Lone Pine Issue Moving to State Supreme Court

Readers know we have posted before about the important case management tool known as the "Lone PIne" order. These “Lone Pine” orders take their name from a 1986 New Jersey Superior Court case involving toxic tort claims; they refer to case management orders that require the plaintiffs to make a showing regarding causation, injury, and/or damages to demonstrate, typically at an early stage, some minimal level of evidentiary support for the key components of their claims which will be in dispute.

A Colorado trial court had dismissed a claim, relying on a Lone Pine order, 2012 WL 1932470, that arose from the drilling and completing of three natural gas wells in Silt, Colorado.   The central issue was whether defendants caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, which plaintiffs vaguely described as “health injuries” from exposure to air and water contaminated by defendants with “hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes." Plaintiffs also alleged that defendants had caused loss of use and enjoyment of their property, diminution in value of property, loss of quality of life, and other damages.  The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation.  The court further determined that the prima facie showing requirement should not prejudice plaintiffs because they needed a good faith basis for their complaint, and ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

Plaintiffs were given 105 days to comply with the CMO. After that time, all plaintiff's expert could opine was that “sufficient environmental and health information exists to merit further substantive discovery.” Significantly, the expert offered no opinion as to whether exposure was a contributing factor to plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illness. And the requested march towards further discovery
without some adequate proof of causation of injury is precisely what the CMO was meant to
curtail. The expert suggested, at best, a very weak circumstantial causal connection between the Wells and plaintiffs’ injuries. 

The expert did not opine on whether any and each of the substances present in the air and water samples (taken after plaintiffs had moved out of the area) can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation). Finally, and perhaps most significantly,the expert did not even attempt to draw a conclusion that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illnesses were in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in 2013 that the state civil procedure rules did not allow trial courts to require plaintiffs to present prima facie evidence supporting their claims after initial disclosures, but before other discovery commenced.  This view was outside the mainstream of cases discussing the broad discretion necessarily given trial courts to manage their dockets and administer discovery. 

The state supreme court has now agreed to review the decision.  See Antero Res. Corp. v. Strudley,, No. 2013SC576 (Colo. cert. granted 4/7/14).  The review will focus on two issues. First, whether the trial court is barred under the state rules from entering a modified case management order requiring plaintiffs to produce limited evidence essential to their claims after initial disclosures but before further discovery.  The second issue is whether the district court in this case acted within its discretion in entering and enforcing such an order.

It will be interesting to see if Colorado moves back into the mainstream in allowing these sensible case management tools.

Lone Pine Issue Appealed to State Supreme Court

Defendants in a fracking toxic tort case last week petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court to overrule an appeals court decision which had struck down a Lone Pine order issued by the trial court in the case. See Antero Resources Corp. et al. v. William G. Strudley et al., No. 2013SC576 (Colo. S. Ct.).

Readers may recall that we posted on this case before, describing the significant discovery and cost burdens presented by a case of this nature; the trial court had endeavored to invoke a more efficient procedure than we see in the standard case management order. The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation, a form of a Lone Pine order. See Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85, 1986 WL 635707 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986). The court further determined that the prima facie showing requirement should not prejudice plaintiffs because ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

Last month, the appeals court struck down the order finding there was no showing of "extraordinary circumstances" to require departure from the civil rules of procedure. Defendants sought an extension of time for filing a petition for writ of certiorari, which the Colorado Supreme Court granted.

Defendants recently filed a petition for writ of certiorari noting that the appeals court’s decision contradicts the many state cases endorsing active case management by trial courts. Those trial courts are vested with wide discretion to adopt non-standard case management procedures and to customize discovery based on the unique circumstances and needs of each case, particularly cases involving complex scientific or technical issues. 

The "good cause” to modify the standard case management order is fact-specific and thus a trial court finding it is entitled to deference on appeal. It unduly handcuffs and hamstrings the trial courts to suggest that it is beyond a trial court’s discretion to enter a modified case management order requiring toxic tort plaintiffs to come forward with basic evidence of exposure, injury and/or causation in an appropriate case.

This is definitely one to watch.

Fracking Toxic Tort Case Dismissed Per Lone Pine Order

Readers will recall our earlier postings on "fracking"; natural gas from shale rock promises to provide cleaner, abundant energy for the U.S.  New drilling methods allow companies to tap into huge quantities of gas from shale rock. New estimates show that we have enough of this natural gas to last 100 years at current consumption rates.

