California to Apply Sharia Law in an Asbestos Exposure Case!…Sort Of

A judge in the southern California coordinated asbestos matters issued an order applying Iranian law where all of a California plaintiff’s alleged exposure to asbestos occurred in Iran. In Sabetian v. Air and Liquid Systems Corporation, Judge John Kralik applied Iranian law on (1) punitive damages, (2) strict liability, and (3) joint and several liability. However, the court declined to apply the Iranian (1) standard of negligence, (2) the cap on general damages, and (3) the formula to determine loss of consortium damages.

Other judges in this court when presented with a similar issue have declined to apply Iranian law due to the religious influence on Iranian law. Judge Kralik nevertheless stated that “these provisions of law appear well-established, civil, and secular in nature…and these laws do not radically or offensively differ from traditions in the law of the various United States.”

Judge Kralik’s decision to apply Iranian law is a step forward for defendants who often face plaintiffs who now reside in California but allegedly were injured elsewhere. Judge Kralik’s decision relies heavily on McCann v. Foster Wheeler, LLC (2010) 48 Cal.4th 68, in which one of this post’s authors persuaded the trial court to apply Oklahoma law to a California resident suing a New York manufacturer for injuries caused by alleged exposure from asbestos-containing products in Oklahoma. In both McCann and Sabetian, plaintiff was a resident of California at the time of suit, but alleged exposure to asbestos elsewhere.

I. The governmental interest analysis

Similar to other jurisdictions, California applies the governmental interest analysis to determine choice-of-law inquiries. The analysis involves three steps: First, the court determines whether the applicable rules of law are different. Second, the court analyzes each jurisdiction’s interest in having its own law applied to the dispute. Third, the court determines which jurisdiction’s interest would be more significantly impaired if its law were not applied, and applies that jurisdiction’s law.

Here, Judge Kralik determined that Iranian law was materially different from California law. Both California, where plaintiff has lived for decades, and Iran, the “locus” of the injury, have an interest. Judge Kralik also determined that Iran’s interest would be more significantly impaired if Iranian law was not applied. The government of Iran would have a “strong interest in applying its own laws to a refinery it owned and an employee that it employed…California has little interest in legislating behavior at such refineries and oil fields.”

II. Iranian law applied

Because neither punitive damages or strict liability are recognized by Iranian law, the court ruled that defendants would be subject to neither in this case.

Iranian law does not recognize joint and several liability unless there is an explicit statutory exception. Plaintiff argued that a statutory exception existed for those determined to be an “employer” under the Civil Responsibility Act. Here, the court decided that it would apply Iranian law, but that it would issue a post-verdict determination of whether plaintiff has shown whether any of the defendants were “joint employers” for the exception to apply.

III. Iranian law not applied

The court declined to apply Iranian law in three areas, not because the “government interest” analysis was different but because either the court could not satisfy itself as to what Iranian law was on that point, or because the Iranian law offended American norms.

For example, the Iranian negligence standard of care is based on “custom and usage” rather than the California reasonable person standard. The court declined to apply the Iranian standard because there was a lack of authority explaining “custom and usage.”

Similarly, although Iran generally prohibits loss of consortium damages, the court ruled that “the prohibition is not established with sufficient clarity ion Iranian law to allow for application in this case.”

Iranian law has a cap on general damages that is set by reference to a memorandum prepared by unnamed Iranian government lawyers who have the power to alter the cap as they see fit. Judge Kralik declined to apply the Iranian limit because its apparently arbitrary nature could “offend fundamental due process if applied in an American court.”

IV. Conclusion

This decision offers hope that defendants will be able to apply the law of the jurisdiction in which the injuries allegedly occurred, rather than the law of a more plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction like California. Judge Kralik conceded that this issue had substantial grounds for difference of opinion and expressly invited appellate resolution. However, as of the posting of this article, plaintiff had not sought any appellate review.

Survivor (Survival Action): Doe and Gratuitous Care Edition

In the recent decision Williams v. The Pep Boys Manny Moe & Jack of Cal., a California court of appeal addressed four important topics that defendants frequently confront:

  1. How to defeat a plaintiff’s attempt to name defendants late as “Does.”
  2. A not-so-welcome restatement that economic damages include nursing services gratuitously provided by family members.
  3. A welcome ruling that recoverable damages in a survival action are limited to damages incurred before death.
  4. A reminder that a settlement offer to multiple plaintiffs will not qualify for cost-shifting, even if plaintiffs fail to “beat” the offer at trial, unless the offer is apportioned among plaintiffs and is not conditioned on acceptance by all.

