Typically, MassTortDefense will post about significant opinions issued on product liability issues. A recent decision, without opinion, by the California Supreme Court is worth a mention. Just recently, the court declined to review the intermediate appellate court’s affirmance of a $3.9 million asbestos verdict. It thus left standing the appellate court’s view on the important issue whether so-called de minimis exposures are sufficient to satisfy the substantial factor test. Norris v. Crane Co., 2008 WL 638361 (Cal.App. 2d Dist. 2008). The California rule raises significant issues for asbestos and potentially other toxic tort defendants, and stands in contrast to the better view in many other jurisdictions.

The plaintiff, former Naval worker Joseph Norris, had been awarded $3.9 million by the jury, 50% liability assigned to defendant Crane Co. The company appealed the verdict, arguing that plaintiff failed to present substantial evidence linking asbestos in the Crane valves to the decedent’s mesothelioma. The Second District Court of Appeal disagreed, and affirmed the verdict. On June 25th, the state Supreme Court denied the petition for review.

The court of appeals found sufficient the evidence that the U.S. Navy purchased several types of Crane Co. valves, and that the defendant was aware that parts of these valves would have to be replaced at some point. Norris was allegedly “within a few feet” of other workers who were grinding Crane valves and replacing gaskets on the product. The jury could infer that this process released fibers that contributed to the dust in the air plaintiff breathed as he waited. Also, Norris slept in quarters with two small Crane valves, and when the valves were overhauled, dust was released and was not cleaned up.

Expert testimony was offered to the effect that every exposure to asbestos fibers increased the total dose in his lung that led to the development of his disease. Each dose added more fibers that could stay in the lung. There was substantial evidence plaintiff’s “exposure to asbestos from materials in Crane valves increased his risk of developing mesothelioma and, therefore, was a substantial factor in causing his injury.” Thus, the plaintiff successfully proved a causal link between the Crane Co. valves and Norris’ mesothelioma, said the court.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Tort law requires that the allegedly defective product have caused the injury. In the toxic substance context, plaintiff must have been exposed to defendant’s product, and exposed to a sufficient dose that is capable of causing the disease, and actually did cause the disease in plaintiff. Dose refers to the amount of chemical that enters the body, and is arguably the single most important factor to consider in evaluating whether an alleged exposure caused a specific adverse effect. Indeed, a founding principle of toxicology is that the “dose makes the poison.”

The problem with the California opinion is that the plaintiff had improperly been allowed to submit evidence of “any exposure,” which rule would allow exposed persons to sue thousands of new defendants whose supposed “contribution” to the disease is trivial at best, and certainly far below the type of doses actually known to cause or increase the risk of disease in any meaningful way.

It is common for plaintiffs to submit expert affidavits attesting that any exposure to asbestos, no matter how minimal, is a substantial contributing factor in asbestos disease. Such generalized opinions ought not suffice to create a jury question in a case where exposure to the defendant’s product is de minimis, particularly in the absence of evidence excluding other possible sources of exposure (or in the face of evidence of substantial exposure from other sources). See generally Borg-Warner Corp. v. Flores, 232 S.W.3d 765 (Tex. 2007)(rejecting view that if plaintiff can present any evidence that a company’s asbestos-containing product was at the workplace while plaintiff was at the workplace, jury question has been established as to whether that product proximately caused plaintiff’s disease).

A far different take on this issue is seen in other jurisdictions. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, for example, reached conclusions contrary to the California appellate court’s ruling in Gregg v. V.J. Auto Parts Inc., 943 A.2d 216, 226-227 (2007). That court concluded that it is not a viable solution to indulge in a fiction that each and every exposure to asbestos, no matter how minimal in relation to other exposures, raises a fact issue concerning substantial-factor causation. The result of that approach would be to subject defendants to full joint-and-several liability for injuries and fatalities in the absence of any reasonably developed scientific reasoning that would support the conclusion that the product sold by the defendant was a substantial factor in causing the harm.

Other courts will thus apply the frequency, regularity, proximity factors in asbestos litigation, Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156 (4th Cir.1986), if not as a rigid standard with an absolute threshold necessary to support liability, then at least as an aid in distinguishing cases in which the plaintiff can adduce evidence that there is a sufficiently significant likelihood that the defendant’s product caused his harm, from those in which such likelihood is absent on account of only casual or minimal exposure to the defendant’s product. The California court missed this opportunity.

(Any readers interested in a copy of the Amicus brief on this issue in the court of appeals can email me and I will send you a copy.)