The second biggest natural gas field in the world -- the Marcellus -- runs through your humble blogger's home state of Pennsylvania. The energy, jobs, taxes, and independence that tapping into this domestic resource will bring has spurred much interest and anticipation. The method to extract the gas from the rock is called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which like any technology, carries potential risks.

However, the potential drilling into the Marcellus Shale has caught the attention of the plaintiffs' bar, including personal injury and environmental class action lawyers. Plaintiffs lawyers are openly speculating about everything from gas leaks and fires, to environmental groundwater impacts, to the problems of large tanker trucks on small rural roadways.

We posted before about one such case already filed regarding another deposit, out West. See Strudley v. Antero Resources Corp., No. 2011CV2218 (Colo. Dist. Ct., Denver Cty., 3/24/11). Plaintiffs sued the gas exploration company and drilling equipment contractor, alleging that the hyrdrofracking contaminated their well water.

Earlier this month, the Colorado court dismissed the claim, relying on a  Lone Pine order, 2012 WL 1932470. The case arose from drilling and completing three natural gas wells in Silt, Colorado known as the Diemoz A well, the Fenno Ranch A well, and the Three Siblings A well. Construction of the Wells allegedly began on August 9, 2010. By January 10, 2011, plaintiffs had moved out of their home and away from Silt.

The central issue was whether defendants caused plaintiffs’ alleged injuries, which
plaintiffs vaguely described as “health injuries” from exposure to air and water contaminated by
defendants with “hazardous gases, chemicals and industrial wastes." Plaintiffs also alleged that
defendants had caused loss of use and enjoyment of their property, diminution in value of
property, loss of quality of life, and other damages. 

Cognizant of the significant discovery and cost burdens presented by a case of this nature, the court endeavored to invoke a more efficient procedure than we see in the standard case management order. The court required plaintiffs, before opening full two-way discovery, to make a prima facie showing of exposure and causation, a form of a Lone Pine order. See Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85 1986 WL 635707 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986). The court further
determined that the prima facie showing requirement should  not prejudice plaintiffs because
ultimately they would need to come forward with this data and expert opinion on exposure and causation in order to establish their claims anyway.

The court also seemed influenced by the fact that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”) had conducted an investigation of the plaintiffs’ well water and had concluded that the water supply was not affected by oil and gas operations in the vicinity. Defendants also provided evidence to support their contention that the air emission-control
equipment at the Wells and prevailing wind patterns made it unlikely that plaintiffs or their
property were exposed to harmful levels of chemicals from defendants’ activities.

Specifically, the CMO required plaintiffs to identify the identity of each hazardous substance from defendants’ activities to which he or she was exposed and which caused him or
her injury;  evidence whether any and each of these substances can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation);  the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of his/her exposure to each substance; a medically recognized diagnosis of the specific disease or illness from which each plaintiff allegedly suffers or is at risk for such that medical monitoring is purportedly necessary; and a conclusion that such illness was in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

Plaintiffs were given 105 days to comply with the CMO. After that time, all plaintiff's expert could opine was that “sufficient environmental and health information exists to merit further substantive discovery.” Significantly, he offered no opinion as to whether exposure was a contributing factor to plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illness. And the requested march towards further discovery
without some adequate proof of causation of injury is precisely what the CMO was meant to
curtail. The expert  suggested, at best, a very weak circumstantial causal connection between the Wells and plaintiffs’ injuries. In fact, he merely temporally associated plaintiff’s symptoms with the Wells being brought into production.

While the proffered evidence showed existence of certain low level gases and compounds in both the air and water of plaintiffs’ Silt home, there was neither sufficient data nor expert analysis stating with any level of probability that a causal connection does in fact exist between the alleged injuries and exposure to defendants drilling activities.  This is particularly telling, since Mr. Strudley complained of “nasal sinus congestion, nose bleeds at inconvenient times” and “an aversion to odors,” while he owns a painting business, and was frequently exposed to paint vapors -- offering a ready alternative explanation for his alleged respiratory symptoms.

The expert did not opine on whether any and each of the substances present in the air and water samples (taken after plaintiffs had moved out) can cause the type(s) of disease or illness that plaintiffs claimed (general causation). He did not discuss the dose or other quantitative measurement of the concentration, timing and duration of the alleged exposure to each substance. Finally, and perhaps most significantly,the expert did not even attempt to draw a conclusion that plaintiffs’ alleged injuries or illnesses were in fact caused by such exposure (specific causation).