1. “Doe” defendants, plaintiff’s knowledge and statute of limitations.

Like most jurisdictions, California allows plaintiffs to amend their complaint to designate a defendant unknown to plaintiff at the time of filing the complaint, usually designated as “Doe.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 474.) An amendment made pursuant to this section will “relate back,” i.e. be deemed to have been filed at the same time as the original complaint, if made within three years of the original complaint, even if the statute of limitations ran in the interim.

Williams stressed that the Doe defendant procedure is “‘available only when the plaintiff is actually ignorant of the facts establishing a cause of action against the party to be substituted for a Doe.’” In other words, “[i]gnorance of the facts giving rise to a cause of action is the ‘ignorance’ required by section 474, and the pivotal question is ‘did plaintiff know facts’ not ‘did plaintiff know or believe that he had a cause of action based on those facts?’”

In Williams, plaintiffs knew before they filed the original complaint that their father died of mesothelioma, that asbestos was the cause of the mesothelioma, and that the father purchased defendant’s asbestos-containing products. They “knew most of the story.” This was enough that the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s decision to dismiss the wrongful death claims as outside the statute of limitations.

2. Nursing services provided by family members to decedent prior to death are recoverable damages.

Williams reaffirmed that California allows plaintiffs to recover the value of nursing services provided to the injured plaintiff by a family member, even in the absence of an agreement or an expectation of payment.

3. Future home care that would have been provided to a spouse is recoverable up until death, not after.

Under California’s survival law, decedents’ personal representative or successor in interest can recover the decedent’s other pecuniary losses incurred before death. (Cal. Code of Civ. Proc., § 377.34.) Here, plaintiffs sought to recover the value of around the clock nursing care that decedent would have provided to his wife but for his death.

Williams ruled that section 377.34 limited recoverable damages to those incurred prior to death. Plaintiffs relied on Overly v. Ingalls Shipbuilding, Inc. (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 164, 171, where plaintiffs attempted to recover the value of household services as income post death, even though the dying husband was still alive. The Williams court found Overly inapplicable, because it did not deal with a survival action. Furthermore, the plain language of the statute only allowed for the recovery of penalty and punitive damages incurred after decedent’s death and thus intentionally excluded other categories of damages decedent would have been entitled to had he lived. The Williams court stated that survival action damages are narrowly limited to “the loss or damage that the decedent sustained or incurred before death,” which by definition excludes future damages.

4. Cautions for settlement offers to multiple plaintiffs.

Here, as in many asbestos defense cases, plaintiffs had both a wrongful death and a survival claim. Defendant offered a single unapportioned sum in exchange for dismissal, “contingent upon acceptance by all plaintiffs as it is the intention of defendant to obtain a full and final resolution of all claims asserted by plaintiffs in this matter.” This offer did not qualify for cost-shifting, even though plaintiffs’ recovery was less than the offer amount. (Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 998; cf. Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 67.)

The offer fell afoul of “the general rule … that a section 998 offer to multiple plaintiffs is valid only if it is expressly apportioned among them and not conditioned on acceptance by all of them.” An exception exists when one or more plaintiffs have a “unity of interest such that there is a single, indivisible injury.” A unity of interest exists for example when spouses suffer injury to community property. There is no such “unity” as between multiple survival and wrongful death claimants.

This does not mean a defendant cannot make such an offer, or that plaintiffs cannot accept one. It does however mean that such an offer will not shift costs to plaintiffs even if they fail to beat it at trial.

Conclusion

The Williams decision is a double-edged sword for defendants. On the one hand, it puts plaintiffs on notice to timely replace “Does” or face statute of limitation issues. On the other, it increases the scope of recoverable damages in survival actions to encompass fees gratuitously provided by family members. It also reminds parties (usually defendants) to carefully draft settlement agreements and appropriately apportion amounts to each cause of action and to each plaintiff without a condition for all to accept. It also shows the proper stance on the application of lost years’ damages, which hopefully shall limit the plaintiffs’ bar’s future attempts in claiming improper damages. So counsel, pay attention to the small facts and don’t cut corner with your settlements. In the famous words of Rodney Lavoie Jr. (survival Boston contestant), “this ain’t a campin’ trip. This is suhvivah!” (at least for your client’s pocket).

