Asbestos Conspiracy Verdict Overturned

An Illinois appellate court recently affirmed the trial court's decision overturning a significant jury verdict against various defendants accused of conspiring to conceal the dangers of asbestos. See Gillenwater v. Honeywell International Inc., et al., No. 4-12-0929 (Ill. App. Fourth District, 2013).

Plaintiff allegedly contracted mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos in his job as a pipe-fitter. Gillenwater never worked for any of the companies in the appeal, but alleged they had engaged in a civil conspiracy with one another and the distributor to conceal the hazards of asbestos-containing products.  Readers understand that plaintiffs will often allege a conspiracy to draw in deep pocket defendants and to attempt to utilize one defendant's documents against another defendant.  The case went to trial and the jury returned a verdict for significant compensatory and punitive damages against the three defendants.

The court of appeals found that while there was some evidence that these defendants had some knowledge of the risks of asbestos, there was not sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that they conspired together to conceal that knowledge.  Indeed, plaintiffs had no evidence that defendants Honeywell and Abex ever interacted with the product seller in any way. Honeywell and
Abex appeared to be nothing but bystanders, allegedly committing alleged wrongs that had nothing to do with plaintiff.  

Because a conspiracy requires a conspiratorial agreement between the active wrongdoer and the other conspirators, a logical first step when evaluating a claim of conspiracy is to clearly identify the active wrongdoer, the one whose tortious conduct was the proximate cause of harm to the plaintiff, as distinct from those who harmed the plaintiff more indirectly, merely by allegedly encouraging the active wrongdoer. The court noted that the gist of a conspiracy claim is not the agreement itself, but the tortious acts performed in furtherance of the agreement.  It is important to identify the active wrongdoer, because a conspiracy exists only if the others intentionally assisted or encouraged the tortious conduct of the active wrongdoer.  Here the alleged active wrongdoer was Owens-Corning. 

Plaintiff did present some evidence of interaction between defendant Owens Illinois and Owens-Corning because it manufactured the insulation that was ultimately distributed by Owens-Corning. The court reviewed the other alleged interactions on studies and warnings, shared directors, stock ownership, contracts, etc., in detail. But also noted that those companies terminated their relationship more than a decade before Gillenwater was first exposed to the products. The court cited numerous federal cases for the proposition that once a conspiracy has been terminated, that conspiracy claim cannot be extended by suggesting a second, subsidiary conspiracy to keep the original one under wraps. 

While a conspiracy can be shown by circumstantial evidence, and mere parallel conduct might serve as circumstantial evidence of an agreement under the civil conspiracy theory, it cannot, in itself, be considered clear and convincing evidence of such an agreement among manufacturers of the same or similar products.  Here, the defendants appeared to be engaging in parallel conduct by which they allegedly concealed the dangers of their own asbestos-containing products in order allegedly to maximize their own profits. 

This is not to say it is impossible for companies to have a conspiratorial agreement to continue doing that which is in their economic interest. But here a conspiratorial agreement was unnecessary to explain parallel conduct in continuing to do that which is in their economic interest. They each could be expected to pursue their economic interest on their own individual initiative. For that reason, in the absence of more evidence, it would be pure speculation to posit a conspiracy on the basis of consciously parallel conduct that is in each company’s economic interest; and tort liability cannot rest on speculation, said the court of appeals.

 

Daubert Decision to Watch in Ninth Circuit

Here's one to watch. The Ninth Circuit last week said it will rehear the case of a paper mill employee whose $9.4 million mesothelioma verdict was vacated by a panel of the appeals court. The court noted in a one-page order that it will rehear the case en banc, but did not provide any specifics. See Henry Barabin. et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., No. 10-36142 (9th Cir.); Henry Barabin, et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc. and Scapa Dryer Fabrics Inc., No. 11-35020 (9th Cir.). 

We can certainly speculate, of course, and our guess is that the reason for the decision does not relate directly to the evidentiary issue the panel had when, in November, it overturned the award after finding that the trial court failed to adequately assess the reliability of the plaintiffs' expert testimony.

