A federal court has granted summary judgment in a toxic tort suit in which plaintiff alleged he contracted a bone disease because of his long-term exposure to trace amounts of benzene in oil-based paint. Smolowitz v. The Sherwin-Williams Co., 2008 WL 4862981 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 10, 2008). Plaintiff failed to offer sufficient evidence under New York law of exposure level.
In order to prevail in a toxic tort case, plaintiffs must present sufficient evidence to support a finding that defendants’ products caused plaintiffs’ injuries. Proof of causation requires establishing both “general” causation and “specific” causation. General causation bears on whether the type of injury at issue can be caused or exacerbated by the defendant’s product. Specific causation bears on whether, in the particular instance, the injury actually was caused or exacerbated by the defendant’s product. The fundamental principle of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison: substances that are benign or even beneficial at a certain level can be toxic at another. Even when general causation is clear, a plaintiff must show that he or she was exposed to a sufficient dose of the substance to have caused the disease. Under New York law, plaintiffs must establish both general and specific causation through expert testimony
Plaintiff Richard Smolowitz worked as a drywall taper and spackler over a thirty year period beginning in the 1950s and ending in the early 1980s. Plaintiff alleges that his exposure to benzene in paints caused him to contract myelodysplastic syndrome (“MDS”). A central factual issue in this case, said the court, was the level of exposure to which plaintiff was subject, and whether that level of exposure can cause MDS. First, plaintiff was not a painter, but alleged he worked in areas where paint products were regularly used. Second, the solvents used in defendants’ oil based paints contained only a trace contamination of benzene due to the fact that the products are based on petroleum, and it is not always possible to remove all of the benzene during the manufacturing process.
In early motion practice, plaintiff’s counsel represented that he would provide the testimony of expert witnesses who could prove that plaintiff was exposed to oil based paints with sufficient levels of benzene to cause his illness. Eventually, he relied on the opinions of plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Silverman, to provide expert testimony on issues of general and specific causation. The doctor reported he was currently treating plaintiff for MDS; that Smolowitz reported a history of exposure to oil based paints, thinners and benzene during a 35-year period; and that in his opinion it was “likely to a reasonable medical probability, that Mr. Smolowitz’s exposure to benzene during the years that he worked as a dry-wall mechanic is causative for his current hematologic condition.”
The court concluded that Dr. Silverman’s testimony was inadequate to prove either general or specific causation. The conclusory statement that based upon plaintiff’s reported history it was likely to a reasonable medical probability that Mr. Smolowitz’s exposure to benzene during the years that he worked as a dry-wall mechanic is causative for his current hematologic condition, had substantial deficiencies. First, there was nothing in this statement that suggests that Dr. Silverman was aware of or had quantified the precise amount of benzene to which plaintiff was exposed. No proof of dose. Second, Dr. Silverman did not offer any opinion as to whether that limited level of benzene exposure, whatever it was, can cause the disease. In the absence of sufficient evidence from an expert or a treating physician of the plaintiff’s exposure level, plaintiff could not prove the essential causation element of the claim.