Illinois Appellate Court Reverses $4.6M Verdict: No Duty If No Knowledge of Product Risks, and Presence on Site Not Enough for Causation

On Sept. 5, 2018, an Illinois appellate court reversed a McLean County $4.6 million jury verdict against defendant Hobart Brothers Company on two grounds that offer hope to defendants in other cases. First, the court ruled that the defendant owed no duty to warn if defendant and the industry were unaware of a hazard in their asbestos-containing product at the time of plaintiff’s exposure, even if they were aware of the dangers of raw asbestos. Second, the court ruled that the mere presence of a defendant’s product at plaintiff’s workplace is insufficient evidence that the defendant’s product was a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff brought suit against defendant for failure to warn of the dangerousness of its product—Hobart 6010 welding stick electrodes, which contained chrysotile asbestos in the flux. Plaintiff himself did not use the Hobart 6010 welding rods. Rather, he testified that for seven months in 1962 and 1963, stick welders using those rods worked on a grated mezzanine above his work area, and that the used stubs of the stick welders’ 6010 welding rods would fall through the grated mezzanine floor, onto the floor below where plaintiff performed spot-welding. Plaintiff also testified that each day, he had to walk by the stick welders and over the mezzanine floor which was littered with welding stubs.

LACK OF DUTY

The appellate court stated that whether the defendant had a duty, in 1962 and 1963, to warn about its welding rods depended on whether, in 1962 or 1963, knowledge existed in the industry of the dangerous propensity of the defendant’s welding rods.

Although there was evidence that, in 1962 and 1963, knowledge existed in the industry of the dangerous propensity of raw asbestos, the court made “a crucial distinction” between raw asbestos and welding rods containing encapsulated asbestos. Knowledge about raw asbestos was not evidence that knowledge existed in the industry that this product—the Hobart 6010 welding rod—was harmful. The appellate court ultimately found that the record contained no evidence of contemporaneous knowledge in the industry that welding rods with asbestos encapsulated in the flux were hazardous. The lack of knowledge resulted in a lack of duty, entitling defendant to judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

LACK OF SUBSTANTIVE CAUSATION EVIDENCE

The appellate court found that the defendant was likewise entitled to a judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the record was devoid of any evidence that defendant’s welding rods were a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma.

The court ruled that the chestnut Illinois case of Thacker v. UNR Industries, Inc., 151 Ill. 2d 343 (1992) did not help plaintiff. Thacker involved raw asbestos, not a finished asbestos-containing product like the welding rods here. More significantly: “Proving merely that plaintiff came into frequent, close, and regular contact with welding rods manufactured by defendant would not, on the logic of Thacker, prove substantial causation any more than proving he routinely walked on floor tiles containing asbestos would prove substantial causation.” [¶77] Rather, to meet his burden of production, the plaintiff “must prove he actually inhaled respirable fibers from defendant’s welding rods—and that he inhaled enough of the fibers that one could meaningfully say the welding rods were a ‘substantial factor’ in causing his mesothelioma.” [¶78]

The appellate court ruled that the Thacker frequency, proximity and regularity criteria had not been met. For instance, although plaintiff worked on the second floor and the stick welders worked on the third floor, his work station was not directly below the grated mezzanine floor where the stick welders worked, but rather off to the side. Further, the appellate court noted that plaintiff testified that the stubs from the stick welders on the third floor fell through the grates of the mezzanine floor and onto the second floor, but that plaintiff did not testify that the stubs fell into his work area. Although plaintiff testified that his workplace was dirty, there was no evidence that the dirt indeed contained asbestos. Moreover, plaintiff never testified to seeing clouds of dust in the workplace (unlike in Thacker where various employees testified that dust from the sacks of raw asbestos was continuously visible in the air of the plant when viewed in bright light).

“For all that appears in the record, the amount of asbestos fibers released from defendant’s welding rods by rubbing them together or stepping on them was no more than the amount one would have encountered in a natural environment. Without any idea of the concentration of airborne asbestos fibers the welding rods would have produced, it would be conjectural to say the welding rods were a substantial factor in causing plaintiff’s mesothelioma.” [¶ 83]

TAKE AWAYS

Though this case involved the specific product of asbestos-containing welding rods, the potential effect on future failure-to-warn cases involving other asbestos-containing products is much broader. Importantly, the appellate court focused on the industry’s knowledge of the dangerous propensity of the manufacturer’s product itself, not on the industry’s knowledge of the dangerous propensity of asbestos generally. In so doing, the appellate court distinguished the inquiry as a product-specific issue, not as a more general asbestos issue. Going forward, each failure-to-warn case will need to be carefully considered based on its individual facts regarding the product, time frame and industry knowledge of the hazards of the product at issue at the time of exposure to determine whether a duty existed.

