The Mississippi Supreme Court confirmed last week that the jury could have properly determined that plaintiff’s evidence failed to prove in a silica case that he was exposed to harmful quantities of a particular supply company’s sand product. See Dependable Abrasives v. Pierce, No. 2013-IA-01162-SCT (Miss., 1/29/15). “Product id”, as it is often called, is really part of cause-in-fact, and part of plaintiff’s causation burden in a toxic tort case.
Plaintiff sued a number of defendants, alleging their sand products were responsible for his diagnosis of silicosis. According to Pierce’s trial testimony, his job involved a work week of five to seven days, depending on weather, and workdays of eight to ten hours, operating a sandblasting machine. It would shoot out sand at a high rate of speed through a nozzle, which was wielded by the machine’s user, in order to clean surfaces for painting. Pierce testified that the sand proceeds from the nozzle at a rate of 500 miles per hour and that, when sand hits metal, it ricochets back in the direction of the machine’s user. Plaintiff’s expert testified that the warning on defendants’ sand products were grossly inadequate, because it failed to inform the user of the product of the latent, danger of respirable silica.
At trial, the parties disagreed about whether the plaintiff was actually exposed to this defendant’s sand. Pierce claimed he remembered the bag and could identify the logo. He recalled there was a warning on the bag, but when asked the color of the sand he used from Dependable, he was certain it was white sand. Dependable Abrasives had bought the sand, processed it, and at the relevant time mostly sold it in tanker trucks. It was “in the beginning mostly probably around 90 percent bulk sand; 10 percent bag sand.” Dependable offered evidence that while its competitors sold white sand, defendant sold brown sand “mined out of the red clay hills of Wiggins, Mississippi.”
The jury returned a defense verdict, but the appellate court entered an order granting the plaintiff a new trial after that court found the verdict to be “against the overwhelming weight of the evidence presented at trial.”
The Supreme Court noted that the fact of product exposure is a threshold question in products liability cases: “[I]t is incumbent upon the plaintiff in any products liability action to show that the defendant’s product was the cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.” Banks ex rel. Banks v. Sherwin-Williams Co., 134 So. 3d 706, 710 (Miss. 2014). Even accepting as true Pierce’s allegation that the warnings on the Diamond Blast sand were “grossly inadequate,” as posited by his expert, there could be no recovery if Pierce failed to prove that the Defendant’s sand “caused the damage for which recovery is sought.”
Dependable contended that the evidence showed that there were only narrow time periods during which Pierce could possibly claim exposure, and that Pierce could not recall where or when he used or was exposed to Defendant’s brand of sand. While Pierce was able to identify the Dependable Abrasives bag, he could not correctly identify the sand itself. He testified that the sand was white, but there was un-contradicted testimony that this company’s sand was distinctly brown in color, due to its extraction from the red clay hills in or near Wiggins, Mississippi. There was testimony that defendant never sold sand, directly at least, to any of the companies for which Pierce had worked.
The Supreme Court decided that the circuit court had failed to analyze whether the jury’s determination of causation truly was against the overwhelming weight of the evidence. Even though evidence was presented regarding the extent of Pierce’s exposure to respirable silica, with respect to Dependable Abrasives, the evidence on product identification was mixed. Pierce remembered the bag and the warning label, but could not accurately recall the color of the sand, the very product that he alleged had caused his injuries. If he was exposed at all, the time frame in which Pierce could have worked with Defendant’s sand was minimal. Indeed, said the court, the evidence in this case was more favorable to the defense than to the plaintiff. So, under the facts presented, this jury’s conclusion cannot be said to have been “against the overwhelming weight of the trial evidence. The jury should have been permitted to pass upon the question of fact raised by this conflicting evidence, and it did so. No new trial.