief also argues that  that the lower court should dismiss the case based on “prudential standing,” a narrower ground than the case or controversy argument of the other defendants.


 

Drywall Litigation Update

The Georgia Superior Court has preliminarily approved a $6.5 million settlement between the Lowe's home improvement stores and a nationwide proposed class of drywall purchasers. Vereen v. Lowe's Home Centers Inc., SU10-CV-2267B (Ga. Super. Ct., Muscogee Cty.).

The proposed resolution of this piece of the drywall litigation would provide Lowe's gift certificates ranging from $50 to $2,000 to any consumer who purchased drywall (not just from China), as well as cash awards of up to $2,500, if the claimant can provide documentation of damages and proof of purchase. That is, plaintiffs who provide proof of purchase of drywall from Lowe's but have no proof of actual damages would receive gift cards valued up to $250. Class members unable to provide a proof of purchase would receive $50 gift cards.

Under the settlement, Lowe's also agreed to pay attorneys' fees and expenses up to 30% of the class fund, as well as $1 million to the plaintiff attorneys for administration of claims. The settlement purports to release Lowe's from all drywall claims.The Georgia court conditionally certified a settlement class and set a final fairness hearing for November 19th.

But the proposed settlement has apparently drawn objections from participants in the federal Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation, who are arguing that the settlement fund is too small and that the settlement would interfere with federal jurisdiction.  The plaintiffs' steering committee for the Chinese drywall multidistrict litigation in the Eastern District of Louisiana went so far as to move to enjoin the state court from moving ahead with the settlement, arguing that the benefit to the class is too small, and the attorneys' fees too large. Ironically, these plaintiff attorneys assert that the form of the class benefit, i.e.,  a gift card, is also improper.

The MDL lawyers assert that the parties involved in the MDL have been negotiating towards a global settlement, and allowing the state court, one-defendant settlement to go forward would simply undermine those efforts.  They called on the federal court, pursuant to the Anti-Injunction Act, to enjoin state court proceedings where, as here, it is allegedly necessary in aid of its jurisdiction or to protect or effectuate its judgments.

Readers will recall that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, drywall was imported from China to address a shortage of drywall required for repairs and new construction. After the drywall was installed, homeowners began to complain of smells, gas emanations, corrosion of appliances and electrical fixtures, and other alleged property damage. The lawsuits typically allege that sulfur compound levels in the drywall are too high, causing issues with air conditioning systems, electrical appliances, internal wiring, and other electrical systems in homes. Plaintiffs also allege the drywall produces a rotten egg-like stench and causes a variety of respiratory and other health problems for those who live in the affected homes.

So far, a few bench or jury bellwether trials have been completed, with mixed results.
 
 

Defendants in Second Circuit Climate Change Case Seek Cert

Several electric power companies have asked the Supreme Court to review a Second Circuit ruling that Connecticut and several other states may seek greenhouse gas emissions reductions under a federal common law nuisance claim.  American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut, No. 10-174 (U.S. 8/2/10). The petition for certiorari was filed by American Electric Power Co., Duke Energy Corp., Southern Co., and Xcel Energy Inc.

Readers may recall that in 2004, two groups of plaintiffs, one consisting of eight states and New York City, and the other consisting of three land trusts, sued six electric power corporations that own and operate fossil-fuel-fired power plants, seeking abatement of defendants' alleged ongoing contributions to the "public nuisance of global warming." Plaintiffs claimed that global warming, to which the defendants allegedly contributed as large emitters of carbon dioxide, is causing, and will continue to cause serious harm affecting human health and natural resources.

Because of the procedural posture (motion to dismiss), the court did not really describe the other side of the story, but readers of MassTortDefense know that change is what the climate is always doing as a result of the planet's orbital eccentricities, axial wobbles, solar brightness changes, cosmic ray flux, and multiple other factors. There are numerous plausible terrestrial drivers of climate changes too. While global warming is a serious topic worthy of scientific study and political discussion, plaintiffs' alleged "consensus" on this issue ignores the fact that global mean temperature is only one part of climate, and may not even be the best metric. Moreover, the most important driver of the greenhouse effect are water vapor and clouds. Carbon dioxide is only about 0.038% of the atmosphere, and humans are responsible for only about 3.4% of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually, the rest of it being natural.  When thinking about "global climate" changes, we have to be cognizant of the fact that humans have been trying to measure the temperature consistently only since the1880s, during which time even advocates think the world may have warmed by about +0.6 °C -- which is less than the margin of error on our ability to measure the Earth's temperature. 

Anyway, plaintiffs brought these actions under the federal common law of nuisance or, in the alternative, state nuisance law, to force defendants to cap and then reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The district court correctly held that plaintiffs' claims presented a non-justiciable political question and dismissed the complaints. On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the political question doctrine does not bar adjudication of their claims; that they had standing to assert their claims; that they had properly stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; and that their claims were not displaced by any federal statutes.

In a lengthy opinion, the court of appeals held that the district court erred in dismissing the complaints on political question grounds; that all of plaintiffs had standing; that the federal common law of nuisance governs their claims; that plaintiffs had stated claims under the federal common law of nuisance; that their claims were not displaced.  In a very minimalist interpretation of what is needed for standing, the Second Circuit distinguished multiple precedents of the Supreme Court which held that to have standing a plaintiff must allege an injury that is concrete, direct, real, and palpable -- not abstract. Injury must be particularized, personal, individual, distinct, and differentiated -- not generalized or undifferentiated. The Supreme Court has further stated that the asserted injury must be actual or imminent, certainly impending and immediate --not remote, speculative, conjectural, or hypothetical. The court of appeals rejected defendants challenge that these vague contentions of future injury at some unspecified future date are not the kind of “imminent” injury required. The court also gave short shrift to the argument that plaintiffs could neither isolate which alleged harms will be caused by defendants' emissions, nor allege that such emissions would alone cause any future harms. 

This petition raises the important, recurring question whether states and private plaintiffs have standing to seek, and whether federal common law provides authority for courts to impose, a non-statutory, judicially created regime for setting caps on greenhouse gas emissions based on vague and indeterminate nuisance concepts.  It also asks the Court to decide whether judges, in addition to Congress and the EPA, may regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the behest of states and private parties and, if so, under what standards.  Under the Second Circuit's ruling, a single judge could set emissions standards for regulated utilities across the country—or, as here, for just that subset of utilities that the plaintiffs have arbitrarily chosen to sue. Judges in subsequent cases could set different standards for other utilities or industries, or conflicting standards for these same utilities.

While the Second Circuit called this an ordinary tort suit, this litigation seeks to transfer to the judiciary nearly standardless authority for some of the most important and sensitive economic, energy, and social policy issues presently before the country.  Thus, at stake is the financial health and security of numerous sectors of the economy. Indeed, virtually every entity and industry in the world is responsible for some emissions of carbon dioxide and is thus a potential defendant in climate change nuisance actions under the theory of this case. The threat of litigation, and the indeterminate exposure to monetary and injunctive relief that it entails, could substantially impede and alter the future investment decisions and employment levels of all affected industries, and ultimately every sector of the economy.

JPML Orders Gulf Oil Spill MDL to Eastern District of Louisiana

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation yesterday selected New Orleans as the site of the oil spill litigation MDL. The Panel ordered coordination, and transferred 77 lawsuits to the Eastern District of Louisiana before U.S. Judge Carl J. Barbier (and referred to more than 200 potential tag along actions). In Re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig "Deepwater Horizon" in The Gulf of Mexico, MDL No. 2179 (Aug. 10, 2010). 

In its order, the Panel found that the cases indisputably share factual issues concerning the cause (or causes) of the Deepwater Horizon explosion/fire and the role, if any, that each defendant played in it. Centralization under Section 1407 would eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, including rulings on class certification and other issues, and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary. Interestingly, the Panel noted that centralization may also facilitate closer coordination with Kenneth Feinberg’s administration of the BP compensation fund.

Over some objections, the Panel also concluded that it made sense to include the personal injury/wrongful death actions in the MDL. While these actions will require some amount of individualized discovery, in other respects they overlap with those that pursue only economic damage claims, found the Panel. The Order notes that the transferee judge has broad discretion to employ any number of pretrial techniques – such as establishing separate discovery and/or motion tracks – to address any differences among the cases and efficiently manage the various aspects of this litigation. See, e.g., In re Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., Securities & Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) Litigation, 598 F.Supp.2d 1362, 1364 (J.P.M.L. 2009). 

In terms of where the cases should be coordinated, the Panel noted that the parties advanced sound reasons for a large number of possible transferee districts and judges. They settled upon the Eastern District of Louisiana as the most appropriate district for this litigation. Without discounting the spill’s effects on other states, the Panel concluded that "if there is a geographic and psychological center of gravity in this docket, then the Eastern District of Louisiana is closest to it."

In selecting Judge Barbier, the Panel expressly declined the suggestion made at oral argument that, given the litigation’s scope and complexity, it should assign the docket to multiple transferee judges. "Experience teaches," said the Panel, that most, if not all, multidistrict proceedings do not require the oversight of more than one judge, provided that he or she has the time and resources to handle the assignment. Moreover, Judge Barbier has at his disposal all the many assets of the Eastern District of Louisiana which is accustomed to handling large MDLs. Judge Barbier may also, found the Panel, choose to employ special masters and other case administration tools to facilitate certain aspects of the litigation. See Manual for Complex Litigation, Fourth §§ 11.52, 11.53 (2004).