The case reflects an effective, but also appropriate, use of the Lone Pine order. It may be a useful model for other fracking toxic tort suits, and is important as an illustration of a method to avoid long, expensive, and unnecessary discovery in such cases. 

 

Update BUT SEE Strudley v. Antero, Colo. Ct. App., No. 12CA1251, 7/3/13.

Lone Pine Order Adopted in Avandia MDL

In the right case, we are big fans of the "Lone Pine" order as a tool of case management.  Named for Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85, 1986 WL 637507 (N.J.Super. Ct. Law Div. Nov. 18, 1986), Lone Pine orders are designed to handle the complex issues and potential burdens on the parties and the court in mass tort and toxic tort litigation. Acuna v. Brown & Root Inc., 200 F.3d 335, 340 (5th Cir.2000).   The term refers to case management orders that require the plaintiffs to make a showing regarding causation, injury, and/or damages to demonstrate, typically at an early stage, some minimal level of evidentiary support for the key components of their claims which will be in dispute.

While the 1986 New Jersey Superior Court case involved traditional toxic tort claims, the device has gotten good use in drug cases as well.  E.g., In re Vioxx Products Liab. Litig., 2010 WL 2802352 (5th Cir. July 16, 2010). After a tentative settlement was reached in the Vioxx litigation, the MDL court entered several pre-trial orders with respect to the claims of those plaintiffs who could not or chose not to participate in the Master Settlement Agreement.  The order required non-settling plaintiffs to notify their health-care providers that they must preserve evidence pertaining to the plaintiffs' use of Vioxx. Plaintiffs were also required to produce pharmacy records and medical authorizations, answers to interrogatories, and a Rule 26(a)(2) report from a medical expert attesting that the plaintiff sustained an injury caused by Vioxx and that the injury occurred within a specified time period. Failure to comply eventually resulted in dismissal of several of the plaintiffs' claims with prejudice.

And the federal judge overseeing the MDL for Celebrex and Bextra found that a “Lone Pine” order was appropriate for managing the claims of the remaining, non-settling plaintiffs. In re: Bextra and Celebrex Marketing Sales Practices and Product Liability Litigation, No. M:05-cv-01699 (N.D. Cal.) (Pretrial Order No. 29, Aug. 1, 2008).

In the drug context, a Lone Pine order might require plaintiffs to submit a case-specific expert report on the issue of medical causation; or to turn over medical records that documented an injury, prescription records that showed medication history and dosages prescribed, and/or proof of dosage in relation to the injury. The benefit to the court of requiring plaintiffs to supply this information is that the parties will not have to engage in protracted discovery in hundreds or thousands of cases just to see whether each one has some threshold evidence of medical causation. The production of such basic and threshold evidence is simply a part of a good-faith investigation that should precede the filing of a lawsuit.

Requiring plaintiffs to identify basic information about injuries and causation is not unreasonable given the costs that mass tort claims have on the legal system, and on defendants in particular. Lone Pine orders allow courts to weed out the frivolous suits where there is insufficient exposure, or no sufficient scientific connection between injury and exposure. Accordingly, Lone Pine orders can be effective when entered early in the game. Early disposal of frivolous claims allows the parties to focus their attention on the serious cases. Ideally, the order will actually phase discovery, and motions practice as well, with the Lone Pine issues pushed up front.

But the device also has a role later in mature mass torts when, as seen above, a chunk of the litigation has settled and there still remain numerous claims of questionable strength.

In the MDL involving the the diabetes medication Avandia, In re Avandia Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1871 (Pretrial Order No. 121)(E.D. Pa. Nov. 15, 2010), the federal court has recently adopted a Lone Pine order.  The court found that many of the remaining claims lacked sufficient support or detail even after submission of the Plaintiff Fact Sheets.  Thus, additional detail about the plaintiffs' claims was necessary in furtherance of settlement agreements, for the selection of cases for bellwether trials, and for the timely remand of cases to the transferor courts for resolution.

The court's overriding concern was having sufficient information to objectively identify which of the many thousands of remaining plaintiffs have injuries that could credibly be linked to the drug usage.  The order calls for information that the court said the plaintiffs should have had before filing their claims.

Specifically, plaintiffs have to have a licensed physician identify the plaintiff's Avandia usage, the alleged injury, the time lag between drug usage and injury, and a certification that the drug usage caused the injury.

