California’s Take On Mold Claims, Expert Testimony, And The Two-Part General And Specific Causation Test

Guest Blogger M.C. Sungaila  is a partner in the appellate law firm of Horvitz & Levy in Los Angeles. Her appellate work has helped shape toxic tort law in California, including the scope of the duty to warn sophisticated users of product hazards and the guidelines for admitting expert testimony at trial.

Toxic Tort Litigation Blog’s post earlier this year about a Michigan appellate court’s affirmance of an award to residents of a home overrun with mold – without any expert testimony to prove causation – raises the question: what would happen to such a claim in a more famously liberal state like California? In this instance at least, California seems more likely to come to a more ‘conservative’ conclusion than Michigan.

 

Expert Testimony

 

California not only requires expert testimony for complex causation questions; it tests the foundation for that testimony and requires trial courts to exclude expert opinions that are unsupported. See an early article describing the development of these standards by M.C. Sungaila and David M. Axelrad published in California Lawyer. The California courts of appeal have specifically considered the admissibility of expert testimony in mold cases and ruled in favor of the defendants. Most recently, in Dee v. PCS Property Management, one of the appellate divisions in Los Angeles confirmed the trial court’s ability to exclude unfounded expert testimony in a residential mold case. Darcee Dee lived in an apartment for slightly over four months. She sued her landlord and property management company for alleged physical injuries, as well as fear of cancer, from living in an apartment that purportedly had toxic mold in it. After hearing the plaintiff’s experts testify over several days concerning their opinions and the foundation for them, the trial court granted the defendants’ motions in limine to exclude most of the experts’ testimony based on a lack of foundation. The remaining portions of Dee’s claims were tried to a jury, and the jury rejected her claims. The appellate court affirmed the judgment in Dee, concluding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding plaintiff’s experts for lack of an adequate foundation.  Each of Dee’s experts sought to testify that her exposure to mold mycotoxins caused her symptoms and her susceptibility to cancer, without any evidence that she was exposed to potentially harmful mycotoxins at her residence. The court relied on the decision in another mold case, Geffcken v. D’Andrea,  and distinguished its own prior decision in Roberti v. Andy’s Termite, the only published opinion to have rejected the trial court’s authority under the California Evidence Code to thoroughly analyze the foundation for expert testimony in order to determine its admissibility.  For another take on the Geffcken and Dee mold decisions, see an article on the Kring & Chung LLP website.

 

Toxic Tort Causation Standards

 

While California appellate courts would be certain to require expert testimony on causation, it is not as clear how they would analyze causation in a toxic tort case.  In toxic tort cases, a plaintiff must generally prove not only that a chemical or substance can cause a particular adverse health effect but also that it did cause the harm to the plaintiff.  Proof of causation therefore necessarily includes a threshold determination whether, as a matter of reasonable medical probability, a particular chemical is capable of causing in humans the type of harm suffered by the plaintiff (i.e., “general causation”). If the answer is that the chemical does not possess that capacity, then the chemical cannot have been a cause of plaintiff’s harm. But if the chemical does have that capacity, then the causation inquiry (in jurisdictions like California which apply a substantial factor causation standard) becomes whether the plaintiff’s exposure to the chemical in question was as a matter of reasonable medical probability a substantial factor in causing the particular plaintiff’s harm (i.e., “specific causation”).   For a helpful analysis of causation in toxic tort cases, see the excellent discussion by David E. Bernstein, a Professor at the George Mason University School of Law, in an article  titled "Getting to Causation in Toxic Tort Cases".  This two-step general and specific causation framework is almost universally accepted by federal courts analyzing toxic tort causation (including the Ninth Circuit, see, e.g., Golden v. CH2M Hill Hanford Group, Inc. (9th Cir. 2008) 528 F.3d 681, 683).  Trial courts in California have analyzed proof of causation in toxic tort cases along general and specific causation lines as well. California appellate courts have not, however, expressly adopted the general and specific causation distinction in a published decision. This has led to some confusion, as plaintiffs have attempted to convince courts that such a “two-part”causation test is incompatible with California’s prevailing causation standards.  In Dee v. PCS Property Management, the plaintiff raised this argument on appeal, but the Court of Appeal declined to reach it because the jury had found no negligence, which made an argument about causation standards “irrelevant.” An opportunity to address the general and specific causation distinctions head-on may come later this year, however, when the Court of Appeal in Los Angeles is likely to hear argument in and decide the plaintiffs’ appeal of summary judgment in a high-profile benzene exposure case brought by former students at Beverly Hills High. The appellate docket for the case, Lee v. Venoco, is attached here. The original summary judgment decision ruled on the admissibility of expert opinion on both general causation and specific causation.