 

House Holds Hearing on Proposed Toxic Chemicals Safety Act

The Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection  of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on H.R. 5820, the “Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010,” last week.  The proposed legislation would amend the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 to deal with potential risks resulting from chemical exposure.

Witnesses included Steve Owens from the EPA; Calvin M. Dooley, President and Chief Executive Officer of the  American Chemistry Council; and Beth Bosley, Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates, Inc.

Any approach toward updating federal chemical regulation should balance safety issues with the need to preserve the ability of the United States to serve as the innovation engine for the world; and protect the hundreds of thousands of American jobs fueled directly and indirectly by the business of chemistry.  That is, reforming TSCA to enhance the safety assessment of chemicals while maintaining the ability of the U.S. chemical industry to be the international leader in innovation and manufacturing.

It is clear that the standards established in this bill sets an impossibly high hurdle for all chemicals in commerce, and are guaranteed to produce significant technical, bureaucratic and commercial barriers. For example, the bill requires that “aggregate exposure” to a chemical or a mixture meet the “reasonable certainty of no harm” standard. This apparently means that when a chemical or mixture is listed for a safety determination, the manufacturer carries the burden of showing with reasonable certainty not just that the company’s use of the chemical and any resulting exposures from those uses pose no significant risk of harm, but that all other aggregated exposures from all other uses of the chemical pose no harm. It is not clear to MassTortDefense how any company could actually do that in the real world.  TSCA regulates thousands of chemicals, many with hundreds of uses. TSCA chemicals have multiple important industrial applications and consumer product applications. It is totally unclear how industry or even the EPA would be able to gather enough information to meet this aggregate exposure standard for each and every regulated substance.

The proposed bill thus creates a burden that seems far out of proportion to its benefit. The onslaught of new regulations may simply force customers of the industry to relocate their factories and make the products at issue overseas, outside the EPA's jurisdiction.  The bill would also  discourage the introduction of new chemicals, including new greener chemicals, into commerce in the United States.  Congress, keep working at it.
 

JPML Hears Oral Argument In Gulf Oil Spill MDL

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation heard oral argument last week on the issue of consolidating the hundreds of cases arising from the Gulf oil spill. In re: Oil Spill by the Oil Rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico,  MDL No. 2179.

The MDL panel met this time in Boise, Idaho, and suspended the usual rule limiting oral
argument to 20 minutes.  Multiple attorneys representing the various parties in the pending cases addressed the panel.  Most defendants urged the cases be coordinated in the Southern District of Texas, while most plaintiffs, including some of the restaurant owners and fishermen affected by the spill, argued for the Eastern District of Louisiana, asserting that much of the injury/damages is centered there. A  few other plaintiffs pushed for the cases to be coordinated in Mississippi, Alabama, or Florida courts.

BP argued that the Texas forum was appropriate because this defendant's headquarters, documents, and key fact witnesses are all located there. The government wants the cases consolidated in New Orleans. But one issue is that 8 federal judges, including several in Louisiana, have recused themselves from the spill cases.  This led to discussion whether potential judicial conflicts should compel the panel to bring in a judge from outside the Gulf states. In New Orleans, the Eastern District of Louisiana has consolidated its 50+ oil spill cases before Judge Carl J. Barbier, who has issued interim case management orders and appointed interim liaison counsel for plaintiffs and defendants.  Some have argued this has effectively created an administrative framework that could be utilized were the Panel to send the MDL to New Orleans.

At last look, federal cases were spread around the country, including in New York and California and Illinois.  However, the busiest oil spill dockets are in the Eastern District of Louisiana, Southern District of Texas, Southern District of Alabama, and the three Florida district courts, each with more than 10 cases. 

As noted here, the litigation involves a wide variety of claims, from personal injury, to property or environmental damages, lost profits, and securities-based economic injury.  The panel asked whether the cases, even if consolidated, should be put in separate groupings.  Some plaintiffs' attorneys  argued it was particularly important to set up a separate track for personal-injury claims.  

 

Causation Expert Opinions Excluded in Toxic Tort Case

A federal judge has issued an opinion explaining her Daubert and summary judgment rulings in a case brought by a consumer who alleged he contracted lung disease from the fumes of microwave popcorn. Newkirk et al. v. ConAgra Foods Inc., No. 2:08-cv-00273 (E.D. Wash. 7/2/2010).

Readers of MassTortDefense may be familiar with the so-called "popcorn lung" litigation in which plaintiffs have alleged they contracted a series of diseases, including Bronchiolitis obliterans, from inhaling the chemical diacetyl which had been used in the artificial butter on microwave popcorn.  Most of the claims have been made by workers with alleged industrial-level exposures on a daily basis in popcorn factories several years ago.  There are, however, a handful of cases by consumers claiming they somehow had sufficient exposure in their homes to have the same respiratory injuries.  These latter cases raise significant issues of general and specific causation, arising from the central tenet of toxicology: the dose makes the poison.  The studies relied on by plaintiffs noted that the cumulative exposure to diacetyl was correlated with chronic effects on lung function in plant workers.

Plaintiff Newkirk claimed that the natural and artificial butter flavoring in ConAgra's Act II Butter and Act II Butter Lovers popcorn products caused him severe and progressive damage to the respiratory system, extreme shortness of breath, and reduced life expectancy.  He claimed that he ate between five and seven bags of ConAgra's popcorn every day for more than a decade.

The motions centered around plaintiff's burden to prove causation. Plaintiffs in toxic tort cases must establish both general and specific causation. Golden v. CH2M Hill Hanford Group, Inc., 528 F.3d 681, 683 (9th Cir.2008). Evidence supporting general causation addresses “whether the substance at issue had the capacity to cause the harm alleged.” In re Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation, 292 F.3d 1124, 1133 (9th Cir.2002). Specific causation, by contrast, concerns whether a particular individual suffers from a particular ailment as a result of exposure to the substance. Defendants challenged plaintiff's proof of both under Daubert.

Plaintiffs retained Dr. Egilman to offer an opinion on general causation, as well as to examine Mr. Newkirk, diagnose him, and offer an opinion regarding the specific cause of his condition. The expert opinion testimony of Dr. Egilman was the plaintiffs’ primary evidence supporting general causation. (All of the Newkirks’ other causation expert witnesses assumed that general causation already has been established.)  He opined that,  “There is no known safe level of diacetyl exposure. Existing scientific studies also suggest that levels of diacetyl exposure below and around 1 ppm can cause BO and other respiratory illnesses.”


The court found, however, that Dr. Egilman's attempt to analogize kitchen to industrial exposures failed. He offered no sufficient basis or methodology for support for the conclusion that there is no important (medically relevant) qualitative difference between the vapor from butter flavoring slurry in a mixing vat in a popcorn plant and the vapor from butter flavoring that is emitted from microwave popcorn in the home. There was nothing to support Dr. Egilman’s conclusions that were at the heart of this case: that the vapors emitted from a microwave popcorn bag contain the same proportion of chemicals or in sufficient doses or that all of the substances in the two instances are identical. In other parts of his reports and testimony, the court found, Dr. Egilman relied on some existing data, mostly in the form of published studies, but drew conclusions far beyond what the study authors concluded.

Or, Dr. Egilman manipulated the data from those studies to reach misleading conclusions of his own. Slip opin. at 25. For example, he relied on statements by a Dr. Cecile Rose, on a patient (and another consumer plaintiff), Mr. Watson, who allegedly contracted disease from popcorn fumes. But this was in the nature of a single case report, and in it even Dr. Rose did not assert that her conclusions could be extrapolated to other consumers in the absence of publication or peer review; Dr. Egilman acknowledged that Dr. Rose did not publish the exposure levels measured in Mr. Watson’s home -- so no such comparison was possible.  Dr. Rose herself qualified her conclusions: “It is difficult to make a causal connection based on a single case report. We cannot be sure that this patient’s exposure to butter flavored microwave popcorn from daily heavy preparation has caused his lung disease.” 
 

The expert also relied on testing conducted by Dr. John Martyny in a kitchen (not of a consumer), despite that doctor's own reflections that the methodology underlying the work could not support extrapolating to general causation for a broader group of consumers.  The expert also relied on animal studies. Expert opinion relying on animal studies to reach an opinion on causation in humans is usually admissible only when the expert explains how and why the results of the animal toxicological study can reliably be extrapolated to humans. General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 143-45 (1997).  Dr. Egilman offered no such analytical bridge between the animal studies finding harm from high levels of diacetyl exposure to lab rats and his conclusion that those studies demonstrate that diacetyl exposure causes decreased lung function in humans. He offered no sufficient explanation for how and why the results of those studies could be extrapolated to humans, let alone low-dose consumer contexts.

Without Dr. Egilman's testimony to support causation, the plaintiffs' other expert witnesses couldn't establish this element either.

Note also that the court excluded Dr. Egilman's "legal conclusions" from his expert report and affidavits, since the witness was no more capable than the fact-finder to draw such a conclusion. See Nationwide Transp. Fin. v. Cass Info. Sys., 523 F.3d 1051, 1059-60 (9th Cir.2008) (expert witness cannot give an opinion as to her legal conclusion, i.e., an opinion on an ultimate issue of law). For example, Dr. Egilman tried to opine that about what the defendant "knew" and "failed to warn" consumers. This is another useful precedent against plaintiffs' mis-use of the conduct "expert" who provides mere legal conclusions and invades the province of the jury.

