Alabama Legislature Enacts Causation in Fact Requirement

There is likely no more fundamental notion in product liability law than the recognition that the defendant's product must cause the injury complained of, and thus a product maker or seller ought not be held liable for injuries caused by a product it actually didn't make or sell.  This is basic causation-in-fact, and the few courts that have tried to ignore this fundamental principle have needed to perform legal contortions and Olympic-level gymnastics to invent unworkable alternate rules.  "Market share liability" is an older, nearly extinct example, and a more modern excursion is the notion that the maker of a branded pharmaceutical product can somehow be held liable for injuries caused by the plaintiff's use of a generic version of the product, which defendant didn't make or sell.

Recently, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill to reverse their state supreme court's decision in Wyeth Inc. v. Weeks, which had allowed a patient allegedly injured by the generic drug to sue the maker of the name-brand product.  Gov. Bentley recently signed the bill, which had overwhelming bipartisan support in the Alabama House and was passed unanimously in the state Senate.

The vast majority of state and federal courts hold that a plaintiff must have used the defendant's actual product, and the law returns Alabama to this column.  SB80 requires that in any civil action for personal injury, death, or property damage caused by a product, regardless of the type of claims alleged or the theory of liability asserted, the plaintiff must prove, among the other traditional elements, that the defendant designed, manufactured, sold, or leased the particular product the use of which is alleged to have caused the injury on which the claim is based, and not just a similar or allegedly equivalent product.  Thus designers, manufacturers, sellers, or lessors of products not identified as having been used, ingested, or encountered by an allegedly injured party may not be held liable for any alleged injury.

The measure will take effect six months after becoming law. It appears to do away with not only so-called innovator liability, but also market share liability, alternative liability, conspiracy liability, and the other outlier industry-wide theories of liability in product cases. 

 

State Supreme Court Reinstates Defense Jury Verdict in Silica Litigation

The Mississippi Supreme Court confirmed last week that the jury could have properly determined that plaintiff's evidence failed to prove in a silica case that he was exposed to harmful quantities of a particular supply company's sand product.  See Dependable Abrasives v. Pierce,  No. 2013-IA-01162-SCT (Miss., 1/29/15).  "Product id", as it is often called, is really part of cause-in-fact, and part of plaintiff's causation burden in a toxic tort case.

Plaintiff sued a number of defendants, alleging their sand products were responsible for his diagnosis of silicosis. According to Pierce's trial testimony, his job involved a work week of five to seven days, depending on weather, and workdays of eight to ten hours, operating a sandblasting machine.  It would shoot out sand at a high rate of speed through a nozzle, which was wielded by the machine's user, in order to clean surfaces for painting. Pierce testified that the sand proceeds from the nozzle at a rate of 500 miles per hour and that, when sand hits metal, it ricochets back in the direction of the machine's user. Plaintiff's expert testified that the warning on defendants' sand products were grossly inadequate, because it failed to inform the user of the product of the latent, danger of respirable silica.

At trial, the parties disagreed about whether the plaintiff was actually exposed to this defendant's sand. Pierce claimed he remembered the bag and could identify the logo.  He recalled there was a warning on the bag, but when asked the color of the sand he used from Dependable, he was certain it was white sand.  Dependable Abrasives had bought the sand, processed it, and at the relevant time mostly sold it in tanker trucks.  It was "in the beginning mostly probably around 90 percent bulk sand; 10 percent bag sand." Dependable offered evidence that while its competitors sold white sand, defendant sold brown sand "mined out of the red clay hills of Wiggins, Mississippi."

The jury returned a defense verdict, but the appellate court entered an order granting the plaintiff a new trial after that court found the verdict to be "against the overwhelming weight of the evidence presented at trial."