Readers may recall that plaintiff sued alleging that his 2006 diagnosis of mesothelioma was caused by occupational exposure to asbestos during the more than 30 years he worked at the Crown-Zellerbach paper mill.  The trial court originally excluded Kenneth Cohen, one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, because of his “dubious credentials and his lack of expertise with regard to dryer felts and paper mills.”  But the court later reversed that ruling, after the plaintiff supplemented the record on the expert's credentials, including that he had testified in other cases (in Frye jurisdictions though). The jury found in favor of plaintiffs.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit determined that the lower court had not properly considered all the Daubert factors, and instead had allowed the plaintiff to submit the expert’s "unfiltered testimony" to the jury.  “Once presented with the additional information in the Barabins’ response to the motion in limine, at a minimum the district court was required to assess the scientific reliability of the proffered expert testimony ...  In failing to do so, the district court neglected to perform its gatekeeping role.”

Our guess is that the court is thinking more about the fact that the panel remanded the case for a new trial in light of the court’s 2003 decision in Mukhtar v. California State University, 299 F.3d 1053 (9th Cir. 2002), amended by 319 F.3d 1073 (9th Cir. 2003).  One of the concurring opinions questioned the rule from that case that requires the court to vacate and remand for a new trial, as opposed to deciding on the need for a new trial after making a new Daubert determination.  From where we sit, the court had it right in 2003 and this time too. To remand for an evidentiary hearing post-jury verdict undermines Daubert's requirement that some reliability determination must be made by the trial court before the jury is permitted to hear the evidence. Otherwise, instead of fulfilling its mandatory role as a gatekeeper, the district court clouds its duty to ensure that only reliable evidence is presented with impunity. A post-verdict analysis does not protect the purity of the trial, but instead creates an undue risk of post-hoc rationalization. This is hardly the gatekeeping role the Supreme Court envisioned in Daubert and its progeny.  The rule in Mukhtar gives trial courts a real and important incentive to be proper, active gatekeepers. 

 

State Supreme Court Clarifies Causation Standard in Asbestos Case

The unique and overwhelming features of the grandfather of all mass torts, asbestos, has created bad law in many jurisdictions, procedurally and substantively.  One important example is the issue of causation, and the questions that arise from an injury possibly associated with multiple  exposures to multiple products over many years.  Last year, we posted about a Pennsylvania decision that rejected the plaintiff position that an expert can opine that any level of exposure to a toxic substance is a substantial contributing factor to a disease that is governed by a dose-response relationship.

Recently, the Virginia Supreme Court adopted a new “multiple sufficient causes” analysis as the standard for Virginia mesothelioma cases involving multiple asbestos exposures. See Ford Motor Co. v. Boomer, No. 120283 (Va. 1/10/13).

Plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a malignant cancer of the pleura of the lungs.  He asserted that his job duties required that he observe vehicle inspections wherein mechanics used compressed air to blow out brake debris (dust) to allow for a visual inspection of the vehicle's  brakes. He testified that he observed vehicle inspections in approximately 70 garages a month, for five to six hours a day, ten days each month. He testified that his rotations included supervising inspections at a Ford dealership. He said he also specifically remembered Oldsmobile dealers on his rotation. Plaintiff could not identify the type of brake linings being inspected, but presented some circumstantial evidence as to the likely manufacturer of the brake linings being Bendix.

Plaintiff's experts opined that the exposure to dust from Bendix brakes and brakes in Ford cars were both substantial contributing factors in his mesothelioma. And they opined that the current medical evidence suggests that there is no safe level of chrysotile asbestos exposure above background levels in the ambient air. However, plaintiff also testified that he worked as a pipefitter at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in the early 1940s. His own work and the work of those immediately around him involved packing sand into pipes so that the pipes could be bent to fit the ships. Defense experts opined that his profile was more consistent with a person who had exposure to amosite asbestos at a shipyard sixty years ago than a person exposed to chrysotile brake products.

The jury found in favor of the plaintiff; the trial court denied Bendix' and Ford's motions to strike the expert testimony and their motions to set aside the verdict or for a new trial. Bendix and Ford timely appealed, including on the issue that the court had instructed the jury to determine whether Ford's or Bendix' negligence was a "substantial contributing factor" to plaintiff's mesothelioma. Defendants challenged the use of the substantial contributing factor language as contrary to prevailing Virginia law as to causation.