(Your humble blogger is involved in the diacetyl litigation, but not this case.)

EPA Issues Additional Greenhouse Gas Rules

Late last month, the Environmental Protection Agency signed off on a final rule requiring that  additional categories of sources begin to track and report greenhouse gas emissions under EPA's earlier GHG reporting rule.

Readers will recall the original rule, published in October, 2009, regulated 41 kinds of sources of methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide ,and other GHG emissions, requiring reporting when the rule becomes effective.  The new rule adds Magnesium Production, Underground Coal Mines, Industrial Wastewater Treatment, and Industrial Landfills, to the list of sources that have reporting requirements.  With this final rule the Agency has taken action on all outstanding source categories and subparts from the April 2009 original proposal for the greenhouse gas reporting program.

EPA promulgated the regulations to require monitoring and reporting of various major greenhouse gas emissions. In general, this national greenhouse gas reporting program is supposed to  provide EPA with accurate and timely GHG emissions data from facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year. This data is supposed to provide a better understanding of where GHGs are coming from and will guide development of the best possible policies and programs to reduce emissions, says the EPA.

Underground coal mines, magnesium production facilities, industrial waste landfills and industrial wastewater treatment facilities that meet the reporting threshold must begin monitoring GHG emissions on January 1, 2011 and must submit the first annual report to EPA by March 31, 2012. These GHG reporting rules are genearaly viewed as the first steps toward implementing GHG emissions limits and related climate change regulations. 

California Right To Know Bill Strikes the Wrong Balance

Last week, the California Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials approved the Consumer Right to Know Act, S.B. 928.  The bill passed the California State Senate last April, and is currently pending in the California Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations.

This bill would ban the manufacture, sale, or distribution of certain consumer products unless the manufacturer publishes a comprehensive list of ingredients on a publicly available website and directs consumers to a web address on the product’s label. The ingredients would have to be identified with a Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) number. Additionally, they should be identified by either the Consumer Specialty Products Association Consumer Product Ingredients Dictionary (CSPA dictionary) name or the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) name.

As originally drafted, the bill applied to all consumer products as defined by the federal Consumer Product Safety Act. As amended, the current bill applies only to “designated consumer products.” So far, those products include: air care products, automotive products, cleaning products, and polish or floor maintenance products. But, according to observers, the scope of products is under review and could be changed by the legislature before enactment.

One huge issue with the bill is its inadequate protection for legitimate intellectual property, including trade secret information.

As it is currently drafted, S.B. 928 purports to protect trade secrets from disclosure, but it also restricts this ostensible protection in several problematic ways.

  • First, “hazardous” ingredients cannot be trade secrets for purposes of the bill. And the bill has an overbroad broad definition of “hazardous.” That is, a “hazardous substance” is defined as a chemical, or chemical compound, including breakdown products, identified by any state or federal agency or other governmental body or the World Health Organization as potentially having properties of eye and skin irritation, sensitization, acute or chronic toxicity, carcinogenicity, cytotoxicity, neurotoxicity, developmental or reproductive toxicity, or both, endocrine disruption or ecotoxicity.  Any chemical has the "potential" to be toxic at the wrong dose. Even substances universally regarded as safe can cause sensitization in a few hyper-allergic persons.

 

  • Second, hazardous incidental ingredients—those without a technical or functional effect, which, for example, can be present in very small quantities from processing or the production of other products—cannot be protected as trade secrets.

 

  • Third, if a product or its ingredients or incidental ingredients can be reverse engineered, it should not receive trade secret protection. Of course, it is impossible for manufacturers to know in advance what is capable of being reversed engineered for the purposes of disclosing ingredients.

Such disclosure of all chemical ingredients in products may lead to final product manufacturers being placed in the awkward situation of asking suppliers to divulge ingredient information, unique combinations of ingredients, and/or formulas that are patented, proprietary, or considered trade secrets. Many times these formulas are provided to final product manufacturers only under confidentiality agreements. The legislation, in those cases, would appear to require manufacturers to violate those confidentiality agreements by disclosing chemical ingredient information.


In addition, the bill requires that a manufacturer complete a complicated and unworkable formal process to have product information protected as a trade secret. This includes a showing of how secrecy leads to value, the ease of duplication if disclosure is made, how the chemical identity relates to how the chemical is made, how the manufacturer maintains secrecy, and how hard it is to reverse engineer the product. Most importantly, this includes disclosure of the basis for the manufacturer’s determination that its ingredients are not hazardous. That is, prove the negative. 

Finally, if the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) determines that the product is not deserving of trade secret protection for any number of listed reasons, including request from the public, the government can affirmatively disclose the product information. In order to prevent disclosure, the manufacturer will have 30 days to file for an injunction. That is an unfair and unworkable time frame.

A coalition of business interests led by the California Chamber of Commerce is opposing the bill on the grounds it increases costs to consumers and will expose confidential business information.  It fears that the definition of product will be expanded "to include everything under the California sun."

The bill would also eliminate trade secret protection after six years unless the manufacturer renews its claim. There is no apparent purpose for such a sunset provision on a trade secret claim other than to burden and place additional expense on the manufacturer. Finally, the bill provides no protections against private rights of action, including actions that may arise under California consumer fraud laws.

We could go on, but isn't that enough reason to conclude the bill strikes the wrong balance?

 

NRDC Sues FDA Over BPA

The Natural Resources Defense Council brought suit last week against the FDA for allegedly failing to take timely action in response to its petition asking the agency to ban the chemical bisphenol A. NRDC v. Sebelius, D.C. Cir., No. 10-1142 (filed 6/29/2010).

NRDC is one of a number of advocacy groups who allege that this important chemical, used to make polycarbonate plastics in water bottles and epoxy resins used to line cans containing food, causes harmful health effects, particularly to infants and children, including early puberty, reproductive abnormalities.

However, both the scientific process and the public interest are better served by allowing the FDA to complete its ongoing review of the science surrounding the safety profile of BPA -- at its own pace.  Just this January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA made it clear that BPA has not been proven to harm children or adults.  EPA released its bisphenol A Action Plan in March 2010. Importantly, the agency clearly indicated that it does not intend to initiate regulatory action under TSCA at this time on the basis of human health concerns.

This observation is consistent with a draft assessment issued by FDA in 2008, and the scientific conclusions of many other government regulatory agencies around the world. In January 2010, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR, Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung) wrote, “Following careful examination of all studies, in particular the studies in the low dose range of bisphenol A, BfR comes to the conclusion in its scientific assessment that the normal use of polycarbonate bottles does not lead to a health risk from bisphenol A for infants and small children. BfR is not alone in this assessment. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) share this opinion. Japan, which has conducted its own studies on bisphenol A, does not see any need for a ban either.”
 

In January 2010, FDA Deputy Josh Sharfstein was quoted as noting the FDA does support the use of baby bottles with BPA because the benefits of sound infant nutrition currently outweigh the known risks from BPA. Nevertheless, and perhaps not surprisingly, the California Assembly passed legislation last week to ban the use of bisphenol A in children's food and drink containers beginning in 2012.  The bill passed by a vote of 43-31 vote. The Toxics-Free Babies and Toddlers Act (S.B. 797) moves to the state Senate for approval, since the Senate initially passed a different version early last month.

The bill provides that if the state Department of Toxic Substances Control begins to regulate the chemical through its “green chemistry’’ initiative, S.B. 797 would be repealed.  In the meantime, the law would would limit the level of BPA in baby bottles, toddlers' cups, and food and drinking containers.  Infant formula manufacturers would have until July, 2012, to stop using BPA in the coatings used to line their metal containers.

 

Welding Fume MDL Court Releases "Trial Template"

The Judge overseeing the Welding Fume Products Liability MDL Litigation has issued a “Trial Template” to assist transferor courts in handling the 3,900 remaining cases in the future.  In re: Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1535 (N.D. Ohio).

The document outlines the proceedings that have occurred in this MDL since its 2003 inception,
and summarizes the court’s pretrial rulings applicable to every MDL case. (All of this MDL court's written Orders cited in the document are available through the MDL court’s site.)  The stated purpose of the document is to assist trial judges in transferor courts who may preside over the trial of an individual welding fume case, after the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation remands the
case from the MDL court back to the transferor court.

(Another good source on this mass tort for the interested reader is Jowers v. Lincoln Elec. Co., 608 F.Supp.2d 724 (S.D. Miss. 2009), in which the court reviewed all of the parties’ evidence in the context of resolving defendants’ post-judgment motions, filed after the jury reached a rare plaintiff’s verdict in the fourth MDL bellwether trial.)