Furthermore, this decision may likely impact the scrutiny of causation evidence. In its application of Thacker, the appellate court discussed the need for a plaintiff to prove more than just frequent, close and regular contact with a defendant’s product; a plaintiff must also prove that he not only inhaled respirable fibers from the defendant’s product but also inhaled enough of the fibers that one could meaningfully say the defendant’s product was a substantial factor in causing a plaintiff’s disease. Additionally, the appellate court’s decision peripherally touched on alternative exposures. The extent of this decision’s impact in asbestos-related lawsuits remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is a favorable ruling for defendants in asbestos litigation.

Read the full opinion in McKinney v. Hobart Brothers Company here.

“But Everyone Else Did It This Way:” Industry Custom Admitted in California Strict Liability Cases

The California Supreme Court has ruled that industry custom and practice may be admissible in a strict products liability action, “depend[ing] on the purpose for which the evidence is offered.” (Kim v. Toyota Motor Corp.) The decision is a win for product liability defendants. Many trial courts have ruled all industry custom and practice evidence irrelevant as to strict liability, while allowing it in negligence.

Disapproving several prior appellate decisions, the court ruled that such evidence is admissible for the purpose of “the jury’s evaluation of whether the product is as safely designed as it should be, considering the feasibility and cost of alternative designs.” In contrast, “[e]vidence that a manufacturer’s design conforms with industry custom and practice is not relevant, and therefore not admissible, to show that the manufacturer acted reasonably in adopting a challenged design and therefore cannot be held liable.” Thus, it is admissible, but never dispositive.

Mr. Kim was injured when his 2005 pickup rolled over and crashed on the Angeles Crest Highway. Plaintiffs alleged that if the pickup had been equipped with a safety feature that came as standard equipment on SUVs, it would not have rolled over. Toyota introduced evidence that no manufacturers included that feature as standard on pickup trucks. The trial court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court all approved.

The issue … is not whether the manufacturer complied with a standard of care, as measured by prevailing industry standards, but instead whether there is something ‘wrong’ with a product’s design … because, on balance, the design is not as safe as it should be.

[E]vidence of industry custom and practice sometimes does shed light not just on the reasonableness of the manufacturer’s conduct in designing a product, but on the adequacy of the design itself.

Another description: industry practice “illuminates the relative complexity of design decisions and the trade-offs that are frequently required in the adoption of alternative designs.” The court was persuaded in part by the fact that trade association standards are admissible, and there seemed no logical reason to distinguish those standards from industry custom.

The court was also persuaded in part by the fact that plaintiffs themselves introduced industry custom evidence, such as the evidence that many manufacturers included the safety feature on their SUVs. “[T]he rule is a two-way street.”

Is this the proverbial camel’s nose in the allegorical tent, thus the beginning of the end of the rule against introducing custom and practice in strict liability cases? If no manufacturer of a particular product ever included a warning about a supposed toxin, is that relevant? If all manufacturers of a set of products allowed a trace amount of say benzene because it was so hard to eliminate it 100%, is that admissible in a strict liability case? If all employers operating a certain kind of facility adopted one level of protections against chemical exposure, even though more could almost always at least theoretically be done? The Kim decision arguably allows such evidence, but other courts may limit the effect of the decision.

There are at least two significant limitations to the reach of this decision.

First, it applies only to the risk-benefit strict liability test. Not consumer expectations, which plaintiffs more frequently assert.

Second, it applies to “industry custom and practice,” but not “state of the art.” “By ‘industry custom and practice,’ we refer to the use of the challenged design within the relevant industry—‘what is done’—as opposed to so-called ‘state of the art’ evidence, which concerns ‘what can be done’ under present technological capacity.”

This second limit may benefit defendants. What “can be done” for safety likely includes more than what others in the industry actually do.

The Kim result may be less notable in other jurisdictions: the decision recites it is joining “the majority of states that have permitted the admission of [such] evidence.” It is, however, a major development in California.

Come to Me If You Want to Talk to Me; Plaintiffs Can’t Haul Corporate Representative to Deposition in California

Alameda County has one of the most active asbestos dockets in California, with defendants from around the country. Recently, an Alameda judge ruled that non-resident corporate representatives of a non-California defendant cannot be hauled to California for deposition. This result is consistent with prior appellate authority, but many trial judges have compelled California depositions for non-California corporate representatives (known as “persons most qualified” or PMQs in California parlance and “persons most knowledgeable” or PMKs in most other jurisdictions). So this decision is welcome news for defendants seeking to avoid that expense, inconvenience and leverage to plaintiffs.