Is There A Duty To Have A Green Workplace?

Guest Blogger Brian Molinari is the author of the Prima Facie Law Blog, and a Labor and Employment Associate at Epstein Becker & Green. Brian asks in this post whether an employer has a duty to provde a green workplace for her employees.

With the global spotlight on reducing greenhouse gases and carbon footprints, including the Obama Administration’s unprecedented attention on encouraging environmental conservation and development of renewable energy sources, it’s clear that we’re in a “go green” era.

To cut to the question posed in this blogposts’s title, the answer is “no”.  There is no legal duty, at the moment, for a private employer to “go green”. Perhaps at some point in the future, statutory authority such as the federal Occupational Safety & Health Act and state and local counterparts will include “green workplace standards”. For example, with respect to the investment in “green jobs” the Department of Labor and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are already focusing on ensuring that OSHA standards are appropriately designed and enforced to protect workers performing that type of work. At present, however, there are no mandates and instead only various governmental and non-governmental incentives for a workplace to go green. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPAand Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimate that commercial buildings account for nearly half of all energy consumption in the U.S., and contribute to nearly half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Star Program, administered by the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy, attempts to encourage energy efficiency in buildings to meet strict energy performance standards set by EPA and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Federal buildings are eligible to receive a High Performance Building designation. 

In addition, commercial real estate and private companies are leading the green charge through voluntary compliance with standards set by a private, nonprofit membership organization, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC’s LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System™ awards points for satisfying specified green building criteria. The six major environmental categories of review include: 

  • Sustainable Sites
  • Water Efficiency
  • Energy and Atmosphere
  • Materials and Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality and
  • Innovation and Design

A building, or unit therein, can be certified as LEED Silver, Gold, or Platinum based on the total number of points earned within each LEED category. For example, our firm’s Miami and Los Angeles offices are in buildings with LEED Gold certification. It was reported two days ago that a high profile commercial property investment company will spend up to $10 million retrofitting its properties for environmental sustainability. LEED can be applied to all building types including new construction, individual unit commercial interiors, core & shell developments, existing buildings, homes, neighborhood developments, schools and retail facilities. In addition, LEED for Healthcare was released in early 2008.

In sum, the green movement has not yet resulted in mandated private employer obligations. Notwithstanding the lack of affirmative duty to do so, however, based on information provided by the USGBC and EPA there are many pragmatic benefits that employers should consider for greening their workplaces:

  • Monetary:  Funding and tax incentives 
  • Energy Efficiency:   Using energy more efficiently may save operating costs on utility bills over the life of the building; reduce the cost per unit on manufactured goods and services; and enhance resale and lease value of real estate
  • Environmental Efficiency:   Reducing environmental impact may reduce waste materials and disposal costs, water usage, chemical use and disposal costs; encourage recycling and reuse of materials; develops local markets for locally produced materials, saving on transportation costs and develops economy-of-scale price reductions
  • Human Efficiency:   Improving indoor environment, producing healthier places to work leading to increases productivity; reduction in absenteeism; boosting morale and corporate loyalty (also through creation of corporate “green teams”), and reduction in employee turnover
  • Goodwill:  Green Buildings often receive high profile notoriety and increased public perception of goodwill toward employees and the community.  