Key points: since the MDL was created in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in June 2003, more than 9,800 cases have been transferred from other courts, and 2,700 have been removed to or directly filed with the court. Voluntary dismissals, remands and other events have reduced the number of pending cases to approximately 3,900. The gravamen of the complaint in each of these cases is that manganese contained in the fumes given off by welding rods has caused the plaintiff to suffer neurological injury, and the defendant manufacturers of these welding rods failed to warn of this hazard. At trial, defendants typically interpose some or all of the following fact-based defenses: (1) the warning language defendants used was adequate; (2) the plaintiff did not prove he used a particular defendant’s welding rods; (3) the plaintiff did not prove he saw a particular defendant’s warnings; (4) the plaintiff did not prove his neurological condition was caused by exposure to welding fumes; (5) the plaintiff’s neurological condition is not manganese-induced "Parkinsonism," it is something else (e.g., psychogenic movement disorder); (6) the defendants are immune pursuant to their role as government contractors; (7) the defendants are not liable because the plaintiff’s employer was a learned intermediary; (8) the defendants are not liable because the plaintiff was a sophisticated user; (9) the plaintiff did not prove that a better warning would have made any difference; (10) the plaintiff is, to some degree, responsible for his own injuries under the theories of contributory negligence, comparative negligence, or assumption of the risk; and (11) punitive damages are not available because the plaintiff did not present clear and convincing evidence of gross negligence.

The MDL court presided over six bellwether trials and is now in the process of suggesting remand to transferor courts of cases that have become close to trial-ready, the judge said. The court has so far applied the laws of five states in MDL bellwether trials: Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina, California, and Iowa. The parties sometimes, but not always, have agreed on which state’s law applies. In cases of disagreement, the choice-of-law analysis a transferor court will have to apply is likely to be fact-specific.

The court has granted summary judgment to certain defendants (MetLife & Caterpillar) in all welding fume cases. Further, the Court entered a “Peripheral Defendant Dismissal Order,” dismissing without prejudice all defendants in every case except those against whom a given plaintiff is most likely to proceed at trial. Still remaining as defendants in virtually every case are five of the biggest welding rod manufacturers: (1) Lincoln Electric Company, (2) BOC Group (formerly known as Airco) (3) ESAB Group, (4) TDY Industries (formerly known as Teledyne Industries and Teledyne McKay), and (5) Hobart Brothers Company. Defendant-specific discovery in each case may lead to dismissal of some of these five defendants, and possibly to renaming of some previously-dismissed defendants, the court observed. 

Regarding discovery, the parties have engaged in huge amounts of generic discovery directed at
information potentially relevant to every case. This includes, for example, the defendants’ alleged historical knowledge of the hazards posed by welding fumes, the warnings defendants provided to welders over time, and the state of medical and scientific knowledge regarding neurotoxicity of manganese in welding fumes. For the most part, the parties have completed all general discovery. To prepare for trial in a specific welding fume case, the parties must engage in substantial case-specific discovery directed at information relevant to the individual plaintiff’s particular claims and circumstances. This discovery typically will address the plaintiff’s employment history, medical history, and welding experiences. The court observed that at least some of this plaintiff-specific discovery may not occur until after the MDL court has remanded the case to the transferor court. Accordingly, a transferor court may need to oversee some aspects of case-specific discovery.

As to plaintiffs, about ten years ago, the national plaintiffs’ bar engaged in a concerted effort to notify welders that, if they suffered from a movement disorder, their neurological injury might be caused by exposure to welding fumes. The MDL court then imposed several obligations on plaintiffs’ counsel to ensure they intend to actually try the cases they filed. These additional obligations include the filing of: (1) a “Notice of Diagnosis” of neurological injury, signed by a medical doctor; and (2) a “Certification of Intent to Try the Case,” to be submitted by plaintiff’s counsel following initial medical records discovery. These obligations have winnowed the plaintiffs’ cases substantially, so the MDL court believes that there is some likelihood that a case remanded to a transferor court will go to trial.

On the expert front, the parties sought to introduce at trial testimony from a plethora of experts in a number of fields, including neurology, neuro-pathology, neuro-psychology, neuro-radiology, epidemiology, bio-statistics, industrial hygiene, industrial engineering, chemistry, materials science, toxicology, warnings, corporate ethics, military specification and procurement, economics, government lobbying, and ancient corporate documents. Early in this MDL, the court held a multi-day Daubert hearing to determine the admissibility of opinions offered by these experts. Further, the court engaged in additional analyses of the admissibility of expert testimony prior to each MDL
bellwether trial.

Before each MDL bellwether trial, the parties filed numerous motions in limine addressing the admissibility of various pieces of evidence, ranging from critical documents to relatively short comments made by witnesses. The court reviews each of those rulings in this latest document.  Similarly, the court had ruled on a number of motions for summary judgment as a matter of state and federal law. These motions are also described in the document.  For example, to prevail on his product liability claims against a particular manufacturing defendant, a welding fume plaintiff must show he actually used that manufacturer’s products. Because many plaintiffs worked as welders for a variety of employers in different locations over many years, and because welding rods are somewhat fungible, the discovery of product identification evidence can be difficult, and the results less than clear, said the court. Whether a given defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law based on lack of product identification is a highly fact-specific question, and the answer as to certain defendants in certain cases may not become clear even until after trial.

Finally, the court provides a number of useful appendices and charts, including MDL Bellwether Trial Result Summary and MDL Bellwether Trial Witness Chart.

"SPILL" Act Passes House

Readers may recall that last month we posted about H.R. 5503, the “Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act” (SPILL Act). This is one of many pending and promised bills addressing legal liability issues arising from the Gulf Coast oil spill, including amendments to the Death on the High Seas Act.

Specifically, H.R. 5503 would:

  • Amend the Death on the High Seas Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages (e.g., pain and suffering and loss of care, comfort, and companionship) by the decedent’s family, as well as standardizing the geographic threshold for its application, and permitting surviving family members to bring suit directly rather than through a personal representative.
  • Amend the Jones Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages by the families of seamen who are killed.
  • Repeal the Limitation on Liability Act to the extent it limits the liability of vessel owners to the value of the vessel and its cargo.
  • Amend bankruptcy rules to prevent corporations allegedly responsible for damages under the Oil Pollution Act from certain moves seeking to sever their assets from the legal liabilities.

The bill was supposed to be in response to the Gulf Oil Spill. However, we cautioned that some of  its provisions were not limited to the subject matter of oil spills. For example, Section 5 of the bill as introduced, proposed to amend the Class Action Fairness Act to exclude from its reach any action brought by a State or subdivision of a State on behalf of its citizens. Such a provision could have significant effect on CAFA, far beyond the oil spill litigation. For example, it might impact cases like State ex rel. McGraw v. Comcast Corp., 2010 WL 1257639 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010).

The version passed by the House apparently does not contain this provision.  It was passed on motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill, as amended, and agreed to by voice vote.  Republicans and industry groups had expressed some concerns, and since many of the provision purport to be retroactive, wondered what the rush was.  Supporters argued that some of the prevailing laws were written in the mid-19th century to protect American merchant ship owners, and that the liability system needs to be updated.

As amended, Section 2 amends the Death on the High Seas Act (chapter 303 of title 46, United States Code), Section 3 alters recoveries under the Jones Act; Section 4 would repeal the Limitation of  Liability Act and the Oil Pollution Act; and Section 5 would provide new bankruptcy protection for tort claims arising from oil incidents.

Beware of Legislative Moves Over The Gulf Oil Spill

Last week,  U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-LA) introduced H.R. 5503, the “Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act” (SPILL Act).  This is one of many pending and promised bills addressing legal liability issues arising from the Gulf Coast oil spill, including amendments to the Death on the High Seas Act.

Specifically, H.R. 5503 would:

• Amend the Death on the High Seas Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages (e.g., pain and suffering and loss of care, comfort, and companionship) by the decedent’s family, as well as standardizing the geographic threshold for its application, and permitting surviving family members to bring suit directly rather than through a personal representative.

• Amend the Jones Act to permit recovery of non-pecuniary damages by the families of seamen who are killed.

• Repeal the Limitation on Liability Act to the extent it limits the liability of vessel owners to the value of the vessel and its cargo.

• Amend bankruptcy rules to prevent corporations allegedly responsible for damages under the Oil Pollution Act from certain moves seeking to sever their assets from the legal liabilities.

The bill is supposed to be in response to the Gulf Oil Spill. However, many of its provisions are not limited to the subject matter of oil spills.  For example, Section 5 proposes to amend the Class Action Fairness Act  to exclude from its reach any action brought by a State or subdivision of a State on behalf of its citizens.  Such a provision could have significant effect on CAFA, far beyond the oil spill litigation. For example, it might impact cases like State ex rel. McGraw v. Comcast Corp., 2010 WL 1257639 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010). In that case, the state of West Virginia, in its capacity as parens patriae, filed an action in state court alleging that a cable company's requirements concerning cable boxes constituted impermissible tying behavior, in violation of state antitrust and consumer protection laws. On removal, the federal court held that the action was a “class action” under the Class Action Fairness Act, under which the definition of a class action must be “interpreted liberally.”

The bill has been referred to the following committees: House Judiciary, Subcommittee on House Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on House Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a field hearing In Louisiana on the local impact of the Gulf oil spill.The House Subcommittee heard testimony from experts on the environment and wildlife, some of whom who warned that the full effects of the spill will not be known until the flow of oil is stopped.  But the most emotional testimony came from two widows, whose husbands died when the Deepwater Horizon Rig exploded in April. The widows urged Congress to reform the Death on the High Seas Act, but also noted that they fully support offshore drilling as essential to our nation's economy.

 

UPDATE: the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 5503, Securing Protections for the Injured from Limitations on Liability Act (SPILL Act), by a roll call vote of 16-11, with two Republicans, Reps. Lungren (R-Calif.) and Rooney (R-Fla.), joining the rest of the Democratic committee members in voting in favor.