The court reviewed the traditional Virginia law of causation, which in most instances requires proof that but for the defendant's actions the plaintiff would not have been injured.The 'but for' test is a useful rule of exclusion in all but one situation, said the court: where two causes concur to bring about an event and either alone would have been sufficient to bring about an identical result.  Thus, state law has long provided a means of holding a defendant liable if his or her negligence is one of multiple concurrent causes which proximately caused an injury, when any of the multiple causes would have each have been a sufficient cause.

Causation in a mesothelioma case, however, observed the court, presents a challenge beyond even that standard concurring negligence instruction. Mesothelioma is virtually a signature disease: it was uncontroverted at trial that in most situations the cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos at some point during an individual's lifetime. The long latency period of the disease, however, makes it exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when the harmful asbestos exposure occurred and, in the presence of multiple exposures, equally difficult to distinguish the causative exposures. Further complicating the issue, said the court, although numerous individuals were exposed to varying levels of asbestos during its widespread industrial use before safety measures became standard, not all persons so exposed developed mesothelioma.  It is not currently known why some are more susceptible than others to developing mesothelioma, or why even comparatively lower levels of exposure may cause mesothelioma in some individuals while others exposed to higher dosages never develop the disease. Thus, in the context of a lifetime of various potential asbestos exposures, designating particular exposures as causative presents courts with a unique  challenge.

Certainly, said the court, if the traditional but-for definition of proximate cause was invoked, the injured party would virtually never be able to recover for damages arising from mesothelioma in the context of multiple exposures, because injured parties would face the difficult if not impossible task of proving that any one single source of exposure, in light of other exposures, was the sole but-for cause of the disease. The lower court thus used a "substantial factor" test.  In the last several decades, with the rise of asbestos-based lawsuits, the "substantial contributing factor" instruction has become prominent in some other jurisdictions. See, e.g., Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1162-63 (4th Cir. 1986) (upholding Maryland's substantial contributing factor standard in an asbestosis case); Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 941 P.2d 1203, 1219 (Cal. 1997).

Here, the court rejected the “substantial contributing factor” analysis used by these several other jurisdictions.  The Court did not believe that substantial contributing factor has a single, common-sense meaning, and concluded that a reasonable juror could be confused as to the quantum of evidence required to prove causation in the face of both a substantial contributing factor and a proximate cause instruction. In sum, some jurors might construe the term to lower the threshold of proof required for causation while others might interpret it to mean the opposite. The court also agreed with the explicit rejection of substantial contributing factor language in the recent Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm (2010).  The substantial-factor rubric, says the commentary, tends to obscure, rather than to assist, explanation and clarification of the basis of causation decisions. The latest Restatement provides a rule for finding each of two acts that are elements of sufficient competing causal sets to be factual causes without employing the substantial-factor language of the prior Torts Restatements. There is no question of degree in the new version.  It holds that if multiple acts occur, each of which alone would have been a factual cause of the physical harm at the same time in the absence of the other act(s), each can be regarded as a factual cause of the harm.

The court found this model, as explicated in the comments, quite consistent with its prior rulings regarding concurring causation. A defendant whose tortious act was fully capable of causing the plaintiff's harm should not escape liability merely because of the fortuity of another sufficient cause. So the but-for standard is a helpful method for identifying causes, but it is not the exclusive means for determining a factual cause. Multiple sufficient causes may also be factual causes.  The acts themselves do not have to be concurrent, so long as they are operating and sufficient to cause the harm contemporaneously. As to mesothelioma, said the court, the "harm" occurs not at the time of exposure but at the time when competent medical evidence indicates that the cancer first exists and  thus causes injury. 

 The court said that the separate comment under Restatement § 27, entitled "Toxic substances and disease," should not be applied here.  That approach allows for a finding of causation when multiple exposures combine to reach the threshold necessary to cause a disease, allowing parties who were responsible for some portion of that threshold to be held liable. While it may be the case that this dose-related approach to causation is indeed appropriate for some cancers or diseases, the court did not find it to be necessarily appropriate for mesothelioma from asbestos.

