Possibility That Product Contained Asbestos Not Enough to Create Triable Issue in California

Recently, in Berg v. Colgate, the Court of Appeal gave good news to manufacturers who dispute that their products contain asbestos. “It was not enough for plaintiffs to produce some evidence that [plaintiff] was exposed to a product that possibly contained asbestos.” Plaintiffs’ case against Colgate was dismissed when plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence that plaintiff “was more likely than not exposed to asbestos contained in a product sold by Mennen.”

Colgate-Palmolive Company’s predecessor, the Mennen Company, manufactured a shave talc that plaintiff used from 1959 to 1962. Colgate adamantly disputes that the product contained asbestos. Further, Colgate argued plaintiff could not establish through reliable evidence that the talc plaintiff actually used contained asbestos.

Plaintiffs argued that all or virtually all of the Mennen talc that plaintiff used from 1959-1962 contained asbestos. First, plaintiffs put forth evidence that Mennen’s talc supply came from mines historically known (aka assumed) to be contaminated with asbestos. Next, they submitted a 1972 FDA test showing that Mennen talc contained 4% chrysotile asbestos and a 1976 test showing that Mennen talc manufactured in 1972 contained 2% tremolite asbestos. Last, plaintiffs’ expert tested Mennen talc samples which looked similar to the description of the cans plaintiff used. Plaintiffs’ expert alleged that the samples contained amphibole asbestos. From the combined evidence, plaintiffs’ expert opined to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the cans plaintiff used from 1959-1962 contained dangerous levels of asbestos.

The Court of Appeal was not convinced that a jury could conclude from plaintiffs’ evidence that it was more likely than not that the shave talc plaintiff used contained asbestos. Even assuming that some talc came from mines that contained some level of asbestos, plaintiffs “fail[ed] to a support a conclusion that all or most of the Mennen Shave Talc containers sold from 1959 to 1962 contained asbestos.” Notably, plaintiffs’ expert relied upon the FDA’s testing of cans that were manufactured at least 10 years after the time plaintiff used the product. What’s more, the testing plaintiffs’ expert personally conducted were on cans of an unknown origin date. Plaintiff’s testimony that the cans tested looked similar to the cans he used decades prior is insufficient.

Plaintiffs primarily relied on Lyons, where the court  found  “substantial evidence creating a triable issue as to whether Colgate’s Cashmere Bouquet talc contained asbestos that may be found to have been a substantial cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma.”  The Court of Appeal disagreed, distinguishing Lyons on several grounds.  In Lyons, plaintiff used the product for over 20 years. Additionally, Colgate did not dispute that the product contained asbestos and there was no evidence of any other source of asbestos exposure. Taken together, this was enough evidence to “create more than an unsupported possibility” that the product exposed plaintiff to asbestos.

Here, unlike Lyons, plaintiffs’ expert was unable to explain rationally “or even commonsensically logical” how he determined Mennen cans sold during the applicable time contained asbestos. Unlike Lyons, plaintiffs allege additional exposure to asbestos from other products. A final, distinguishing factor was that plaintiff used Mennen shave talc for a short period of time, 1959-1962, and only between 4-6 cans during that period. “Thus, [plaintiff’s] eventual development of mesothelioma provides much weaker support for an inference that the shave talc he used contained asbestos.”

Ultimately, the Court of Appeal held that plaintiffs failed to carry their evidentiary burden. “At best, plaintiffs presented evidence that the shave talc [plaintiff] used exposed him to asbestos, but they failed to present evidence upon which a reasonable jury could conclude that any such exposure was more likely than not.” This case will provide helpful legal precedent to ensure that plaintiffs satisfy their evidentiary burden to demonstrate the product was more likely than not to contain asbestos.

Contradictory Testimony No Basis for Denial Of Summary Judgment

All too often, a defendant in a toxic tort case loses a motion for summary judgment because the court determines that imprecise witness testimony creates a triable issue of fact that warrants denial of the motion. Indeed, it is the rule in California that the task of deciphering the meaning of “ambiguous” witness testimony is a role reserved for the jury. Reid v. Google, Inc. (2010) 50 Cal.4th 512, 541, 113 Cal.Rptr. 3d 327, 235 P.3d.988

Thus, quoting from this oft-cited case, plaintiffs routinely argue that “the task of disambiguating ambiguous utterances is for trial, not for summary judgment.” Other California holdings suggest that an inconsistency in witness testimony does not require that the testimony be disregarded in its entirety; rather, it is for the trier of fact to determine what weight the testimony should be given. Clemmer v. Hartford Insurance Co. (1978) 22 Cal.3d 865.

On May 4, 2012, the Bloomberg BNA Toxic Law Reporter reported on the recent  decision in Davis v. Foster Wheeler Energy Corp., Cal. Ct. App., No. B226089, 4/26/12, where the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District drew a sharp distinction between testimony that was “ambiguous” and testimony that was “internally contradictory.”  In affirming summary judgment, the court found that no triable issue of fact was established where the witness testimony was contradictory. Here are the pertinent facts.

Ronald Davis worked at a chemical plant in Torrance, California in the 1960’s. He later developed mesothelioma, and died in 2009. Among others, the plaintiff sued Foster Wheeler, alleging negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and loss of consortium. Foster Wheeler moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not manufacture, sell, or distribute any asbestos-containing product, and that the decedent was not exposed to asbestos dust by any Foster Wheeler product. The trial court granted summary judgment and plaintiffs appealed.

The plaintiffs argued that there was a triable issue concerning whether Davis was exposed to asbestos dust when Foster Wheeler employees, such a decedent, stripped old asbestos-containing insulation from the outside of boilers during maintenance activity. Key to the plaintiffs’ appeal was the deposition of Claude Chabot, a witness who initially claimed that he observed a maintenance worker stripping insulation wearing a hat with “FW” on the brim. However, in a later deposition, Mr. Chabot testified that he had no information whether any Foster Wheeler personnel removed or installed insulation on the boilers at the plant.

Under these circumstances, the trial court decided that “no reasonable jury considering this opposing testimony would conclude that the [Foster Wheeler] workers are the workers who removed the asbestos insulation around the Foster Wheeler boiler.” The appeals court agreed that Mr. Chabot’s internally contradictory testimony did not establish the existence of a triable issue of fact.

I have not examined whether other jurisdictions draw a similar distinction between “ambiguous” and “contradictory” or “internally inconsistent” testimony, but if they do not, perhaps they should. In many toxic tort cases, defense counsel may be confronted with potentially adverse testimony from a witness who is testifying to recollections that may be decades old. (Did the witness see that FW hat at the plant or at a UCLA football game?)

One school of thought is to leave adverse testimony alone. Pursuant to this view, taking an expanded deposition of plaintiff’s witness would only make the “record” worse. The holding in Davis suggests that this view may be shortsighted. The adverse witness who provides an affidavit to plaintiff’s counsel may be doing so out of sympathy for a co-worker who has died or suffers from a serious illness. A witness’s recollection of events is often different when the witness is deposed, possibly on videotape, in a formal deposition setting. It is possible that the witness, who provided the unhelpful affidavit, may be willing to admit in deposition that his recollection of long past events may be faulty or possibly inaccurate.

Eliciting contradictory testimony from a witness may not necessarily mean that the witness is dishonest or hostile. Rather, it reflects the tendency in all of us to want to be helpful. Foster Wheeler’s counsel skillfully developed inconsistencies in the witness’s testimony and thereby obtained dismissal from the case. There is no reason why “inconsistent” or “internally contradictory” testimony from witnesses, perhaps originally adverse, should not be disregarded by trial courts in other jurisdictions besides California.