Suspect Toxic Mold Suit Reinstated

Guest Blogger ANDREA J. LAWRENCE is a Senior Counsel at Epstein Becker & Green in New York.  She provides legal advice and counsel to clients in the real estate industry. Andrea has extensive commercial litigation experience, and has provided legal representation to real estate companies, landlords, developers, property management companies, and commercial tenants  In this jointly written post, we discuss a recent Appellate Division, First Department toxic mold case, which was reinstated after dismissal in the trial court.

The adverse health effects of toxic mold are frequently litigated in courts throughout New York, where many apartment dwellers claim to suffer from various medical illnesses resulting from mold and dampness. Just last week, toxic mold again created a stir in the legal community when the Appellate Division, First Department, in Cornell v. 360 West 51st Street Realty, LLC (2012 NY Slip. Op. 01643), reversed a lower court decision dismissing a plaintiff’s mold personal injury claim against her landlord. Despite plaintiff offering scientific and medical evidence in support of her claims, why did the lower court award summary judgment to the landlord? It is noteworthy that plaintiff’s expert, Dr. Eckhard Johanning, has made a career testifying for plaintiffs in mold personal injury actions. This was not the first case in which his expert testimony had been rejected by a trial court due to his off-the-wall methodology.

In Cornell, the plaintiff had resided in her apartment directly above the building’s basement since 1997. After flooding in the basement in 2002 and 2003, the plaintiff observed mold in her bathroom, and began to feel ill every time that she entered this room. In October 2003, the building was sold and the new owner began to remove debris from the basement in preparation for renovations to the building. During the course of the debris removal, plaintiff experienced dizziness, chest tightness, congestion, a shortness of breath, a rash, swollen eyes and a metallic taste in her mouth. In November 2003, the plaintiff was forced to permanently vacate her apartment purportedly as a result of her medical condition. Shortly thereafter, she commenced a personal injury action.

In support of her motion seeking summary judgment (and in opposing the landlord’s motion), the plaintiff presented expert testimony establishing that mold was capable of causing the medical ailments she experienced. Her treating physician opined that her symptoms were caused by exposure to toxic molds.

Notwithstanding the causation evidence presented by plaintiff, the lower court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed the complaint. In doing so, the court relied on Fraser v. 301-52 Townhouse Corp., 57 A.D.3d 416 (1st Dep’t 2008), holding that “the Fraser majority has resolved the issue of the sufficiency of the current epidemiological evidence on which [plaintiff’s physician] relied was not sufficiently strong to permit a finding of general causation, and as the limited supplemental studies that are submitted in this action plainly do not remedy the insufficiency found by the Fraser majority, this court is constrained to hold that plaintiff is unable to prove general causation.”
The trial judge reasonably assumed that if Dr. Johanning’s scientific evidence had failed to pass legal muster in Fraser, his testimony should not be given credence in her courtroom either.

In a 3-2 split, the Appellate Division First Department held that the lower court had erred in its dismissal of the plaintiff’s personal injury claims based upon Fraser. The court stated that, “we never disavowed the underlying theory that exposure to mold may, under certain circumstances, give rise to respiratory and other ailments.” The court noted that its holding in Fraser was limited by the facts of that particular case, and reiterated “our holding [in Fraser] does not set forth any general rule that dampness and mold can never be considered the cause of a disease.” So holding, the Appellate Division reinstated the plaintiff’s complaint against the landlord for mold-related personal injuries.

 At first blush, it may appear that the trial court dismissed plaintiff’s mold claim because it had read Fraser as a categorical rejection of all toxic mold personal injury mold cases. However, the trial judge had certainly not done this.  In his dissenting opinion, Judge Catterson faulted plaintiff’s experts in the lower court for failing to rely upon “generally accepted science.” He determined that plaintiff’s submission concerning medical causation failed to meet the test under Frye v. U.S., 293 F.1013 (D.C. 1923)(known as the Frye test), which requires that the reliability of a new test, process or theory, be “generally accepted” within the relevant scientific community. Upon close examination of the studies relied upon by plaintiff’s experts, he determined that plaintiff’s proof fell short of the mark.  We agree with Judge Catterson. 

Unfortunately, Cornell may provide a roadmap to clever toxic tort plaintiff lawyers and their experts on how to beat back a Frye challenge in New York state court.  At the end of the day, the experts are cooking up the same suspect causation opinions that were rejected in Fraser. It is just that they are adding some scientific "gloss" to those opinions to get to the jury. 

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