Based on this rule, plaintiff must show that it is more likely than not that his alleged exposure to dust from defendant's brakes occurred prior to the development of cancer and was sufficient to cause his mesothelioma. Given that this approach differs from that taken in the circuit court, the court did not find it appropriate to rule on the sufficiency of the evidence at trial at this time, and instead remanded. On remand, the experts must opine as to what level of exposure is sufficient to cause mesothelioma, and whether the levels of exposure at issue in this case were sufficient.

Ninth Circuit Vacates Asbestos Verdict on Daubert Basis

The Ninth Circuit earlier this month vacated a $9 million award for a plaintiff who allegedly contracted mesothelioma working for decades at a paper mill, because the trial court failed to assess the reliability of expert testimony for the plaintiffs under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm.,
Inc
., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). See Henry Barabin et al. v. AstenJohnson Inc., et al., Nos. 10-36142 and 11-35020 (9th Cir.). 

Plaintiff's employer used dryer felts containing asbestos allegedly made or sold by defendants. During his employment, he allegedly worked in various jobs that exposed him to the dryer felts that defendants had provided. He also took pieces of dryer felt home to use in his garden.  In November, 2006, Plaintiff was diagnosed with pleural malignant epithelial mesothelioma.  It was undisputed that exposure to respirable asbestos can cause mesothelioma (general causation).

Defendants filed a motion in limine to exclude plaintiff's expert witnesses on specific causation. The district court excluded one (Dr. Cohen) as an expert because of his “dubious credentials and his lack of expertise with regard to dryer felts and paper mills. . . ” Additionally, the district court limited a second (Dr. Millette), requiring disclosure to the jury that Dr. Millette’s tests were “performed under laboratory conditions which are not the same as conditions at [plaintiff's workplace].”  However, during a pre-trial conference, the district court reversed its decision to exclude Dr. Cohen’s testimony. The district court explained that plaintiffs had clarified Dr. Cohen’s credentials, including that he had testified in other cases. The district court did not hold a Daubert hearing.

After the jury verdict and post-trial motions, defendants appealed.  The court of appeals noted that in its role as gatekeeper, the district court determines the relevance and reliability of expert testimony and its subsequent admission or exclusion. See Ellis v. Costco Wholesale Corp., 657 F.3d 970, 982 (9th Cir. 2011). Admission or exclusion under Daubert rests on the scientific reliability and relevance of the expert testimony.  The expert’s opinion must be deduced from a “scientific method” to be admissible. The test under Daubert is not the correctness of the expert’s conclusions but the soundness of his methodology. Compliance with Rule 702 is gauged by the district court’s assessment of the reliability of the proffered expert testimony. Specifically, the district court is charged with determining whether the proffered expert testimony is trustworthy. In a case involving scientific evidence, evidentiary reliability will be based upon scientific validity. Scientific validity is, in turn, assessed in large part by the degree to which the theories propounded by the expert have been subjected to and survived scrutiny in the relevant scientific community.  The "decision to admit or exclude expert testimony is often the difference between winning and losing a case."

Since the decision to permit the testimony was based on reconsideration, the record was limited. Once presented with the additional information in the response to the motion in limine, at a minimum the district court was required to assess the scientific reliability of the proffered expert testimony.  Unfortunately, said the court of appeals, because no Daubert hearing was conducted as requested, the district court failed to assess the scientific methodologies, reasoning, or principles Dr. Cohen applied. None of the Daubert factors was considered. "Instead, the court allowed the parties to submit the experts’ unfiltered testimony to the jury."  In failing to do so, the district court neglected to perform its gatekeeping role.  Rather than making the required determinations, the district court left it to the jury to determine the relevance and reliability of the proffered expert testimony in the first instance, said the panel. The 9th Circuit panel seemed influenced in part by the fact that, in its order, the district court wrote: In the interest of allowing each party to try its case to the jury, the Court deems admissible expert testimony that every exposure can cause an asbestos-related disease. (emphasis added).

"Let the parties try their cases; let the jury sort it out" is not what Daubert allows or requires.  The district court committed reversible error when it failed to assess the proferred expert testimony for relevance and reliability, concluded the court. Prior decisions dictated that a new trial be provided in this circumstance.

Bills Pending To Overturn Important Causation Decision

Two bills are pending in the Texas legislature to overturn a significant toxic tort decision made by the state's highest court. In Borg-Warner Corp. v. Arturo Flores, 232 S.W.3d 765 (Tex.2007), the court required plaintiffs to prove they had a sufficient level of exposure to the toxic substance, asbestos.

