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.

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.)

Class Certification Denied In Beryllium Exposure Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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