This issue is addressed by conflicting statutes. One says that a witness is not “obliged to attend as a witness before any court, judge, justice or any other officer, unless the witness is a resident within the state at the time of service.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 1989.) Other statutes allow for depositions of “an officer, director, management agent or employee” of a party to be set at locations “within the county where the action is pending” or other California locations, with no restrictions based on the residence of the witness.” (Cal. Code Civ. Proc., § 2025.250, 2025.260.)

In Brock v. Metropolitan Life Insurance, Alameda Judge Steven Kaus ruled that the first statute governs. He refused to order a California deposition for a Rhode Island witness, and instead ordered the deposition to take place within 75 miles of the defendant’s principal office in Rhode Island.

Judge Kaus relied principally on Toyota v. Motor Corporation v. Superior Court (2011) 197 Cal.App.4th 1107. Most importantly, the court of appeal found that the Discovery Act of 1986 eliminated from section 2025.260, the phrase “Notwithstanding section 1989.” “By removing the words authorizing the trial court to override section 1989 the Legislature presumptively intended to withdraw that authority which had previously existed.”

Judge Kaus rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that Toyota did not apply because the deponent in this case was a PMQ, whereas witnesses in Toyota were named individually. “From a policy viewpoint, the differentiation between named corporate employees and PMQs, who, to coin a phrase, are people too, is form over substance.”

Judge Kaus’ decision is supported by an additional case he did not cite, I-Ca Enterprises, Inc. v. Palram Americas, Inc. (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 257 in which the California Court of Appeal also affirmed that California superior courts have no power to compel production of defendant’s nonresident PMQ.

This decision is a win for defendants. If this decision becomes a trend, it will be interesting to see how plaintiff counsel will respond. One possibility is that they will be more strategic in whose PMQ to depose. Another could be a more strategic decision in what venue to file; or at best, the decision to dismiss some defendants whose witnesses, officers or not, reside out of state.

Illinois Appellate Court Issues a Win for Out-of-State Defendants in Asbestos Litigation Involving Non-Illinois Exposures

On July 12, 2018, an appellate court in Illinois issued a long-awaited decision allowing the dismissal of an out-of-state defendant for lack of personal jurisdiction. Ruling on due process grounds, the court’s decision flies in the face of the common practice that allows plaintiffs in asbestos-related lawsuits to force out-of-state defendants into Illinois state court, including to the nation’s busiest asbestos docket, Madison County.

In Jeffs v. Ford Motor Company, plaintiff brought suit in Madison County, Illinois alleging that her deceased husband was exposed to asbestos-containing products in Michigan while working at Ford. The trial court denied Ford’s motion to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, and instead found that Ford was subject to general, or all-purpose, jurisdiction in Illinois based on Ford’s substantial business dealings within the state. For an in-depth discussion of the trial court’s decision, please see our related post here.

In reversing the trial court’s decision, the appellate court considered both plaintiff and defendant’s interpretations of Daimler AG v. Bauman, but ultimately allowed much of their opinion to rest on Ford’s reliance on Aspen American Insurance Co. v. Interstate Warehousing, which the court found mandates a narrow definition of general jurisdiction under Illinois law. (For a discussion of Aspen, please see our related post here.) The appellate court found Aspen controlling when rejecting plaintiff’s argument that maintaining an agent to receive service of process—a condition of doing business in Illinois as an out-of-state corporation—was equivalent to consent to general jurisdiction. It further held that any argument equating registration with consent would similarly fail.

The appellate court next considered the Illinois long-arm statute’s ability to hale Ford into Illinois state court without case-specific contacts. The Illinois long-arm is limited only by the requirement that it comport with due process standards under the Illinois Constitution and United States Constitution. Under Aspen, because Ford is incorporated in Delaware and has its principal place of business in Michigan, it may only be subject to general jurisdiction in Illinois in “exceptional circumstances.” Consistent with Daimler and Aspen, a defendant may only be subject to general jurisdiction when their contacts are so continuous and systematic that the defendant is “essentially at home in the forum.” Looking to Ford’s contacts in Illinois: 7.5% of global employees, 5% of independent dealerships, 4.5% of sales, the court determined that despite Ford’s major business contacts, it could not be said to be essentially at home in Illinois.

