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?

 

Science vs. Politics on Cell Phones Safety

The contrast is striking.  Recently, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 vote in favor of an ordinance requiring cell phone retailers in that city disclose cell phones' specific absorption rate, or SAR, to customers.

The same day, a study was published that further substantiates the safety of cell phone use.  Mobile phone base stations and early childhood cancers: case-control study, BMJ 2010;340:c3077.  The study, in the British Medical Journal, showed no link between proximity to cell phone towers and increased cancer risk to children whose mothers were pregnant while living near such towers.

The study looked at almost 7,000 children and incidence of early childhood cancers across Great Britain.  This was compared with data from Britain's four national mobile phone operators -- Vodafone, O2, France Telecom's Orange, and Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile -- on more than 80,000 mobile phone towers used from 1996 to 2001.   The researchers found that those who developed cancer before the age of five were not more likely to have been born close to a tower than their peers. The scientists found no association between risk of cancer in young children and estimated exposures to radiofrequency from mobile phone base stations during pregnancy.

MassTortDefense notes some strengths in the study: its size and national coverage, avoiding selection and reporting bias in the choice of cases and areas for study. Also, because it focused on early childhood cancers, it avoided issues of long latency that can affect interpretation of some mobile phone studies in adults.

The study adds to a growing body of scientific research which has found no links between cell phones and cancer. Use of mobile phones has increased markedly in recent years. In the United Kingdom, the number of mobile connections has risen from just under nine million in 1997 to almost 74 million in 2007.

In light of the real science, we wonder if the ordinance will actually mislead consumers with point of sale requirements implicitly suggesting that some phones are "safer" than others based on radiofrequency (RF) emissions. In fact, all phones sold in the U.S. must comply with the Federal Communications Commission's safety standards for RF emissions.  

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26: Amendment Update

We love to hear from our faithful readers, and one recently asked us to update the status of the proposed amendments to Rule 26. We posted on them last year, noting that there would be public comment opportunities throughout 2009.

Below, a review of those comments.  But first a reminder of the proposed changes. The amendments would extend work-product protection to the discovery of draft reports by testifying expert witnesses and, with three important exceptions, to the discovery of communications between testifying expert witnesses and retaining counsel. The amendments also provide that a lawyer relying on a witness who will provide expert testimony but is not required to provide a Rule 26(a)(2)(B) report – because the witness is not retained or specially employed to provide expert testimony and is not an employee who regularly gives expert testimony – must disclose the subject matter of the witness’s testimony and summarize the facts and opinions that the witness is expected to offer. The 1993 amendments to Civil Rule 26 have been interpreted by some courts to allow discovery of all draft expert witness reports and all communications between counsel and testifying expert witnesses. The experience under those amendments revealed significant practical problems in the eyes of many litigators.

The comments? First, the arguments in favor:

• Lawyers and expert witnesses take elaborate and costly steps to avoid creating any discoverable draft report or any discoverable communications between the lawyer and expert. These steps can include hiring two sets of experts, one to testify and one to consult; avoiding any note-taking by the expert; and avoiding the creation of any draft report. At the same time, lawyers take elaborate and
costly steps to attempt to discover all of the other side’s drafts and communications.


• Experience has shown that the elaborate steps to avoid creating discoverable drafts or communications result in inefficient, costly, and wasteful litigation behavior. At the same time, experience has also shown that extensive, time-consuming, and costly efforts to discover every change in draft reports by experts and every communication between experts and retaining counsel rarely produces information that bears on the strengths or weaknesses of the experts’ opinions.

• Many experienced lawyers routinely stipulate that they will not seek to discover draft reports from each other’s experts or communications between the experts and the retaining lawyers. That good lawyers stipulate to avoid the present rule indicates problems with it.

• Some states have implemented procedures similar to the proposed amendments.  State  practitioners representing both plaintiffs and defendants report a degree of consensus about the success of these procedures in improving the ability to use expert witnesses and to discover the basis for their opinions.


• The proposed amendments would not limit discovery into the areas that are genuinely important for learning the strengths and weaknesses of a testifying expert’s opinion. The proposed amendments specifically allow discovery into communications between a lawyer and testifying expert about: (1) the compensation for the expert’s study or testimony; (2) the facts or data provided
by the lawyer that the expert considered in forming opinions; and (3) the assumptions provided by the lawyer that the expert relied upon in forming an opinion.

Opposing Views:

• The proposed amendments limit discovery that could show the extent of the retaining lawyer’s influence on the testifying expert’s opinions. That could make it easier for lawyers to influence the opinions their testifying experts present.

• The proposed amendments only limit discovery of draft reports and certain communications. They do not apply to inquiries into such matters at the trial itself. It may be unclear whether the draft reports and communications will be protected from disclosure at trial. As a result, the amendments may not eliminate the costly and wasteful steps to avoid creating draft reports or records of attorney/expert communications. (MassTortDefense wonders how many lawyers will venture into these issues at trial without the benefit of any discovery.)

Overall, comments received during the notice-and-comment period made it appear that the vast majority of practitioners, on both the plaintiff and defense sides, support the proposed rule amendments. Interestingly, lots of academics spoke up against the rule.

So what's the status? On September 15, 2009, the Judicial Conference met and approved the recommendations of the Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure and approved the proposed rules. The rules were then transmitted to the Supreme Court in December with a recommendation that they be approved and transmitted to Congress in accordance with the Rules Enabling Act.  The schedule would still have them taking effect, if not rejected by the Court or Congress, on December 1, 2010.