Louisiana Appeals Court Rejects NORM Class Action

On January 28, 2010, the Louisiana Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit, affirmed the New Orleans  trial court’s denial of class certification in a series of putative class actions involving alleged exposure to Normally Occurring Radioactive Material (“NORM”) on industrial property located in , Louisiana, which had been used for oilfield pipe and equipment cleaning operations for over forty years. Although class certification was rejected on multiple grounds, the decision relied in large part upon the Louisiana Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Ford v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 703 S.2d 542, which involved alleged exposures from hazardous materials from several distinct sources. As in Ford, the class action failed because the Harvey plaintiffs alleged toxic exposures as a result of pipe cleaning activity on the non-contiguous property of three separate and distinct landowners – Rathborne, Grefer and ITCO – over a forty-six year period, with varying amounts of pipe cleaning taking place at different times in different locations (in almost checkerboard pattern) by different companies. Ford stands for the proposition that only mass torts arising from a single common cause or disaster are appropriate for class certification.

How did pipe cleaning cause the alleged NORM exposure? Pipe cleaning involves the mechanical reaming of the inside of oilfield pipe to remove scale or crust that builds up on the interior of the tubing to the point where the scale impedes the flow of oil up the pipe. The scale, formed from natural elements, gradually clogs the pipes that are inserted deep into the ground during the course of petroleum production. At some point, it was determined that the scale inside the pipe contained material determined to be radioactive, with varying half-lives (time for half of the atoms of a radioactive substance to decay), which is called “NORM” or “TERM,” an acronym referring to Technologically Enhanced Radioactive Material. When precisely the oil industry knew or should have known that pipe cleaning could result in occupational exposure to NORM is hotly disputed. The plaintiffs allege that over the decades this pipe cleaning occurred in Harvey, “toxic dust” (NORM/TERM) was deposited in their neighborhoods and was the source of various diseases and illnesses.

What I find interesting about the Fourth Circuit’s opinion is its rejection of the trial court’s determination that the plaintiffs failed to satisfy the numerosity requirement of the Louisiana Class Action Statute, which was a primary basis for the trial court’s denial of class certification. The trial court  found that there was not sufficient numerosity because so many potential class members had already opted out, citing other lawsuits in which 3,748 individuals, a large percentage of the putative class, were involved. These so-called opt-outs were represented by several outspoken plaintiff lawyers, who did not want to see a class certified. The Fourth Circuit ruled that it was premature to opt out of a class before it was certified. A plaintiff could not opt out of a class that did not yet exist. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit found that the numerosity requirement had been met. However,  the Fourth Circuit held that sufficient commonality for class certification was not present. In addition, the Fourth Circuit held that the broad diversity of the diseases and ailments of the plaintiffs underscored the inadequacy of the class representatives representation, leading the court to conclude that there was no typicality. The Harvey TERM plaintiffs complained of diseases ranging from common cold symptoms to reproductive problems and many different forms of cancer.  The plaintiffs’ strategy at both the trial court and appellate level was to argue that the court should not be required to conduct a rigorous analysis of whether the facts satisfied the class action requirements.  Plaintiffs argued that the trial court confused a motion to certify a class with a trial on the merits, essentially asserting that it had made too many "factual findings".  However, the Fourth Circuit soundly rejected this argument, citing the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision inBrooks v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 2008-2035, *6, 2009 WL 1425972 (La. 05/22/09), which recognized the "essentially factual basis of the certification inquiry and of the district court’s inherent power to manage and control pending litigation."  Brooks, 08-2035 at p. 11, 13 So 3d at 554

Does Niagara Mohawk Lower The Bar For CERCLA Plaintiffs?