Florida Supreme Court Decides Right of Fishermen to Sue For Pollution

In a case that may impact some of the litigation rising from the Gulf Oil Spill, the Florida Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of a group of commercial fishermen who alleged damages arising from pollution in the Tamp Bay. See Howard Curd, et al. v. Mosaic Fertilizer LLC, (No. SC08-1920 Fla. 6/17/2010). The issue on appeal -- which the court took as a certified issue of great public importance -- was whether Florida law permits commercial fishermen to recover for economic losses proximately caused by the negligent release of pollutants, despite the fact that the fishermen do not own any property damaged by the pollution.

The defendant owned/operated a phosphogypsum storage area near Archie Creek in Hillsborough County. The storage area included a pond enclosed by dikes, containing waste water from a phosphate plant.  The dike gave way and pollutants were allegedly spilled into Tampa Bay.
The fishermen claimed that the spilled pollutants resulted in a loss of underwater plant life, fish, bait fish, crabs, and other marine life. They did not claim an ownership in the damaged marine and plant life, but claimed that it resulted in damage to the reputation of the fishery products the fishermen were able to catch and sought to sell.

The lower court concluded that the state statute on water pollution did not permit a claim by these fishermen for monetary losses when they did not own any real or personal property damaged by the pollution. After initially permitting the fishermen to proceed on their claims of negligence and strict liability, the lower court ultimately ruled that these claims were not authorized under the economic loss rule. The court reasoned that an action in common law either through strict liability or negligence was not permitted because the fishermen did not sustain bodily injury or property damage. The strict liability and negligence claims sought purely economic damages unrelated to any damage to the fishermen's property. Accordingly, the court further reasoned that Mosaic did not owe the fishermen an independent duty of care to protect their purely economic interests. 

The state supreme court disagreed.  The court pointed to a number of factors on the statutory claim:  it expressly protected public and private interests; it is to be liberally construed to effect the purposes set forth in the state statute and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.  Moreover, the Florida  Legislature found and declared that escape of pollutants “poses threats of great danger and damage . . . to citizens of the state, and to other interests deriving livelihood from the state.”   Also, under the definition of statutory damages cited above, one can recover for damages to real or personal property and for damages to natural resources, including all living things. Finally, not owning property affected was not a listed defense to the cause of action in the act.

The lower court found that the economic loss rule barred the common law claims, as the fishermen's negligence and strict liability claims sought purely economic damages unrelated to any damage to the fishermen's property. Second, Mosaic did not owe an independent duty of care to protect the fishermen's expectation of profits. The supreme court found instead that neither the contractual nor products liability economic loss rule was applicable to this situation. The parties to this action were not in contractual privity. Moreover, the defendant in this case was not  a manufacturer or distributor of a defective product that has caused damage to itself.  Rather, plaintiffs brought traditional negligence and strict liability claims against a defendant who had allegedly polluted Tampa Bay and allegedly caused them injury.

Turning to the issue whether Mosaic owed an independent duty of care to protect the fishermen's purely economic interests—that is, their expectations of profits from fishing for healthy fish, the court found Mosaic did owe a duty of care to the fishermen, a duty that was not shared by the public as a whole.  The court admitted that as a general principle of common law negligence, some courts have not permitted recovery for purely economic losses when the plaintiff has sustained no bodily injury or property damage. See Union Oil Co. v. Oppen, 501 F.2d 558, 563 (9th Cir. 1974) (noting “the widely recognized principle that no cause of action lies against a defendant whose negligence prevents the plaintiff from obtaining a prospective pecuniary advantage”). The reasoning behind this general rule is that if courts allowed compensation for all losses of economic advantages caused by a defendant's negligence, a defendant would be subject to claims based upon remote and speculative injuries that it could not foresee. Such courts have concluded that the negligent defendant owes no duty to plaintiffs for such losses.

The Florida court concluded that the defendant here did owe a duty of care to these commercial fishermen, and that the commercial fishermen thus had a cause of action sounding in negligence. Under Florida law, the question of whether a duty is owed is linked to the concept of foreseeability. In the present case, the duty owed by Mosaic arose out of the nature of Mosaic's business and the special interest of the commercial fisherman in the use of the public waters. The court concluded that Mosaic's activities created an appreciable zone of risk within which Mosaic was obligated to protect those who were exposed to harm. Mosaic's business involved the storage of pollutants and hazardous contaminants. It was foreseeable, said the court, that were these materials released into the public waters, they would cause damage to marine and plant life as well as to human activity in the water.

Further, the commercial fishermen had a special interest within that zone of risk, an interest not shared by the general community, found the state supreme court.  The fishermen were licensed to conduct commercial activities in the waters of Tampa Bay, and were dependent on those waters to earn their livelihood. Mosaic's activities placed the fishermen's peculiar interests directly within the zone of risk created by the presence of its facility. As a result, Mosaic was obligated to exercise prudent foresight and take sufficient precautions to protect that interest.

As pointed out in the dissent, the majority opinion decided the case for a more narrow class than those bringing the suit -- and more narrowly than the claims they alleged. Although Curd's proposed class consisted of “all fishermen and those persons engaged in the commercial catch and sale of fish,”  the majority's decision did not extend to distributors, seafood restaurants, fisheries, fish brokers, or the like whose incomes may also have been affected by the alleged pollution. Additionally, the majority only addressed economic harm that allegedly resulted from the depletion of marine life and the resulting inability to harvest the commercial fishermen's usual yield—not from harm to reputation as alleged in the complaint. The fishermen presumably must still prove all of the elements of their causes of action, including damages.
 

EPA Releases Draft Toxicology Assessment of Formaldehyde

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a draft toxicological review of formaldehyde, entitled "Toxicological Review of Formaldehyde Inhalation Assessment: In Support of Summary Information on the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS).''  (EPA's IRIS is a human health assessment program that evaluates quantitative and qualitative risk information on effects that may result from exposure to chemical substances found in the environment. )

EPA announced a 90-day public comment period and a public listening session for the external review draft human health assessment.  The draft assessment was prepared by the National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) within the EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD). EPA said it was releasing this draft assessment for the purpose of pre-dissemination peer review.  Also, a committee of the National Research Council, acting under the auspices of National Academy of Sciences (NAS), will conduct an independent scientific peer review of the EPA draft human health assessment of formaldehyde. The peer review committee will hold meetings, some of which may involve public sessions. Public sessions will be announced before each meeting on the National Academies Web site.  The public comment period and NAS scientific peer review are separate processes that are supposed to provide opportunities for all interested parties to comment on the assessment.

Formaldehyde is present in a wide variety of products including some plywood adhesives, abrasive materials, insulation, insecticides and embalming fluids. The major sources of anthropogenic emissions of formaldehyde are motor vehicle exhaust, power plants, manufacturing plants that produce or use formaldehyde or substances that contain it (i.e. glues), petroleum refineries, coking operations, incinerating, wood burning, and tobacco smoke, says the EPA.  It is used in industry to manufacture building materials and numerous household products and consumer products, including some soaps, shampoos, and shaving cream. 

Of course, alleged exposure to formaldehyde has been involved in numerous toxic tort suits as well as consumer fraud actions.

The draft assessment found that formaldehyde could be more likely to cause cancer than in previous EPA calculations. In the draft, EPA now estimates there could be up to one case of cancer for every 1,000 people breathing formaldehyde at concentrations of 20 parts per billion over their lifetime.  The draft assessment also provides for the first time an agency estimate of a reference concentration (RfC). Lifelong inhalation of formaldehyde at concentrations up to that RfC would not be expected to cause breathing, immune, reproductive, and other non-cancer health effects.

At Section 4.5.4, the report concludes that human epidemiological evidence is sufficient to conclude there is a causal association between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharyngeal cancer, nasal and paranasal cancer, all leukemias, myeloid leukemia and lymphohematopoietic cancers as a group. But, for example, it is questionable whether there really is a demonstrable link between formaldehyde and leukemia.  And the evidence does not appear to support a causal link between formaldehyde and  upper-respiratory tract cancers. See the critical comments of other federal agencies.

Any regulatory decision on this important chemical based on incomplete information could cause significant harm to the economy, as many products critical to the home and commercial building, automotive and aerospace industries, as well as defense-related applications and vaccines used worldwide to prevent polio, cholera, diphtheria, and other major diseases, all use it.  All living things — including people — produce and process formaldehyde. It occurs naturally in the air we breathe and does not accumulate in the environment or in plants, animals or people.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has stated that the draft report is another reason to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.  He plans to introduce such a bill this Summer. Also, legislation that would amend TSCA to set formaldehyde emissions limits for plywood and other composite wood products was reported out last month by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  See H.R. 4805, The Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.

Update: and an alert reader points out that the Senate just this week passed its own version, S.1660, the Formaldehyde Standards for Composite Wood Products Act.  The Senate bill would make the formaldehyde emission standard contained in the California Code of Regulations (relating to an airborne toxic control measure to reduce formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, as in effect on July 28, 2009) applicable to certain hardwood plywood, medium-density fiberboard, and particleboard sold, supplied, offered for sale, or manufactured in the United States, with certain exemptions, including for composite wood products used inside new vehicles, rail cars, boats, aerospace craft, or aircraft.

