A couple months ago, MassTortDefense posted about a decision in which the federal court in West Virginia denied class certification in a claim brought against DuPont for the alleged release of perfluoroctanoic acid, a substance also known as PFOA or C-8, from its Washington Works plant in Wood County, West Virginia, into drinking water. See Rhodes v. E.I. DuPont De Nemours and Co., 2008 WL 4414720 (S.D. W.Va., September 30, 2008). Plaintiffs are appealing that.
Now, the federal district court in New Jersey has similarly rejected class certification in two consolidated suits in which state residents argued that DuPont should pay for a medical monitoring program because their drinking water was allegedly contaminated with a Teflon-related chemical. See Rowe v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., D.N.J., No. 06-1810; Scott v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., D.N.J., No. 06-3080.
PFOA, also known as C-8, is made by DuPont for use in a variety of consumer products, including in non-stick cookware. Plaintiff sought medical monitoring to detect disease in the future they were allegedly put at risk for based on exposure to the chemical. But to recover medical monitoring costs, plaintiffs must show “significant exposure” to a chemical. Plaintiffs argued they had sufficient common proof of “significant exposure” to PFOA because tests revealed that the water supply around DuPont’s Chambers Works Plant in New Jersey allegedly exceeded .04 parts per billion (ppb) for the substance, and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection recommended .04 ppb as the “safe” level of exposure. The plaintiffs also offered Dr. David Gray, a toxicologist, to testify that .02 ppb was actually the level at which negative health affects may start showing up in individuals.
The court first rejected any use of the settlement by DuPont of previous PFOA claims to show the existence of common issues. The other case was ultimately resolved through “voluntary settlement,” the court said. DuPont’s statements cannot be considered admissions of liability, causation, or appropriate damages.
The court also rejected plaintiffs use of regulatory-based risk assessments. While they may be an appropriate way to determine for the public what health and environmental officials believe are “safe” levels of a chemical in drinking water, they are not themselves an adequate means of showing the kind of significant exposure to a substance that is required to support medical monitoring claims. There is a difference between a “safe” level for public policy and regulatory purposes and the “significant exposure” that creates the sufficiently excessive risk needed to trigger medical monitoring. “Such methodology does not work in the tort litigation context, where a plaintiff must prove that he has suffered an actual increased risk of disease in order to merit recovery in the form of medical monitoring.”
Also affecting their utility in the class context, the risk assessments are based on assumptions about the general population, and are thus not applicable to show class-wide significant exposure. Plaintiffs’ expert merely assumed that class members all weighed a certain amount and consumed a certain amount of allegedly contaminated water. Those assumptions are not necessarily true for all class members—indeed, they are undoubtedly false, as the class contained thousands of individuals who are different sizes and have different water consumption habits.
Importantly, given plaintiff’ counsel refrain about the cost of pre-complaint, pre-certification homework, and the frequent “we’ll deal with that later” mentality, the court noted while it would take significant investigative efforts to obtain information specific to each individual in the proposed class, the difficulty of this task does not excuse plaintiffs from doing it. A class action is not intended to be an easy way around research problems. Plaintiffs have the burden of proving that each class member has suffered significant exposure to PFOA—they cannot circumvent this requirement by simply relying on assumptions about the general population.