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.)