Court of Appeals Rejects Consumer Fraud Class Action for Pet Medication

The First Circuit affirmed last week the lower court's dismissal of a putative consumer fraud class action involving a re-called heartworm medication for dogs. Rule v. Ford Dodge Animal Health Inc., 2010 WL 2179794 (1st Cir. 6/2/10).

Plaintiff, Rule, purchased two doses of ProHeart 6, a medicine for preventing heartworm in dogs, and had them administered to her dog Luke. She later filed a putative class action against Wyeth, alleging that defendant had sold ProHeart 6 without disclosing safety concerns revealed in initial testing and in subsequent use.  She alleged these concerns ultimately led Wyeth to recall the product at the FDA's request. According to plaintiff, adverse reactions were suffered by dogs after receiving ProHeart 6 during trials and in general use after the product was released. Importantly, the class representative conceded that Luke had not suffered any harm from the drug, and that Luke had not developed heartworm while using the drug.

Plaintiff's first cause of action was based on breach of the implied warranty of merchantability and the other based on the state consumer fraud statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A. For damages on these two counts, Rule asserted that she and others similarly situated were entitled to the difference between the price they actually paid for ProHeart 6 and what it would have been worth had safety risks been adequately disclosed; for the chapter 93A count, she sought statutory damages if greater than actual damages and also trebling of damages. 

On the warranty count, the alleged unmerchantability (unfitness for ordinary use) of ProHeart 6 lay in its potential for causing harm to a dog. Rule conceded, however, that neither of the two doses injured Luke. So, while the sale to Rule may have been of an "unfit" drug, its unfitness did not give rise to any injury to Rule against which the warranty was designed to guard. Nor did she suggest that Luke became more susceptible to injury, as might be the case where one bought and installed a defective car tire that has not yet run its life. Recovery generally is not available under the warranty of merchantability where the defect that made the product unfit caused no injury to the claimant, the threat is gone, and nothing now possessed by the claimant has been lessened in value.

On the consumer fraud count, the act provides a cause of action for a plaintiff who has been injured by unfair or deceptive acts or practices. In Rule's view, she purchased Proheart 6 because of a deception (failure to disclose the risk), the product was “in reality” worth less than she paid for it (because of that undisclosed risk), and so she suffered damage measured by the difference between what she paid and what she would have paid if the risk had been disclosed. One problem with plaintiff's scenario was that she also alleged that had the risks been known, ProHeart 6 could not be sold at all, given FDA requirements.

But even assuming otherwise, Rule's suit was brought after her purchases and use of the drug, and she admitted that she got both the protection and convenience she sought and that the risk did not manifest itself in injury to her or her dog. Nor was she still holding a product that was worth less than she paid for it; she used the product up entirely and in fact suffered no economic injury at all. Indeed, her theory would not be adopted by deceived buyers whose dogs were actually injured or killed; they could seek not some modest reduction in price but the full cost of added veterinary bills and, if the dog died, its value.

So to the extent chapter 93A injury requires that a plaintiff who seeks to recover show “real” economic damages, Rule did not qualify. If, instead, a different notion of injury had sufficed - such as injury as a violation of some abstract “right” like the right not to be subject to a deceptive act that happened to cause no economic harm - then she would arguably have had a claim under chapter 93A and perhaps could obtain statutory damages.  The First Circuit observed some "tension" in the language used as between the earlier and the later state SJC decisions on the statute and especially where deception and risk are involved. However, said the court of appeals, the most recent SJC cases on point appear to have reaffirmed the notion that injury under chapter 93A means economic injury in the traditional sense.

Finally, the First Circuit addressed plaintiffs' typical policy-based argument that deceptive conduct needs to be deterred through a class action. While the alleged conduct such as that attributed to defendant needs to be deterred, that need not necessarily come from those who bought the product but were not injured.  It could be deterred by those with actual injury.
 

Medical Monitoring Class Actions Rejected in Beryllium Cases

The Third Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of two putative class actions that sought medical monitoring for workers and neighbors of factories using beryllium. Sheridan, et al.  v. NGK Metals Corp., et al., 2010 WL 2246392 (3d Cir. June 7, 2010). 

Readers may recall that previously we posted on the district court's dismissal of the claims against one of the defendants, an engineering firm that, according to the plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint, was involved with testing, sampling, analyzing, and monitoring the air quality and levels of beryllium at one plant involved in the cases. The Third Circuit affirmed.  Boiled down to its core, plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint contended that the engineering firm breached its duty of reasonable care by failing to warn members of the community surrounding one of the plants at issue about the alleged beryllium emissions from the facility. But there was no legal duty to warn.  In order for the engineers to have negligently failed to warn plaintiffs of harmful beryllium exposures, they must have undertaken the responsibility of making that warning. Plaintiffs never alleged that the firm negligently performed the tasks it actually undertook—that is, testing, analyzing, and monitoring the levels of beryllium, and reporting those tests to the owner and operator of the facility. 

Also of note for readers is the remainder of the court's analysis regarding other defendants, which focused on one of the elements of medical monitoring.

Some background.  Plaintiffs in each case filed a putative class action lawsuit against multiple defendants, alleging negligence in connection with beryllium exposure, and seeking a medical monitoring trust fund based on their alleged increased risk of developing chronic beryllium disease int he future. In the first action, (the “Anthony action”), the District Court granted defendants’ joint motion for summary judgment. In the second (the “Zimmerman action”), the District Court addressed three separate legal issues— medical monitoring under Pennsylvania law, claim preclusion of the claims of one named plaintiff, Sheridan, and third-party liability—and issued final orders in favor of defendants. Although the cases presented similar legal issues, they arose out of different locations and distinct facts. However, plaintiffs’ lawyers, many of the expert witnesses, and one defendant, were the same in each case. The Third Circuit did not consolidate the two separate appeals, but resolved them in one opinion.

Inhaling beryllium particles can lead to scarring of the lungs, a condition known as chronic beryllium disease.  CBD occurs when the immune system mounts an attack against beryllium particles that have entered the body. The lung sacs become inflamed and fill with large numbers of white blood cells that accumulate wherever the beryllium particles are found. The cells form balls around the particles called granulomas. Eventually, the lungs become scarred and lose their ability to transfer oxygen to the blood stream.

The dose-response picture is a bit unusual. Mere exposure itself appears to be insufficient because only persons who have a particular genetic “marker”—the Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA)-DPB1 allele—can potentially recognize beryllium in the lungs as an antigen. This reaction is called beryllium sensitization (“BeS”). The parties did not dispute that BeS is a necessary precursor to CBD. BeS by itself causes no abnormal lung function and requires no treatment (i.e., it is asymptomatic).  The experts debated how many people have the marker with estimates ranging from below 10% to 40% of the population. The most common test for sensitization is the beryllium lymphocyte proliferation test (“BeLPT”), which is not a test for the genetic marker, but a reasonably accurate test for sensitization according to the experts.

Readers know that one of the typical elements of a medical monitoring claim is proof of a significantly increased risk (of contracting the latent disease for which plaintiff seeks medical monitoring). Plaintiffs' expert testimony was that all individuals exposed to beryllium at above background levels are at a significantly increased risk and require medical monitoring. They  declared that there is a direct relationship between the level of exposure and risk, and that CBD is not qualitatively different from any other environmental exposure disease.  Defendants' expert opined that given class rep Anthony’s negative result in the test to show whether he had become sensitized, and the fact that only a small percentage of the population can become sensitized, Anthony was not at a significantly increased risk of developing CBD.

In the other class action, the parties stipulated that class rep Zimmerman was not beryllium sensitized. Plaintiff experts argued, however, that anyone who has lived in the area surrounding the plant in question was at a significantly increased risk given the levels of beryllium in the
ambient air and documented cases of CBD in the community. They made a quantitative risk assessment based on collected exposure data, concluding that the risk of contracting CBD to the members of the proposed class represented by Zimmerman was 3 per 10,000, and for those
individuals who have lived near the plant for at least ten years, the risk allegedly increased to 1 per 500.

The Third Circuit noted that the intermediate appellate court in Pennsylvania had addressed analogous medical monitoring claims in Pohl v. NGK Metals Corp., 936 A.2d 43 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2007). The Pennsylvania Superior Court concluded there that the record provided no support for plaintiffs’ contention that they were sensitized to beryllium and thus that they faced a significantly increased risk of contracting CBD. Plaintiffs in federal court contended that Pohl was neither controlling nor persuasive, because it was a fact-specific decision in which the state court dismissed the three plaintiffs’ claims based on their individual failure of proof.

The court of appeals, however, concluded that the state court drew a line along the exposure-to-disease continuum -- at sensitization. The Third Circuit held that unlike its role in interpreting federal law, it may not "act like a judicial pioneer" in a diversity case. Contrary to both Anthony’s and Zimmerman’s contentions, Pohl was not based only on a simple lack of proof; it was based on plaintiffs’ failure to meet the requisite threshold for establishing significantly increased risk due to (1) the undisputed facts about beryllium exposure, BeS, and CBD, and (2) plaintiffs’ inability to demonstrate a significant increase in risk of disease before sensitization. Although the disparate data on how many people have the marker shows the gaping holes in the current state of scientific research, as well as the substantial factual disagreements between scientists, it was not material to this appeal. The parties stipulated that Anthony had not developed BeS, and there was no proof that he has the genetic marker associated with CBD. This background data did not prove his individual significantly increased risk.