Earlier in April, a committee of the Texas Senate approved by a 6-2 vote a bill relating to the
standard of causation in claims involving mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos
fibers. The bill, S.B. 1123, introduced by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, would require a plaintiff to prove that a defendant ’s product or conduct was a substantial factor in causing the exposed claimant ’s injury by presenting qualitative proof that the asbestos exposure attributed to the defendant was substantial, and not merely de minimis, when considering (1) the frequency of the exposure;  (2) the regularity of the exposure; and (3) the proximity of the claimant to the source of the asbestos fibers.  A plaintiff would not be required to prove numerically the dose, approximate or otherwise, of asbestos fibers to which the claimant was exposed that are attributable to the defendant.

A House bill, introduced by Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Texas City, is still pending in committee. H.B. 1811 would require proof that the defendant ’s product or conduct was a substantial factor in causing the exposed person ’s injury, by showing that the exposure to the asbestos fibers for which that defendant is alleged to be responsible contributed to the cumulative exposure of the exposed person and was more than purely trivial when considering the following (same) qualitative factors: (1) the frequency of exposure; (2) the regularity of exposure; and (3) the proximity of the exposed person to the source of the asbestos fibers. Plaintiff need not prove, for any purpose, a quantitative dose, approximate quantitative dose, or estimated quantitative dose of asbestos fibers to which the exposed person was exposed.

Such language would significantly lower the standard for providing causation in mesothelioma litigation. Perhaps the most widely cited standard for proving causation in asbestos cases is the Lohrmann “frequency, regularity, and proximity” test. Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156 (4th Cir.1986). The court there rejected a standard that if the plaintiff can present any evidence that a company's asbestos-containing product was at the workplace while the plaintiff was at the workplace, a jury question has been established as to whether that product proximately caused the plaintiff's disease. Instead, the court concluded that to support a reasonable inference of substantial causation from circumstantial evidence, there must be evidence of exposure to a specific product on a regular basis over some extended period of time in proximity to where the plaintiff actually worked.

While the test seemed to be tighter standard than the plaintiffs’ proposed test, since a plaintiff must prove more than a casual or minimum contact with the product, in reality the test has loosened the traditional standards for substantial factor causation. In Borg-Warner, the court held that a “frequency, regularity, and proximity” test does not, in itself, capture the role of causation as an essential predicate to liability. As in many jurisdictions, the word “substantial” in substantial factor is used to denote the fact that the defendant's conduct has such an effect in producing the harm as to lead reasonable people to regard it as a cause, using that word in the popular sense, in which there always lurks the idea of responsibility, rather than in the so-called philosophic sense, which includes every one of the great number of events without which any happening would not have occurred.

Substantial factor in a toxic tort case cannot be analyzed without recognizing that one of toxicology's central tenets is that “the dose makes the poison.” This notion was first attributed to sixteenth century philosopher-physician Paracelsus, who stated that all substances are poisonous-there is none which is not; the dose differentiates a poison from a remedy. Even water, in sufficient doses, can be toxic. Dose refers to the amount of chemical that enters the body, and, is probably the single most important factor to consider in evaluating whether an alleged exposure caused a specific adverse effect. Not all asbestos exposures cause cancer, and the scientific literature shows that more exposure leads to more disease (dose-response).

Plaintiffs showed nothing about how much asbestos Flores might have inhaled. He was exposed to “some asbestos” on a fairly regular basis for an extended period of time. Nevertheless, absent any evidence of dose, the jury could not evaluate the quantity of respirable asbestos to which Flores might have been exposed or whether those amounts were sufficient to cause his disease. Nor did Flores introduce evidence regarding what percentage of that indeterminate amount may have originated in defendant Borg-Warner products. Plaintiffs did not prove the asbestos content of other brands of brake pads or how much of Flores's exposure came from grinding new pads as opposed to blowing out old ones. Plaintiff need not show dose with mathematical precision.  But in a case like this, proof of mere frequency, regularity, and proximity is necessary but not sufficient, said the court, as it provides none of the quantitative information necessary to support causation under Texas law.
 

The proposed legislation would overturn that clear and compelling logic.