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.

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.

 

New Proposed Jury Instruction on Electronic Devices

At its last meeting, the Judicial Conference Committee on Court Administration and Case Management (CACM) endorsed a set of suggested jury instructions that federal district judges are to consider using to help deter jurors from using electronic technologies to research or communicate about cases on which they serve.

The CACM Committee developed these instructions to address the increasing incidence of juror use of such devices as cellular telephones, BlackBerries, or computers to conduct research on the Internet or communicate with others about cases. Such use has resulted in mistrials, exclusion of jurors, and, even, imposition of fines. The suggested instructions specifically inform jurors that they are prohibited from using these technologies in the courtroom, in deliberations, or outside the courthouse to communicate about or research cases on which they currently serve.

The instructions admonish the jurors to decide the case based solely on the evidence presented within the four walls of the courtroom. It also notes in part that jurors may not communicate with anyone about the case on a cell phone, through e-mail, BlackBerry, iPhone, text messaging or on Twitter.