Despite the fact that this opinion is unpublished and unable to be cited as precedent, its potential effect on future rulings should not be undervalued. Given that a once typical ruling in Illinois trial courts has now been reversed, at least in the Fifth District, it would seem likely that trial courts will now rule in favor of defendants asserting lack of personal jurisdiction in circumstances similar to those in Jeffs. Another interesting aspect will be how this ruling will affect filings in Madison County. All of this said, the presence of a potentially viable defense may not mean the end of litigation for a defendant asserting it. There remains the potential that plaintiffs may come to the individual defendant’s home state to sue them there. In some circumstances, this may still be a favorable outcome. In others, it may be best to remain in, for example, Madison County, for a variety of reasons. This is a strategic decision that should be carefully considered based on the facts of each individual case. Nonetheless, the Jeffs decision marks a clear procedural victory for out-of-state defendants in asbestos litigation involving non-Illinois exposures.

California: Statute of Limitations for Prenatal Exposure Tolled Until Adulthood, and (Effectively) Beyond

The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled, contrary to the interest of defendants, that the statute of limitations for alleged in utero exposure to “a hazardous chemical or toxic substance” is tolled while the plaintiff is a minor. Further, the applicable statute is subject to a “discovery rule.” This means that such cases may lie dormant for decades before being sprung on defendants.

In Lopez v. Sony Electronics, the court resolved the question “which statute of limitations applies: that for toxic exposure claims, or that for prenatal injuries?” The court recognized that a claim for prenatal toxic exposure “appears to fall within the ambit of both statutes of limitations.”

“Because the toxic exposure statute was more recently enacted, and its language plainly encompasses prenatal injuries, we conclude it applies here.” The court also found persuasive that the toxic exposure statute included two express exclusions, reasoning that if the legislature had intended to exclude prenatal injuries as well that would have been in the statute. “Under the maxim of statutory construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius, if exemptions are specified in a statute, we may not imply additional exemptions.”

The effect on defendants is potentially drastic. “The limitations period for toxic exposure suits is two years, but it is tolled while the plaintiff is a minor.” The prenatal injury statute of limitations, in contrast, is six years but with no tolling during minority. That alone is a difference of fourteen years. Further, the toxic exposure suit (but not the prenatal statute) is subject to the discovery rule, meaning that the two-year period may not begin to run until even later, when plaintiff claims first knowledge of “(1) an injury, (2) the physical cause of the injury, and (3) sufficient facts to put a reasonable person on inquiry notice that the injury was caused or contributed to by the wrongful act of another.” Thus, the Lopez decision means more defendants will be faced with suits on stale facts, disappeared witnesses and documents, frayed memories, and everything else that statutes of limitation are supposed to protect against.

Click here and here for previous blog posts on this issue.

Only Minimal Medical Evidence Sufficient to Grant Trial Preference by California Court of Appeal

California just made it easier for plaintiffs to get mandatory trial preference. Fox v. Metalclad Insulation LLC required that preference be granted based on a mere attorney declaration comprised of generic symptoms of an over-70 year old plaintiff, and even though plaintiff is in partial remission.

California allows plaintiffs to move for a preferential trial date in certain circumstances depending on the age or health of the plaintiff. If granted, the judge must set the matter for trial no more than 120 days from the date the motion was granted, with a maximum continuance of up to 15 days. The mandatory preference statute requires the granting of preference if three elements are satisfied: (1) plaintiff is over 70 years old; (2) he/she has a substantial interest in the action; and (3) “[t]he health of the party is such that preference is necessary to prevent prejudicing the party’s interest in the litigation.” The focus of the Fox decision was primarily on the third, more subjective requirement.

Trial Court
Ms. Fox sued eighteen defendants, alleging that she developed stage IV lung cancer, asbestosis, and asbestos-related pleural disease as a result of shaking and laundering her husband’s work clothing. Plaintiffs filed a motion for preference, almost a year after the initial filing of the case, supported solely by (1) an attorney declaration, with attached medical records, and (2) a declaration from Ms. Fox describing her recent medical history and current symptoms, including “fogginess in [her] thought process that impairs [her] ability to focus, concentrate and effectively communicate.” The defense opposition argued that 1) the two declarations failed to demonstrate that plaintiff’s health necessitates the granting of preference and 2) that the court should balance interests, including defendant’s due process rights, when ruling on this motion. Judge Ming-mei Lee of San Francisco Superior Court denied plaintiffs’ motion, noting that plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate that the health of Ardella Fox is such that preference is necessary to prevent prejudicing her interest in the litigation.” Plaintiffs sought a writ of mandate to compel the trial court to grant their motion.

