Summary Judgment For Defense In Dry Cleaning Chemical Case

The Seventh Circuit has affirmed the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a toxic tort case arising from dry-cleaning chemicals. See Cunningham v. Masterwear Corp., 2009 WL 1751429 (7th Cir. 6/23/09).

The plaintiffs, Bill and Mary Ann Cunningham, alleged that after they moved their photo studio next to a dry-cleaning business operated by defendant, Masterwear Corp., they began developing severe headaches, and Mr. Cunningham developed a bad cough. In December 2003, the Indiana Environmental Protection Agency allegedly told them that the level of perchloroethylene (PCE) levels in the building could be significantly high and may pose a health concern over the long term.  Plaintiffs contended that the PCE vapors detected were the result of improper storage of chemicals by Masterwear.   When the Cunninghams went to sell the building (which they also had started living in) after learning about the alleged danger from PCE, they claim they had to sell it at well below market price because of the vapors.

Judge Richard A. Posner, writing for the panel, held that the plaintiffs' medical expert did not  establish that the level and duration of plaintiffs' exposure of PCE could have caused their symptoms.  The plaintiffs' expert, a respiratory doctor, had never treated a respiratory illness caused or aggravated by PCE.  He relied on a report that showed that PCE can cause respiratory symptoms and headaches, but the reported concentration levels were well above the dose that plaintiffs were exposed to. Readers of MassTortDefense know that the founding principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. The expert did not present, either directly or by citation to a scientific literature, a theory that would link the level and duration of the exposure of the plaintiffs to PCE to their symptoms.

While the state of Indiana had set safe exposure levels for PCE, plaintiffs' expert had not been able to specify what risks or dangers led the state to choose the “safe level” it did. For example, if exposure at a certain level to a chemical caused birth defects; a person who was exposed to above that level of the chemical and developed asthma could not attribute this to his exposure.

Turning to proof of the economic injury, the alleged impairment of the value of the plaintiffs' property presents a separate issue -contamination can reduce property values without endangering anybody's health, observed the court. But like the health issue, "causation turns out to be the plaintiffs' Achilles heel," said the opinion.  Judge Posner affirmed the district's court finding that the testimony about what the real estate agent thought the property worth and what prospective buyers had told the agent would have been inadmissible hearsay.   Mr. Cunningham proposed to testify that he had to accept a much lower price than the $135,000 he was asking because prospective buyers were concerned about the building being contaminated. Although Indiana law allows a property owner to testify about the value of his property, that information must be based on sufficient facts within his personal knowledge. In this case, it was inadmissible hearsay to testify about what a real estate agent said, and what potential buyers allegedly told the real estate agent.  The plaintiffs did not provide any evidence on the “critical question” related to their property value, i.e., how much they could have sold the building for had it not been for the contamination. What the owner is not allowed to do is merely repeat another person's valuation.