On February 24, 2010, the Second Circuit issued an important CERCLA contribution decision in Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. v. Chevron USA, Inc., 2010 WL 626064. Over the last 100 years, the site at the heart of the decision, the Water Street Site in Troy, New York has, according to the Court, “played host to various industrial activities including a coke plant, a steel manufacturing facility, a manufactured gas plant and a petroleum distribution facility,” all of which uses “led to the release or disposal of toxic substances, many subject to liability under CERCLA.” In its holding, the Second Circuit ruled that a contribution plaintiff need not establish the precise amount of hazardous material discharged or prove with certainty that a PRP defendant discharged the hazardous material to get their CERCLA claims past the summary judgment stage. Has the Second Circuit significantly raised the bar for defendants seeking summary judgment in private cost recovery cases? That is the thesis of Steven G. Jones in an article titled, “Second Circuit Makes Summary Judgment More Difficult to Obtain for Defendants in CERCLA Contribution Actions,” dated March 5, 2010. Jones contends that some CERCLA defendants, faced with a long and complex trial, may be more inclined to resolve their cases in mediation if it is less likely that a CERCLA defendant will be able to obtain dismissal through summary judgment prior to trial. In reversing the federal district court in the North District of New York, the Second Circuit relied on its prior precedent in United States v. Alcan Aluminum Corp., 990 F.2d 711, 721 (2d. Cir. 1993), which decision represented what the court described as a purposeful lowering of the liability to be a PRP and a relaxed CERCLA liability standard. It also cited the Tenth Circuit’s holding in Tosco Corp. v. Koch Indus., Inc., 216 F.3d 886, 892 for the proposition that “CERCLA liability may be inferred from the totality of the circumstances as opposed to direct evidence.” Thus, in my view, Niagara Mohawk is less an expansion of existing CERCLA case law in the Second Circuit as much as it is a rebuke to the trial judge, who arguably did not apply the correct standard in the first instance.   

Cas Holloway Brings Energy And Vision To NYC’s DEP

On February 26, 2010, the New York League of Conservation Voters (“NYLCV”) hosted an Eco-Partners Breakfast with New York City Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) Commissioner Cas Holloway, DEP’s energetic new commissioner.  Mayor Bloomberg appointed Mr. Holloway to head DEP in November 2009 after a year long nation-wide search. Prior to his appointment, Mr. Holloway served as a Senior Advisor and Chief of Staff to Ed Skyler, New York’s Deputy Mayor for Operations. Mr. Holloway, a former Cravath associate who earned an undergraduate degree at Harvard and a law degree from the University of Chicago, brings to the position a rare combination of political savvy and operational know how that should serve DEP well.  Although DEP has a $1,000,000 budget and a staff of over six thousand, it often flies below the radar screen. DEP performs four basic functions. (1) First and foremost, it is a water utility. It is responsible for the supply, distribution and treatment of New York City’s drinking water. Unlike California, which delegates the supply and treatment functions to different agencies, both functions fall within DEP’s  aegis in New York; (2) DEP is a customer service agency. It more or less determines the price of water; (3) DEP is a capital projects agency. For example, it is building at a cost of $6,000,000,000 the third underground tunnel that will carry drinking water from upstate to millions of New Yorkers; and (4) DEP is an environmental regulator on, among other things, air and water issues.   Based upon his first few months on the job, Cas Holloway appreciates the importance of working with various stakeholders and interest groups. On February 25, 2010, Mayor Bloomberg, Mr. Holloway’s agency,  NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and several environmental groups announced an agreement-in-principle to significantly improve the health of Jamaica Bay through sewage treatment plant upgrades and investments in marsh restoration. As a result of the agreement-in-principle, DEP headed off a potentially costly Clean Water Act litigation arising from the alleged failure of its four sewage treatment plants to prevent nitrogen discharges to the bay. Mr. Holloway described the resolution of the Jamaica Bay dispute as a "paradigm shift" and a case study for how he hopes DEP will resolve future disputes. Up next for Mr. Holloway is the threat to water quality in the New York City Watershed posed by natural gas companies  seeking permits to exploit valuable natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale through the extensive use horizontal drilling and hydrofracking.  All New Yorkers should wish Mr. Holloway well in addressing this new Watershed concern.