The Supreme Court noted that the fact of product exposure is a threshold question in products liability cases: "[I]t is incumbent upon the plaintiff in any products liability action to show that the defendant's product was the cause of the plaintiff's injuries." Banks ex rel. Banks v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 134 So. 3d 706, 710 (Miss. 2014). Even accepting as true Pierce's allegation that the warnings on the Diamond Blast sand were "grossly inadequate," as posited by his expert, there could be no recovery if Pierce failed to prove that the Defendant's sand "caused the damage for which recovery is sought."

Dependable contended that the evidence showed that there were only narrow time periods during which Pierce could possibly claim exposure, and that Pierce could not recall where or when he used or was exposed to Defendant's brand of sand. While Pierce was able to identify the Dependable Abrasives bag, he could not correctly identify the sand itself. He testified that the sand was white, but there was un-contradicted testimony that this company's sand was distinctly brown in color, due to its extraction from the red clay hills in or near Wiggins, Mississippi. There was testimony that defendant never sold sand, directly at least, to any of the companies for which Pierce had worked.

The Supreme Court decided that the circuit court had failed to analyze whether the jury's determination of causation truly was against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Even though evidence was presented regarding the extent of Pierce's exposure to respirable silica, with respect to Dependable Abrasives, the evidence on product identification was mixed.  Pierce remembered the bag and the warning label, but could not accurately recall the color of the sand, the very product that he alleged had caused his injuries. If he was exposed at all, the time frame in which Pierce could have worked with Defendant's sand was minimal. Indeed, said the court, the evidence in this case was more favorable to the defense than to the plaintiff.  So, under the facts presented, this jury's  conclusion cannot be said to have been "against the overwhelming weight of the trial evidence.  The jury should have been permitted to pass upon the question of fact raised by this conflicting evidence, and it did so.  No new trial.

Summary Judgment Granted on Product Identification

Sometimes simpler is better.  In product liability litigation nothing is more basic, perhaps, than proof the plaintiff used defendant's product.  Last week, a federal judge granted summary judgment against two plaintiffs' making claims in multi-district litigation over injuries allegedly related to the painkillers Darvocet and Darvon. See In Re: Darvocet, Darvon and Propoxyphene Products Liability Litigation, No. 2:11-md-02226 (E.D. Ky.). The issue was this basic cause in fact element.

Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

Defendant argued that it was entitled to summary judgment because neither plaintiff demonstrated the ingestion of a propoxyphene product manufactured, sold, or distributed by the defendant. In their Amended Complaint, both plaintiffs allege that they ingested propoxyphene products manufactured by Lilly. It is indeed a general principle of products liability law in Texas and Georgia (the applicable rules under choice of law in an MDL) that a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to allow the reasonable inference that the injury-causing product was sold, manufactured, or distributed by the defendant. Plaintiffs could not dispute that they failed to establish the ingestion of a Lilly  product.

Instead, Lilly presented evidence demonstrating that plaintiffs represented that they intended to pursue only claims that relate to generic drugs; that is, they would seek to hold Lilly liable for
the injuries allegedly arising out of their taking of generic drugs made by someone else.

Such arguments were already rejected by the Court in this MDL.  The Court had previously found unpersuasive the plaintiffs’ argument that a brand-name manufacturer may be held liable under a misrepresentation theory of liability to a plaintiff who ingested generic propoxyphene. The prevailing rule regarding misrepresentation claims against brand-name manufacturers has its origins, noted the Court, in Foster v. American Home Products Corp., 29 F.3d 165 (4th Cir. 1994), which rejected “the contention that a name brand manufacturer’s statements regarding its drug can serve as the basis for liability for injuries caused by another manufacturer’s drug.” Id. at 170.

