California’s Proposition 65 Runs Amok with Addition of BPA

plastic-bottlesOn May 11, 2015, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) listed Bisphenol A (BPA) as a reproductive toxicant to be added to the list of chemicals subject to Proposition 65.  Given the widespread use of BPA in numerous consumer applications (e.g., plastics, adhesives, sealants, epoxy resin liners in food containers, and thermal paper such as the paper used to print cash register receipts), the addition of BPA is a significant development for a large number of businesses evaluating compliance with Proposition 65 with respect to BPA in products.

Proposition 65 provides a 12-month period from the date of listing before warnings are required.  Thus, warnings for exposures to BPA will be required starting on May 11, 2016, unless a person in the course of doing business can show that exposures are below the Maximum Allowable Dose Level (MADL) safe harbor limit for BPA.

OEHHA Takes Action with Deadline Approaching

As the deadline for the warning requirement is quickly approaching, OEHHA recently took emergency action with respect to the listing of BPA.  The first action was the issuance of a notice of proposed rulemaking to establish a MADL for dermal exposures from solid materials containing BPA.  The second was an emergency action to allow for the temporary use of a standard point-of-sale warning for BPA exposures from canned and bottled foods and beverages.

Proposed MADL

The warning requirements under Proposition 65 do not apply if a business can show that exposures from a product are less than the MADL established by OEHHA, which puts the business in a “safe harbor.”  Based on OEHHA’s review of the scientific studies, it has proposed a MADL of 3 micrograms/day (dermal exposure from solid materials) for BPA.  Significantly, the proposed MADL of 3 micrograms/day is a level believed to be above that which most people would encounter from a product in normal use.Bisphenol_A

Comments on the proposed MADL are due to OEHHA by May 16, 2016.  Note that this means that the proposed MADL will not be finalized until after the May 11, 2016 trigger date for warnings.

OEHHA Allows Uniform Point-of-Sale Warnings for Canned and Bottled Food and Beverages

OEHHA attempted to develop a MADL for oral exposure (as opposed to the dermal exposures discussed above) that could have precluded the need for an emergency action on the warnings.  However, OEHHA was unable to work through the technical, practical, and timing issues associated with adopting an oral exposure MADL.  Consequently, to avoid potential removal of many food products from the shelves in markets, OEHHA’s proposed solution, as presented in the emergency action, is to amend the regulations to provide for the temporary use of a standard point-of-sale warning as a compliance option.

The compliance option contemplates signs no smaller than 5 x 5 inches with the following warning language:

WARNING: Many cans containing foods and beverages sold here have epoxy linings used to avoid microbial contamination and extend shelf life. Lids on jars and caps on bottles may also have epoxy linings. Some of these linings can leach small amounts of bisphenol A (BPA) into the food or beverage. BPA is a chemical known to the State of California to cause harm to the female reproductive system.  For more information go to:  www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/BPA.

OEHHA’s actions will have a significant impact on businesses seeking to comply with Proposition 65 for products carrying the potential for exposures to BPA.

Will the Exception Swallow the Rule? The Northern District of Illinois’ Take on the Bare Metal Defense

The bare metal defense has become a “go-to” defense for defendants involved in national asbestos litigation.  Predominantly asserted by manufacturers of industrial equipment, the defense provides that those defendants that manufactured products composed only of metal have no duty to warn of asbestos-containing components later installed by others post-sale.  It also rejects liability for “affixed” external materials – typically thermal insulation and flange gaskets manufactured by others – placed on the metal products by someone other than the defendant.

While the defense has been the subject of numerous cases, its application has not been uniform.  However, the decisions fall into three main categories:

(1) a defense-friendly category, holding that manufacturers have no duty to warn of asbestos-containing replacement parts supplied by a third party;

(2) a plaintiff-friendly category, holding that manufacturers have a duty to warn whenever it is foreseeable that asbestos-containing material may be used with their products; and

(3)  a “middle ground,” holding that manufacturers generally have no such duty, but do have a duty to warn when the use of asbestos-containing materials (a) was specified by a defendant, (b) was essential to the proper functioning of the defendant’s products, or (c)         was for “some reason so inevitable that, by supplying the product, the defendant was responsible for introducing asbestos into the environment at issue.”