As to the Zimmerman class (all persons who resided within a one-mile radius of the Reading Plant for at least six months during the time period between 1950 and 2000), the court noted that plaintiffs tried to make a different showing, including by presenting data on specific exposure levels around the Reading Plant and the number of documented cases of CBD in the community there. From Zimmerman’s perspective, exposure to beryllium is analogous to exposure to other toxins, such as asbestos and PCBs. Defendants contended CBD’s immunological nature distinguishes beryllium from other toxins, which do not invoke an allergic response in only a subset of susceptible persons and instead have a more linear exposure-to-disease relationship.

The state of the art is that only a small subset of an exposed population (those who carry the genetic marker) is at risk of developing CBD; the relationship between beryllium exposure and CBD is relatively non-linear, making generalized risk assessments inappropriate. Thus, there was a failure of proof on the risk element, given the current state of scientific knowledge on the
relationship between beryllium exposure and disease. Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence that as a proximate result of the exposure, he had a significantly increased risk of contracting
CBD.

The failure of the class reps to show they could meet a necessary element of the claim meant that the class actions could not proceed. (Sheridan's claim was barred.)

Update on Chinese Drywall Litigation

The Consumer Product Safety Commission last week announced the results of testing performed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on allegedly defective drywall samples.  Among the findings, most of the drywall that has allegedly caused personal injury and corroded electrical components in various homes throughout the U.S. was indeed manufactured in China;  specifically,  the most reactive sulfur-emitting drywall samples were all produced in China, according to the CPSC.  The worst-testing samples of the Chinese drywall showed emission rates of hydrogen sulfide 100 times greater than non-Chinese drywall samples.

CPSC released the names of the 10 worst-performing samples, including those of Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co. Ltd. for drywall manufactured in 2005, Taian Taishan Plasterboard Co. Ltd. for drywall manufactured in 2006, Shandong Taihe Dongxin Co. for drywall manufactured in 2005, Beijing New Building Materials for drywall manufactured in 2009.  Drywall samples manufactured in the United States in the same period contained low or no detectable emissions of hydrogen sulfide, according to the agency. 

At the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings in Beijing May 24-25, U.S. officials reportedly pressed the Chinese government to facilitate a meeting between CPSC and the Chinese drywall companies whose products were used in U.S. homes, and which exhibit the emissions identified during the testing procedures. The Strategic and Economic Dialogue represents the highest-level bilateral forum to discuss a broad range of issues between the two nations.

Federal cases concerning the drywall products are coordinated in multidistrict litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. More than 7,000 plaintiffs have claimed that Chinese-made drywall in their homes emits sulfide gases that corrode electrical wiring and/or cause personal injury such as nasal damage and other respiratory problems.  In the first trial, the court ordered Taishan Gypsum to pay $2.6 million to seven plaintiffs last April. In the second trial, the court ordered Knauf Plasterboard to pay a plaintiff family $164,000.  In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2047 (E.D. La.).

Cases are also pending in state court, and a state trial court in Miami recently certified a class in this litigation. Harrell v. South Kendall Construction Corp. et al., No. 09-008401 (11th Judicial Circuit, Fla.). Following a hearing last Thursday, Judge Farina granted class certification, the first Chinese drywall case to be certified. The class consists of approximately 150 claimants who were purchasers of homes in three subdivisions of the Keys Gate community there. The class alleged that those homes were built using Chinese drywall. Defendants are home builder Kendall Construction Corp., Palm Isles Holdings LLC, broker Keys Gates Realty Inc, and supplier Banner Supply Co.

The court found that a predominating common issue in each class member's case is whether the drywall installed in his or her house was defective. The trial court found that the alleged defect, the potential to emit sulfur gases that can cause damage, is inherent in the physical characteristics of the product and thus has a uniform nature. With one supplier and one builder allegedly involved, the court distinguished the case from other product defect cases in which individual issues are typically found to predominate.

The opinion noted that differences among proof of damages has typically not defeated class certification. The court stressed that if individual class member homeowners were to file their own separate actions, the court would be confronted with a multiplicity of lawsuits that would unnecessarily burden the court system and create the risk of inconsistent rulings and contradictory judgments.

While the court was clearly influenced by the belief that the issues surrounding the allegedly defective product were "unaffected by outside variables," like the way the product was used, its analysis of predominance is quite questionable.  For example, it concluded that a common issue was whether the defective drywall damaged the homes of the putative class members, and thus that the issue of injury (whether the drywall damaged all the homes) could be proved with class-wide evidence.  The fact is that enough of the drywall was imported to damage more than 50,000 homes; yet only a small percentage of that has been observed. Thus, it may be that any number of factors may be impacting the damage drywall is or is not causing in a particular house. Moreover, it is far too simplistic to talk about the injury or "damage" being caused, when there are hotly debated issues about whether there is injury to, or the need for remediation of, non-problem drywall, insulation, flex duct, molding, encapsulated wiring, counter tops, and a whole host of house components. Similar issues will relate to the causation of corrosion of a home’s electrical wiring or AC system.  

Gulf Oil Spill Litigation

More than 100 federal and state court actions have been filed against BP PLC, Transocean Ltd., and other companies in connection with the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig accident in the Gulf of Mexico.  (The API has a Q&A on the accident, and the Unified Command on the incident offers updates.)  Like many mass accident scenarios, the spill has generated a variety of kinds of actions. The claims so far fall into several main categories, including personal injury/wrongful death, maritime torts, property damage/lost profits, shareholder claims, and environmental law actions.

The wrongful death actions arise from the 11 workers missing and presumed dead in the accident.  These cases were filed in federal and state courts in Louisiana and Texas.  Gulf-front property owners, fishermen, shrimpers, harvesters, seafood processors, and restaurants in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida are among the entities suing over alleged harm to their businesses and their economic livelihoods. Many of these suits are class actions with overlapping class definitions.  The plaintiffs typically allege that defendants knew of the dangers associated with deepwater drilling and failed to take appropriate safety measures to prevent damage to marine or coastal environments, where they work and earn their income.

These claims potentially implicate caps on damages under the Limitation of Liability Act, and the Oil Pollution Act, which currently caps certain oil spill liability at approximately $75 million.  Plaintiffs have asserted that there are various exemptions from this reach of the Oil Pollution Act, for gross negligence and certain cleanup costs.  Also, the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress have advocated raising the caps retroactively. Bills S. 3305  (the so-called Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act of 2010) and H.R. 5214 would raise the liability for economic damages to $10 billion per spill from the current $75 million. In a Senate hearing, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar warned that raising the trust fund's liability cap to $10 billion would prevent smaller and mid-sized energy companies from operating offshore. Perhaps most importantly, there is some case law suggesting that the Oil Pollution Act will not preempt state common law tort liability.

The administration is also proposing a tax increase, to support the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, of a further 1 cent per barrel on petroleum. It is interesting that the administration has been criticized for the slowness of some of its responses to the spill, but is very quick to propose tax hikes, without an opportunity for all stakeholders to be heard and without careful consideration of the availability of the fund for future incidents. A White House summary of its proposals for legislation on oil spill response is available.

Some plaintiffs have proposed that the federal cases be coordinated in an MDL proceeding in the Eastern District of Louisiana.  In Re Oil Spill by the Oil Rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, MDL No. 2179 (filed 4/30/10). Certain defendants have suggested instead that the Southern District of Texas host the MDL. A large group of plaintiffs' attorneys had met in New Orleans early in the month to plot out litigation strategy.  Interestingly, the Mississippi Bar issued a statement advising potentially affected parties of the risk of improper solicitation by plaintiff attorneys.It will be fascinating to see if the defendants can remain similarly coordinated and avoid unnecessary finger-pointing.  The testimony of various executives for BP Plc, Transocean Ltd., and Halliburton in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that pointed out the responsibilities of the other companies, raises this issue. 

Another type of pending action is by various shareholders alleging securities fraud in a class action that asserts that defendants made false and misleading statements about their safety procedures. Allegedly as a result of the statements and the company's supposed failure to disclose prior safety issues, the stock prices had been inflated, tumbling after the accident.  Several shareholder derivative lawsuits were also filed against certain officers and directors of the defendants, claiming that they breached their fiduciary duties by supposedly ignoring critical safety issues. The suits also allege that defendants lobbied governmental authorities to reduce the extent of safety  regulation of the companies' gulf operations. (one would think that was protected speech)

Some litigation has named Interior Secretary Salazar and the U.S. Department of the Interior for their oversight of off-shore drilling operations. These case point to the rules regulating the oil companies' blowout and worst-case oil spill preparations.  Some have gone so far as to seek a halt to BP's operations at other oil drilling platforms.  Still others have focused on the oil companies' environmental impact statement posture as in violation of  the National Environmental Policy Act, and their seismic surveys and drilling operations as in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Democratic Senators are pressuring the Justice Department to to open a criminal probe into the accident, and BP's statements to the federal government regarding its ability to respond to oil spills. Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Crist appointed two former Florida state attorneys general to head a newly formed legal team that will represent the state on issues related to the spill.

 

Proposed BPA Ban Undermines Food Safety Bill

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced last week that she would seek to ban the chemical bisphenol-A in food and drink containers as part of an amendment to the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act (S.510). That move has the double distinction of lacking in scientific merit and threatening to undermine the bipartisan support for the good parts of the pending bill.  The Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Chamber of Commerce had expressed support for the food safety bill, but may oppose it if the bill contains language banning the chemical. The food safety bill is expected to come up after Congress returns from its Memorial Day break.