Failure of a plaintiff to submit these required expert certification (and supporting documents) in a timely fashion may result in the dismissal of that plaintiff's claims with prejudice.

A defendant in such litigation should not bear the burden of winnowing cases that never should have been filed, nor should the court be saddled with consideration of claims that would not have survived reasonable pre-complaint investigation.

 

Lone Pine Ruling Affirmed in Vioxx

The Sergeant Joe Friday character on Dragnet was created and played by actor Jack Webb.  Like so many famous lines, the immortal words, "Just the facts, ma'am," were apparently never uttered by the character.  What Friday actually said in early episodes is "All we want are the facts, ma'am."  

Either way, that's our motto when we post about litigation the firm has been involved in.  But with that limitation, a noteworthy decision is In re Vioxx Products Liab. Litig., 2010 WL 2802352 (5th Cir. July 16, 2010).

After a tentative settlement was reached in the Vioxx litigation, the MDL court entered several pre-trial orders with respect to the claims of those plaintiffs who could not or chose not to participate in the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA).  PTO 28 required non-settling plaintiffs to notify their healthcare providers that they must preserve evidence pertaining to the plaintiffs' use of Vioxx. Plaintiffs were also required to produce pharmacy records and medical authorizations, answers to interrogatories, and a Rule 26(a)(2) report from a medical expert attesting that the plaintiff sustained an injury caused by Vioxx and that the injury occurred within a specified time period. Failure to comply could result in dismissal of the plaintiffs' claims with prejudice.

PTO 28 is characterized as a Lone Pine order, named for Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., No. L-33606-85, 1986 WL 637507 (N.J.Super. Ct. Law Div. Nov. 18, 1986). Lone Pine orders are designed to handle the complex issues and potential burdens on the aprties and the court in mass tort litigation. Acuna v. Brown & Root Inc., 200 F.3d 335, 340 (5th Cir.2000).

The trial court extended deadlines, but eventually defendant Merck moved for an Order to Show Cause as to sixty-one plaintiffs for alleged failure to provide a case-specific expert report as required by PTO 28. The plaintiffs filed responses, arguing that they were in substantial compliance with PTO 28 and that state substantive law only required general forms of causation proof. In April 2009, the district court dismissed these plaintiffs' complaints with prejudice for failure to comply with PTO 28.

A district court's adoption of a Lone Pine order and decision to dismiss a case for failing to comply with a Lone Pine order are reviewed for abuse of discretion. Acuna, 200 F.3d at 340-41. The district court stated that “it is not too much to ask a plaintiff to provide some kind of evidence to support their claim that Vioxx caused them personal injury.”

The court of appeals had previously held that such orders are issued under the wide discretion afforded district judges over the management of discovery under Federal Rule 16. The court had held that the Lone Pine orders essentially required information which plaintiffs should have had before filing their claims pursuant to Rule 11.  Each plaintiff should have at least some information regarding the nature of his injuries, the circumstances under which he could have been exposed to harmful substances, and the basis for believing that the named defendants were responsible for his injuries.

The Fifth Circuit reaffirmed its view that it is within a trial court's discretion to take steps to manage the complex and potentially very burdensome discovery that these mass tort cases would require. The court of appeals thus affirmed the judgment of the district court.
 

Update on Digitek Litigation

In the Digitek MDL, the parties have been wrangling over the defense motion for a Lone Pine order. See generally Lore v. Lone Pine, No. L-336006-85, 1986 WL 637507 (N.J. Super. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986).

Dozens of product liability cases alleging that defendants Actavis Totowa LLC, Actavis Inc. and Actavis Elizabeth LLC marketed Digitek tablets containing double the appropriate dosage were transferred to an MDL assigned to Chief Judge Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia last summer. In Re: Digitek Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1968 (S.D. W.Va.).
 

Defendants recently moved for a Lone Pine order under which each plaintiff must submit an "affidavit from a medical expert in each case establishing that there is medical evidence of digoxin toxicity." Readers of MassTortDefense recognize this important and logical procedural tool for management of mass toxic tort litigation.  When the major factual battles will be over injury and causation, it may make sense to focus discovery on these issues, and prior to resorting to expensive and time-consuming discovery, to require plaintiffs to come forward with some prima facie showing of injury and specific causation, or as the court put it, "some evidence of certain elements of their claims, e.g. medical causation, to support a credible claim."