Recently, the Northern District of Illinois expressly adopted the middle ground. In Quirin v. Lorillard Tobacco Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18744 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 14, 2014), the court ultimately denied Crane Co.’s summary judgment motion under an exception to the middle-ground approach, namely that the plaintiff was able to proffer evidence that Crane Co. specified the asbestos-containing replacement components or that the asbestos-containing components were necessary for the metal products to function.

Quirin arose out of the plaintiff’s alleged exposure to asbestos-containing Crane Co. valves during the plaintiff’s service in the U.S. Navy.  Although the valves themselves were composed of “bare metal,” they included an internal bonnet gasket and stem packing at the time of shipment that may have contained asbestos. In addition, Crane Co. sold asbestos-containing replacement gaskets, gasket material and packing.  Crane Co. moved for summary judgment, arguing that its valves were bare metal and, accordingly, Crane Co. had no duty to warn of asbestos-containing components manufactured by others and ultimately applied by the Navy, the end user of the product.

Quirin looked to other jurisdictions for guidance, expressly citing the California Supreme Court’s ruling in O’Neil v. Crane Co., 53 Cal. 4th 335 (2012), noting that “manufacturers are not required to investigate and warn of the potential risks of any other products that might be used with a Crane Co. product.  The duty attaches only when the manufacturer incorporated the asbestos-containing material into its product, meaning that asbestos would inevitably be introduced into the stream of commerce along with the product.”  The Quirin court, however, found that the O’Neil court “qualified its conclusion” and “left room for an exception to the rule” because the plaintiffs in O’Neil did not prove the equipment at issue needed asbestos to function.

Quirin relied on evidence that Crane Co. valves were used for high heat applications, that at least some of its valves needed asbestos-containing components to function properly, and that Crane Co. provided specifications for such use.  Taken together, the court concluded that a jury could find that Crane Co. had a legal duty to warn about the hazards of asbestos exposure from working with its valves.

On one hand, the fact that the Quirin court cited the O’Neil case with approval is encouraging for equipment defendants in Illinois.  However, the adoption of the middle-ground approach by the Northern District of Illinois is troubling. Practically speaking, there is minimal difference between the middle-ground approach and the plaintiff-oriented foreseeability approach, since the plaintiffs will merely proffer expert testimony to prove the “bare metal” product at issue was used for hot applications and “needed asbestos” to function properly.  As presently interpreted by the Northern District, then, defendants need to be particularly aware of the bare metal defense’s limitations; it does not provide a complete bar for bare metal defendants, even those that never manufactured asbestos-containing products or provided asbestos-containing components with their products.

Fortunately, however, development of the bare metal defense is still in its infancy in Illinois.  Indeed, there has yet to be a definitive ruling rendered by an Illinois appellate court on the issue.  In fact, just before the ruling in Quirin, the Asbestos MDL remanded an asbestos lawsuit to the Southern District of Illinois to determine whether the state even recognized the bare metal defense.  For now, equipment defendants in federal court in Illinois are well advised to argue the policy and rationale of O’Neil and push at the state and federal level for a bright-line rule of nonliability for other parties’ products.

New Jersey: No Liability for Other Parties’ Asbestos Products

New Jersey has joined the list of jurisdictions that hold a defendant is not liable for asbestos in replacement parts supplied by others, regardless of whether there was asbestos in the same part as originally supplied.

Hughes v. A.W. Chesterton Co. is a generally good result for asbestos defendants. Notably, it did not get to the result the same way that other cases (e.g., California, Washington, and the asbestos MDL) did.