The Senator's ill-supported approach by-passes the safety review that belongs with the FDA, and is ongoing, with a re-review assessment due in 2011. NIH has also launched a study on the safety of low level exposure to BPA.  World-wide regulatory agencies who have reviewed BPA have thus far concluded that BPA is safe for use in canned products.  The European Food Safety Authority has announced a delay in delivering its own latest BPA report, needing more time to review the body of research on the chemical.

Clearly, an abrupt and unnecessary ban on packaging containing BPA would affect consumer ability to find nutritious, valuable, and shelf stable foods and beverages.  The proposed ban runs counter to the fact that BPA has been used for over 30 years to improve the safety and quality of food and beverages, including by providing protective coating for cans. The overwhelming scientific evidence points to the conclusion that at current human exposure levels, BPA is not toxic.  What is in fact occurring is that anti-chemical activists are simply manipulating consumers’ fears, and opportunistic politicians are jumping in.

Even though there is no persuasive scientific evidence that BPA causes the type of harm the politicians speculate about, litigation is well underway in both the Western District of Missouri (MDL 1967) and the Western District of Kentucky (MDL 2137). The former involves class action suits against manufacturers of baby bottles and sippy cups. The claims include alleged violation of state consumer protection acts, fraud, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment, strict product liability, and negligence. MDL 2137, on the other hand, involves suits against an aluminum bottle manufacturer claiming that the manufacturer marketed its product as an alternative to BPA-containing plastic even though its metal bottles were allegedly lined with an epoxy resin containing BPA.  

 

Update on "Climate Change" Litigation -- Vanishing Quorum

Readers may recall my post about the Fifth Circuit granting the petition for rehearing en banc in Comer v. Murphy Oil.  The case involves a lawsuit by property owners against some three dozen oil, coal, and chemical companies, alleging that the defendants' activities contributed to climate change and magnified the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and thus exacerbated the damage from the storm. The trial court dismissed the suit on political question and standing grounds.  On appeal, a panel of the 5th Circuit reversed last Fall, finding that the plaintiffs did have standing and that the political question doctrine did not apply.

The defendants filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which was granted, and set the case for oral argument next week.  But, the clerk recently sent a letter noting the cancellation of en banc oral arguments.  Apparently, since the en banc court was constituted, new circumstances have arisen that make it necessary for another judge to recuse, leaving only eight members of the court able to participate in the case. Consequently, said the clerk, the en banc court has lost its quorum. Seven members of the court had previously recused themselves from the case.

Several defendants have filed a motion arguing for a different reading of the rule regarding a quorum, and/or raising the argument that the district court's opinion ought to remain the controlling law of the case, rather than the panel's decision which was vacated by the en banc decision. The court has responded by asking for supplemental briefing on these issues. Specifically, the order invited the parties to address the matter “as they think appropriate” but specifically directed them to analyze the interplay between the following rules and statute in resolving the disposition of the appeal: Fed. R. App. P. 35(a), 28 U.S.C. §46 (c) and (d), Fed. R. App. P. 41 (a) and (d) (1), 5th Cir. Local Rule 41.3, and Fed. R. App. P. 2. The court also instructed the parties that they may consider the rulings of Chrysler Corp. v. United States, 314 U.S. 583 (1941) and North American Co. v. Securities & Exchange Comm’n, 320 U.S. 708 (1943) and the Rule of Necessity.

Presumably, three outcomes are possible:the court decides it actually does have a quorum and thus oral argument is rescheduled; the panel decision is reinstated by default (with an ensuing cert petition to the Supreme Court); or, the district court is affirmed without opinion.

Many observers had predicted that the en banc decision by the 5th Circuit would create a circuit split  with the 2d Circuit decision in Connecticut v. American Electric Power. There, a two-judge panel reversed the lower court dismissing the case on political question grounds, and finding the plaintiffs had standing to assert nuisance claims (with a similar attenuated causation theory).  This presumably would have paved the way for Supreme Court cert review.  Of course, Justice Alito has recused himself in cases involving ExxonMobil due to his ownership of its stock, and  Justice Breyer has recused himself from cases involving BP.  Perhaps Justice Sotomayor would also recuse herself due to her participation in the Connecticut v. American Electric Power case when she was on the Second Circuit.  So any possible Supreme Court review may be complicated also by the recusal and quorum issues.

Stay tuned.  This one is getting even more interesting, if thatis possible.

 

Decision to Not Conduct Daubert Inquiry Leads to Class Certification

A federal court recently certified a class of Minnesota building owners in litigation over issues with plumbing systems. See In re: Zurn Pex Plumbing Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 08-1958, 2010 WL 1839278 (D.Minn. 5/6/10).

The issue for our readers is not so much what happened, but what should have happened but did not.  I recently posted about the7th Circuit decision in American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Allen, 2010 WL 1332781 (7th Cir., April 7, 2010), mandating that trial courts rule on the admissibility of expert testimony at the certification stage of litigation when the testimony is critical to certification.  That is the only approach that makes any sense. Otherwise, the court risks certifying a class -- and engaging the parties in  the massive discovery and notice process that accompanies it  -- based on testimony that fails the Daubert test, is unreliable, and eventually inadmissible under the Federal Rules.  Here, the court refused to exclude the testimony of two plaintiff experts at the certification stage.  The court noted that the 8th Circuit had not yet adopted the approach of the 7th Circuit. 

Historically, potable water plumbing systems used copper pipes. In the 1990's, some companies designed plumbing systems using polybutylene plastic. After a wave of litigation involving allegedly failed polybutylene plumbing systems, defendant Zurn designed a cross-linked polyethylene plumbing system, commonly referred to as “pex,” as an alternative to polybutylene systems and copper plumbing systems. Plaintiffs were individuals who owned a home with a Zurn pex plumbing system. in several lawsuits, plaintiffs alleged that defective fittings used in the pex system caused their plumbing systems to leak resulting in damage to their properties. Plaintiffs also alleged that Zurn failed to adequately test the brass crimp fittings in their anticipated environments before marketing its product. In 2008, the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation determined that the pex plumbing cases met the MDL test, and that centralization of the cases in Minnesota was appropriate.

Plaintiffs moved for certification of a class of all persons and entities that own a structure located within the State of Minnesota that contains a Zurn Pex plumbing system with brass crimp fittings.  Defendants, in turn, moved to exclude portions of the testimony of plaintiffs' experts, Dr. Wallace Blischke and Dr. Roger Staehle.  

Dr. Blischke, a statistician, performed an analysis of Zurn's warranty claims data and estimated that millions of Zurn's brass fittings will fail within the twenty-five year warranty period; he concluded that the fittings have a mean time to failure of 40 years.  Defendants offered evidence that the 40 years was based on unsupported assumption, not data.  The court admitted that as merits discovery unfolded and more information becomes available, Dr. Blischke's 40 year estimate for the mean time to failure "may or may not be admissible," but it would consider the expert testimony in support of class certification anyway and "has given such testimony proper weight."

Dr. Staehle then conducted a round of testing known as the U-bend test of brass specimens from Zurn's fittings. Defendants offered evidence that the reliability of Dr. Staehle's U-bend testing was undermined by his use of an artificially inflated level of strain, and they challenged the correctness of Dr. Staehle's calculation of the strain. The court concluded that "at this point" it would not exclude the testimony, which could be the subject of cross examination.

The certification battleground was 23(b)(3) predominance.  Defendants stressed that there were lots of possible causes of the failure of any particular plumbing system, and thus individual issues predominated.  Plaintiffs -- and here we see where the denial of a Daubert inquiry has its pernicious effect -- responded that the brass crimp fittings used in the pex plumbing system suffer from an inherent design and manufacturing defect, and that the parts were substantially certain to fail within the 25 year express warranty provided by Zurn and/or the useful life of the fittings.  And this was a set of predominating common issues, they said.  But they only get there through the testimony of the experts, not only on the merits, but on the presentation that the defects and useful life were demonstrable on a common basis through expert testimony about testing and time-to-failure.  So, for example, in certifying a warranty class for those plaintiffs whose systems had not yet failed, the court readily acknowledged being influenced by the fact that plaintiffs "allege, and intend to prove by expert testimony, that Zurn's brass crimp fittings suffer from a uniform, inherent design and manufacturing defect...."

Similarly, with regard to a class relying on a negligence cause of action, the court concluded that if plaintiffs can prove that the crimp fittings suffer from a uniform, inherent design and manufacturing defect, and that the defect is the only cause of failure in the majority of the cases, then proximate cause will not involve predominately individual determinations, and resolution of that issue would be common the class. For class certification purposes, the court was "convinced that Plaintiffs have adduced sufficient evidence to support their theory of the case."  But, of course, that evidence was arguably inadmissible expert testimony.

Since proof of reliance will likely vary among class members, and since defendants are entitled to present individualized defenses to reliance under Minnesota law, plaintiffs failed to show that the reliance component of their consumer protection claims could be proven by common evidence. Accordingly, class certification as to plaintiffs' consumer protection claims was denied.

But imagine how easy it can be to show "predominance" of common issues when your proof is unreliable, inadmissible, unscientific, expert testimony that just doesn't get screened.  Why should the gatekeeper role not impact entrance to the expensive, protracted world of a class action as much as to trial?