The majority of courts that have addressed similar claims have followed the Fourth Circuit’s lead. Notably, federal district courts in Texas have repeatedly found that “the Texas Supreme Court would conclude that a brand-name manufacturer does not owe a duty to warn users of the risks related to another manufacturer’s product.” Finnicum v. Wyeth, Inc., 708 F. Supp. 2d 616, 621 (E.D. Tex. 2010); see also Burke v. Wyeth, Inc., No. G-09-82, 2009 WL 3698480, at *2-3 (S.D. Tex. Oct. 29,
2009).  And, similarly, there can be no recovery under Georgia law, “[u]nless the manufacturer’s defective product can be shown to be the proximate cause of the injuries . . .” Hoffman v. AC&S, Inc., 548 S.E.2d 379, 382 (Ga. Ct. App. 2001) (“To survive summary judgment, [the plaintiff] clearly
needed to present evidence that she was exposed to defendants’ products.”).

Defendant thus sufficiently established that there was no genuine dispute concerning the only
material fact that determined the viability of these plaintiffs’ misrepresentation claims: the identity
of the propoxyphene product ingested.  Therefore, the plaintiffs’ claims failed as a matter of law.

 

 

 

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.


 

DES Plaintiff's Reach for Market Share Liability Rejected Again

If asbestos is the grandfather of mass torts, the DES litigation may be the grandmother, with claims continuing today for harm allegedly caused by in utero exposure to diethylstilbestrol decades ago. DES is a drug once prescribed during pregnancy to prevent miscarriages or premature deliveries. In the U.S. an estimated 5 to 10 million persons were exposed to DES from 1938 to 1971, including pregnant women prescribed DES and their children. So we are 40 years out now, with some litigation remaining.

Recently, a federal court in New York held that a DES plaintiff could not meet the product identification requirement under applicable Texas law.  See Bezuidenhout v. Abbott Laboratories,  No. 10-CV-1011(E.D.N.Y., 1/17/13).

Readers may recall that what is often termed "product identification" is part of the cause in fact requirement of every tort claim.  A plaintiff must show that he or she has been injured not just by a type of product but by a product actually made or sold by the defendant.  In the context of DES, product identification may be especially challenging because the plaintiff's exposure may be in utero and the manifestation of the injury may not come for many years after the exposure.  A tiny minority of jurisdictions have flirted with weakening the traditional cause in fact requirement by adopting some form of the "market share" doctrine, under which defendants may be held proportionately liable to a plaintiff who cannot show which manufacturer sold the product that caused the injury, based on that defendant's sales of the product in the "relevant market."  Flawed and unfair, the concept did not gain wide acceptance.

Bezuidenhout was born in 1957 in Texas. While pregnant, her mother allegedly took DES, which was prescribed to her in Texas, according to the amended complaint. Decades later, plaintiff alleged various personal injury and increased risk of future injuries.  Defendants moved for summary judgment, asserting that plaintiff could not identify which manufacturer made the DES her mother took, as required under Texas law.

Plaintiff argued that Texas law was unsettled, that Texas courts had not clearly rejected the market share theory.  The court said it  need not wade too deeply into Bezuidenhout's "pool of hypotheticals", since it rested upon a false premise—that Texas law, as to proof of causation, is unsettled..."It is not.”  Indeed, the court opined that one of the goals of this case was to unsettle it. Texas does not permit recovery under a collective liability or market share theory. The courts in In re Fibreboard Corp., 893 F.2d 706 (5th Cir. 1990), and Cimino v. Raymark Indust., Inc., 151 F.3d 297, 312 (5th Cir. 1998), held that in Texas, it is a fundamental principle of traditional products liability law that the plaintiff must prove that the defendants supplied the product which caused the injury. Plaintiff tried to bootstrap to an "alternate reality," said the court. The Texas Supreme Court has never chosen to adopt market share liability.  

With the market share approach rejected, plaintiff had not proffered sufficient evidence to identify the defendant as a manufacturer of her mother's DES. Her mother's affidavit contradicted her prior sworn deposition testimony about whose product she might have used.  And, at best, a log from the pharmacist indicated that defendant's DES was among the many medications available at the pharmacy, but did not show which DES her mother took. The court thus found plaintiff failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact regarding the identity of the DES manufacturer.