Hughes held that there was a duty to warn, but found no liability as a matter of causation. Many other cases coming to the same result as Hughes held that there is no duty to warn. (For example, California’s O’Neil, Washington’s Braaten and Simonetta, the Sixth Circuit’s Lindstrom, the MDL’s Prange, etc.)

Hughes imposed a duty to warn on the grounds that it was reasonably foreseeable at the time the Goulds pumps were sold that original gaskets and packing would be regularly replaced with gaskets and packing that contained asbestos. “Since the risk of exposure continued and was perhaps increased by the replacement process, a warning given at the time of the initial sale would ensure that this information was available to be considered in subsequent decisions regarding the choice of replacement parts and any additional safeguards for workers who made the replacements. We therefore conclude that it would be reasonable, practical, and feasible to impose a duty to warn upon Goulds under the facts here.”

“We do not agree that plaintiffs may prove causation by showing exposure to a product without also showing exposure to an injury-producing element in the product that was manufactured or sold by defendant.” The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that causation may be proved by mere likelihood that defendant’s equipment would be used with asbestos-containing replacement parts, requiring instead proof that such parts were “manufactured or sold by the defendant.”

“California law,” as O’Neil  says in contrast, “does not impose a duty to warn about dangers arising entirely from another manufacturer’s product, even if it is foreseeable that the products will be used together. Were it otherwise, manufacturers of the saws used to cut insulation would become the next targets of asbestos lawsuits.”

It is unclear whether the Hughes/New Jersey/causation approach will lead to more consistently positive results for defendants than the O’Neil/California/no duty approach. For example, California courts have since split on whether cases against various defendants, including some that never made any asbestos-containing products but only products that were used with such products, fall within O’Neil exceptions. Such exceptions to O’Neil may be irrelevant to a causation analysis under Hughes. Another potential difference is that it ought generally to be easier to win summary judgment on duty, a legal issue, than on causation, which will involve facts. On the other hand, it’s still all about one question: “was it the defendant’s product that contained the asbestos?”

Industrial Safety And Genetic Predisposition To Disease

John C. Stivarius, a trial lawyer, at Elarbee, Thompson, Sapp & Wilson LLP in Atlanta, is defending a chemical exposure toxic tort case in which plaintiff presents a case for toxic chemical exposure with a twist. Plaintiff’s decedent worked for some thirty years at the defendant’s facility as a maintenance worker. During the last five years of his life, he was allegedly exposed to a variety of chemical products, including industrial cleaners. One of these cleaners was involved in the chrome plating process. John’s issue is this. None of the Industrial Hygiene reports issued for the 5 years prior to his death show any exposure levels above the PEL or TLV for any of the chemicals alleged in the suit. Plaintiff ‘s expert contends, however, that the decedent was genetically pre-disposed to pulmonary fibrosis and that any level of exposure to these chemicals could have triggered the disease, notwithstanding the low exposure. In this scenario, do the safety standards have no meaning? Can and should an MSDS be drafted to provide a warning to a genetically fragile pre-disposed population, assuming such a population exists? As a matter of law, assuming someone can be predisposed to developing pulmonary fibrosis, does this render the chemical in question unreasonably dangerous?  Should plaintiffs be required to undergo genetic testing to demonstrate their genetic susceptibility?  Readers are encouraged to provide John any leads to relevant case law on this issue and thoughts concerning the Daubert arguments that may be raised.

Professor Gary E. Marchant, a Professor of Law at Arizona State University Law School and a Professor of Genetics at ASU, has written a superb article that addresses many of John’s questions titled, "Genetic Data In Toxic Tort Litigation", Journal of Law and Policy (4/6/06).  Professor Marchant discusses those cases in which plaintiffs have advanced claims of genetic susceptibility to try to circumvent causation barriers to recovery.  He also discusses the "idiosyncratic response" defense that may be invoked by defendants in strict product liability cases to defend against failure to warn claims.  In the conclusion to his article, Professor Marchant  considers how genomic data has the potential to transform toxic tort doctrine and practice.  I commend this article and Professor Marchant’s other work to all toxic tort practitioners.