The plaintiffs in the federal Digitek multidistrict litigation filed a brief opposing the motion, arguing that the discovery in the MDL is still in its "incipient stages."  As they typically do, the plaintiffs argued that such orders "effectively function as untimely and unjust summary judgment devices and violate the discovery rules for expert witness disclosures and reports." They also argued that they have provided significant case-specific discovery in the form of Plaintiffs' Fact Sheets and records authorizations.

The court entered PTO #43 (Order re Request for Lone Pine Order), saying the motion is taken under advisement pending completion of basic fact discovery of Group 1 cases. Under the latest schedule, Plaintiff shall serve their reports from liability experts no later than March 15, 2010.  The parties shall complete their depositions of Plaintiffs’ liability experts no later than May 28, 2010.  Defendants shall serve their reports from liability experts no later than June 15, 2010. The parties shall complete their depositions of Defendants’ liability experts no later than August 31, 2010. 

At the November 20, 2009, conference each party is to present to the court their choice of five cases that they believe to be representative plaintiffs for trial in accordance with PTO #38, governing the creation of a trial pool upon completion of basic fact discovery, including but not limited to the depositions of plaintiffs, plaintiffs’ physicians who prescribed Digitek® to them, physicians who treated Plaintiffs for alleged digoxin toxicity, and pharmacists who filled plaintiffs’ prescriptions for Digitek®.
 

Lone Pine Order Entered in Celebrex MDL

The federal judge overseeing the MDL for Celebrex and Bextra has sided with defendants' view that a “Lone Pine” order is appropriate for managing the claims of the remaining, non-settling plaintiffs. In re: Bextra and Celebrex Marketing Sales Practices and Product Liability Litigation, No. M:05-cv-01699 (N.D. Cal.) (Pretrial Order No. 29, Aug. 1, 2008).

“Lone Pine” orders take their name from a 1986 New Jersey Superior Court case involving toxic tort claims; they refer to case management orders that require the plaintiffs to make a showing regarding causation, injury, and/or damages to demonstrate, typically at an early stage, some minimal level of evidentiary support for the key components of their claims which will be in dispute.

Defendants had first asked the court for a Lone Pine order in late June, arguing that each plaintiff should be required to submit a case-specific expert report on the issue of medical causation. The motion also sought to compel each plaintiff to turn over medical records that documented an injury, prescription records that showed medication history and dosages prescribed, and proof of dosage in relation to the confirmed injury. The benefits to the court of requiring plaintiffs to supply this information is that the parties would not have to engage in protracted discovery in thousands of cases just to see whether each one has some threshold evidence of medical causation. The production of such basic and threshold evidence was argued to be simply a part of a good-faith investigation that should precede the filing of a lawsuit.

Plaintiffs argued that the proposed order would be overly burdensome, was not needed, and was a retaliation for not settling. Plaintiffs also suggested that Lone Pine orders are generally issued as sanctions against plaintiffs who provide no other information to the defendants about the filed case. But the court disagreed with plaintiffs.

The court appeared mindful of what had happened on the eve of the first trial in the MDL, as the scheduled cases began to disappear. Thus, under the Order, plaintiffs will have 45 days to have a physician or other medical expert offer a case-specific expert report for each plaintiff including a review of the plaintiffs’ medical records, the dates they used Celebrex and/or Bextra, and whether they experienced a myocardial infarction, ischemic stroke, sudden death, or any other injury while taking the medications.

The court observed that all of this information should be already readily available to plaintiffs through the plaintiff fact sheets process. The court apparently expects that cases in which plaintiffs cannot show drug usage, injury, or causation, will drop from the docket before being scheduled for trial. Without threshold proof of Celebrex or Bextra usage, a compensable injury, and a link between usage and an injury, there could have been no good-faith basis for a lawsuit in the first place.

Moreover, requiring plaintiffs to identify basic information about injuries and causation is not unreasonable given the costs that mass tort claims have on the legal system, and on defendants. Lone Pine orders allow courts to weed out the frivolous suits where there is insufficient exposure, or no sufficient scientific connection between injury and exposure. Accordingly, Lone Pine orders can be effective when entered early in the game. Early disposal of frivolous claims allows the parties to focus their attention on the serious cases. Ideally, the order will actually phase discovery, and motions practice as well, with the Lone Pine issues pushed up front.

With their focus on causation, Lone Pine orders are especially useful when multiple plaintiffs claim a variety of different injuries, allege injuries incurred over a long period of time, and/or when plaintiffs allege diverse exposures.