Appellate Court
The appellate court granted the petition and issued the writ. The court extrapolated information about her current condition from her attorney’s declaration including that she is undergoing chemotherapy every three weeks, suffers from “chemo brain” leading to brain fog, and is getting increasingly weaker.

The court ruled that an attorney declaration relying on hearsay and conclusions suffices under the mandatory preference statute (although under a companion discretionary statute, “clear and convincing medical documentation” is required). Finally, the court addressed when a party’s health would make preference necessary. Here, the court found that plaintiff’s diagnoses, accompanied with her treatment, “constant discomfort,” and deteriorating mental state necessitated preference, despite her partial remission. “The absence of more specifics about Ms. Fox’s prognosis was insufficient reason to deny the Foxes’ request for calendar preference.” The court rejected defendant’s arguments that a balancing of interests must be conducted, concluding that no balancing of defendant’s due process rights or fundamental fairness was necessary. Finally, the court held that plaintiffs’ should not have to wait to file a preference motion until plaintiff “is clearly in her final days,” because this would subvert the legislative intent of granting preference to prevent prejudice.

After Fox, plaintiffs will have an easier time showing that their health makes it necessary to grant preference, as even a plaintiff in partial remission got preference granted.

As it points out, the bar for evidence to oppose (and win) this type of motion is very high. “If by way of opposition, [the defense] had submitted, say, a photograph of 81-year-old Ms. Fox scuba-diving in the Galapagos Islands just last fall, there might be some basis to expect more medical detail, but on this record we see no genuine dispute that Ms. Fox is very sick.” This decision is a win for asbestos plaintiffs in California and defendants should be aware of this decision and the high standard set for opposing preference motions.

Ohio Supreme Court Rejects Plaintiff’s “Cumulative-Exposure” Causation Theory

Asbestos defendants notched a victory when the Supreme Court of Ohio rejected the “cumulative exposure” asbestos causation theory. This theory, also known by several other names (including the “each and every fiber theory”), postulates that each exposure or asbestos fiber above background asbestos exposure is a substantial factor in causing disease. This case brings Ohio in line with several federal and state courts in rejecting this plaintiffs’ theory.

In Schwartz v. Honeywell International, Inc., decedent’s father was exposed to asbestos both in the course of his employment as an electrician and while installing Bendix brakes on family cars five to ten times. Plaintiff alleges that it was decedent’s contact with her father’s asbestos-laden clothing that caused decedent’s mesothelioma and subsequent death.

At trial, plaintiffs’ pathology expert, Dr. Carlos Bedrossian, testified 1) that there is no known threshold at which mesothelioma “will not occur” and 2) decedent’s take home exposure both from her father’s occupational exposure and his work with brakes contributed to her “total cumulative dose.” It was her cumulative exposure, the expert opined, that caused her mesothelioma. Honeywell International Inc. (the successor-in-interest to Bendix) moved for a directed verdict twice “arguing that Schwartz had failed to demonstrate that [decedent’s] exposure to asbestos from Bendix brakes was a substantial factor in causing her disease,” but both motions were denied. Instead, the jury found defendant Honeywell 5% liable for decedent’s injuries and awarded plaintiff just over $1 million.

On appeal, defendant argued that plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence that decedent’s exposure to Bendix brakes was a substantial factor in causing her mesothelioma. The appeals court disagreed, found the expert’s testimony to be “based on reliable scientific evidence,” and affirmed the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motions.

Thus, defendant appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio on a single discrete issue: “whether the ‘substantial factor’ requirement may be met through a ‘cumulative exposure theory.’” Schwartz ruled that it may not. The decision was based on an Ohio statute incorporating requirements found in many other jurisdictions: that in an asbestos case with multiple defendants, plaintiff must prove that the conduct of a particular defendant was a substantial factor in causing the injury, and the trier of fact must consider the “manner . . . proximity . . . [and] frequency and length” of plaintiff’s exposure to that particular defendant’s asbestos-containing product. (R.C. 2307.96.)

The court explained that the cumulative exposure theory “examines defendants in the aggregate” and does not consider each individual defendant’s contribution to the overall exposure. “It is impossible to reconcile a statutory scheme that requires an individualized finding of substantial causation for each defendant with a theory that says every defendant that contributed to the overall exposure is a substantial cause.” Moreover, the cumulative exposure theory does not consider dose or reflect consideration of the manner, proximity, length, or duration of exposure, which the statute delineates must be considered by the trier of fact in this instance. The court noted that plaintiff’s theory is flawed because Dr. Bedrossian arbitrarily elected only to include exposures above background in deeming which exposures were causative in this case. “In a theory that starts with the premise that the total cumulative dose causes the disease, there is no rational reason to exclude even minimal exposures, because they also contribute to the cumulative dose.”

Next, the court determined that exposure to asbestos from Bendix brakes was not a substantial factor in causing decedent’s mesothelioma because plaintiff did not meet his burden of proof. Notably, decedent’s father worked on Bendix brakes only 5 to 10 times while decedent lived at home, compared with occupational exposure over 33 years. The court concluded that “[t]hese regular exposures that [decedent] received as a result of her father’s years of working as an electrician with products containing asbestos contrasts strongly with the limited and irregular exposures that [decedent] might have had a result of her father’s occasional brake jobs.” Further, plaintiff did not provide sufficient evidence regarding the manner, proximity, frequency, and length of decedent’s exposure.

The Schwartz decision is a victory for defendants by rejecting the cumulative exposure theory as insufficient. This brings Ohio in line with several other jurisdictions, including the Sixth Circuit, the Ninth Circuit, Georgia, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Notably, California state courts have allowed similar “every exposure” theories to go before the jury (see here and here). As plaintiffs suffer setbacks while attempting to advance this theory, they will transform this into other theories that defendants must be ready to tackle.

Cleaning Products, Air Fresheners, and Automotive Products Sold In California Must Disclose Ingredients in 2020

California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act into state law in late 2017, making California the second state to require the disclosure of information about ingredients found in cleaning products. The Act contains two disclosure provisions; the first, an online compliance portion, is scheduled to go into effect in 2020. The second, a labeling requirement, will take effect a year later.

Pursuant to the Act, manufacturers of “general cleaning products,” “air care products,” and “automotive products” sold in California must disclose ingredients on their product labels and online. The definitions of applicable products are broad, and include soap, detergent, products intended to freshen the air, and products intended to maintain the appearance of a motor vehicle. Notably, automotive paint products and pesticides are excluded. In addition to the actual manufacturers of applicable products, the Act also applies to entities for which the products are manufactured or by which the product is distributed. The Act further prohibits California retailers from selling products that do not comply with the new disclosure requirements.

For the labeling requirement, the Act permits the manufacturer to choose one of two sets of information to disclose on the product’s label: (1) each fragrance allergen contained in the product that is included in Annex III of the EU Cosmetics Regulation Number 1223/2009 as required to be labeled by the EU Detergents Regulation Number 648/2004 (“Annex III”), when present in the product at a concentration of .01% or above (100 ppm), and intentionally added ingredients contained in the product that are included on a “designated list,” or (2) a list of all intentionally added ingredients contained in the product, unless the ingredient qualifies as confidential business information (“CBI”).

For the first option, the designated Annex III list includes chemicals found on twenty-two regulatory lists published by state governments, the European Union, the federal government, the Canadian government, and international agencies.

The second option requires the disclosure of all intentionally added ingredients, with the exception of ingredients that qualify as CBI. However, CBI is defined narrowly, and does not apply to ingredients found on the designated list, all nonfunctional constituents, and all fragrance allergens included in Annex III when present at a concentration of .01% or above. A manufacturer can list fragrance ingredients and colorants generally as such, but the label must also state that the product “[c]ontains fragrance allergen(s),” if it contains a fragrance allergen that is included on Annex III at .01% concentration or above.

In addition to the labeling requirements, a manufacturer must starting in 2020 disclose certain information on its website. The Act requires manufacturers to list every intentionally added ingredient in descending order of predominance (except for CBI and fragrance ingredients), state the purpose of each intentionally added ingredient, and provide links to the regulatory lists on which the ingredient appears. The manufacturer must also list all nonfunctional constituents that are found in the product at a concentration of .01% or more.

Interestingly, the Act does not create a mechanism for enforcement nor does it impose penalties for violations. California statutes without enforcement provisions are often enforced by private litigants and district attorneys under the state’s consumer protection laws. However, while private litigants may only seek injunctive relief under these laws, actions brought by government officials are eligible for the recovery of civil penalties up to $2,500 for each violation. It is anticipated that the Act will be enforced most often through this mechanism.

California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act goes further than current federal disclosure obligations, which simply require that consumer and industrial cleaning products provide warnings about the physical and health hazards, but do not require full ingredient lists. It is indicative of a nationwide trend of increased state regulation of chemicals found in consumer products in the absence of significant federal regulation.