Toxic Tort Plaintiff’s Feet Held To Fire On Causation Evidence In New York

New York’s appellate courts continue to hold toxic tort plaintiffs and their experts to rigorous standards when it comes to proof of causation. To escape an adverse summary judgment ruling, it is not enough for a plaintiff to merely allege, with the support of an expert, that she was exposed to a toxic substance, and that this exposure resulted in the illness alleged. Rather, the plaintiff must raise a triable issue of fact as to her “exposure to a specific toxin or allergen; quantify the level of exposure to some degree; and posit that such level of exposure was sufficient to produce the alleged injuries.” Such was the holding of the Appellate Division, First Department, in Cleghorne v. City of New York, (2012 NY Slip Op 06648), decided on October 4, 2012.

Cleghorne was a school teacher employed by the New York City Board of Education. She claims that after her school was relocated to the Bronx in 2000, she developed respiratory problems while cleaning her classroom at the new location. Thereafter, she was diagnosed with asthma and bronchitis. After returning to work about a month later, she had an asthma attack at the school and was hospitalized. At her General Municipal Law § 50-h examination in September 2001, Cleghorne testified that she developed a persistent cough while cleaning her classroom and a storage area in the new building and that afterward her condition deteriorated. In October 2001, she commenced an action against the Board of Education and others.

In 2010, both sides moved for summary judgment. Each side presented their own experts’ medical affidavits. The defendants’ physician, Jack J. Adler, a pulmonologist, determined that plaintiff had developed asthma prior to moving to the new school location. Adler opined that the environmental contaminants at the school did not cause the condition. He reported that plaintiff suffered from atopic or allergic asthma and that she was allergic to several common allergens, including tree and ragweed pollen, dust mites, dogs, cats, cockroaches, mold, spores and mouse and rat antigens, none of which were exclusive to her school. Because these environmental contaminants are extremely prevalent, Dr. Adler opined that she would have similar symptoms in any urban environment.

Cleghorne stated in her affidavit (which the court noted was executed more than nine years after the relevant events) that the school premises “were replete with rodents, rodent carcases, rodent droppings, cobwebs, cockroaches, cockroach and other bug carcasses, mildew, thick-black dust, and excessive dirt, and had numerous ceiling tiles that were water damaged and broken.” In addition, mold was in the ceiling tiles by the vents, on the walls, and in the closets. Her daily routine was to clean out all of this material before starting class. Cleghorne had her worried validated by basement waterproofing contractors from her neighborhood in Maryland.

Based upon Cleghorne’s affidavit, her expert, Dr. Hugh Cassiere, opined that Cleghorne was exposed to a “high level” of daily inhalation of these allergens, which caused her to develop “airway hyperresponsiveness.” Faced with two sets of dueling summary judgment motions, the trial court determined that questions of fact required the denial of both motions.

In its opinion, the Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously reversed, holding that the trial court should have dismissed plaintiff’s case. Relying on the Court of Appeals landmark case, Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., the First Department held that Cleghorne had failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to the specific toxin or allergen; that she had failed to quantify the level of exposure; and that she had failed to posit (through her expert) that such level of exposure was sufficient to produce the alleged injury.

In pertinent part, the Court held,

“While Parker recognizes that the level of exposure need not always be quantified “precisely,” it is still necessary that “whatever methods an expert uses to establish causation [they be] generally accepted in the [medical] community”… such methods include “mathematical modeling or comparing plaintiff’s exposure level to those of study subjects whose exposure levels were precisely determined.”

In Cleghorne, the court found that the only so-called “method” plaintiff’s expert used to establish specific causation was to “accept, at face value, the anecdotal allegations of plaintiff’s uncorroborated affidavit that she was exposes to dust, bugs, rodent droppings and carcases in unspecified quantities and began experiencing asthma, purportedly for the first time, as a result.”
Although plaintiff’s expert characterized  Cleghorne’s exposure as “high level,” the Court found that this assessment was an insufficient basis for his causation theory and that plaintiff’s use of the term “replete” in her affidavit was a “meaningless and vague quantifying adjective.”

Significantly, the court held that an expert’s calculation of the level of exposure may not be based upon assumptions not supported by the record and faulted the plaintiff’s expert for not providing any scientific measurement or employing any accepted method of extrapolating such a measurement. Moreover, plaintiff offered no other evidence concerning the “level of allergens or toxins present in the school.” Although Dr. Cassiere did cite six studies in support of his theory of causation, he failed to compare plaintiff’s exposure level to those of any of the study subjects.

What lessons does Cleghorne provide?

1. Although New York state trial courts are generally reluctant to dismiss the personal injury claim of a sympathetic plaintiff, there is strong precedent in the appellate courts that favors dismissal of toxic tort lawsuits without appropriate scientific support. Therefore, making a strong appellate record below, either on summary judgment or at trial, is essential for achieving a successful outcome;

2. Although some commentators are critical of the Frye rule in New York state court (preferring instead the federal Daubert rule), New York has developed some rigorous Frye jurisprudence. Therefore, all is not lost if you are in New York state court and seek to exclude plaintiff’s expert;

3. A rigorous analysis of plaintiff’s expert’s opinions, expressed either in his affidavit or CPLR 3101(d) expert witness disclosure, is essential. As reflected in Cleghorne, plaintiff’s expert must be able to quantify the level of exposure albeit not “precisely.” However, plaintiff’s methodology must include “mathematical modeling” or, alternatively, a comparison of plaintiff’s exposure level to the exposure level of study subjects in the scientific studies cited by the expert in support of his theory of causation. It is not sufficient to use words like “replete” or “daily” in quantifying an exposure to a toxin or allergen; and

4. The trial court should be cautioned that, in opposing a motion for summary judgment, it is not sufficient for plaintiff’s expert to rely solely on plaintiff’s “anecdotal” remarks seeking to link cause and injury.

Breach Of Warranty & Product Liability Claims Dismissed Against Auto Service Provider

In 2008, the parents of Sean Reeps, brought suit against BMW, Martin Motor Sales and Hassel Motors (“Hassel”), alleging that Sean’s mother, Debra, was exposed to gasoline fumes in the family’s BMW during her pregancy, which resulted in Sean being born with birth defects. Amarillo motor vehicle accident attorney will work with you in all types of vehicle accidents like Sean’s mother. The Complaint alleged causes of action in (1) negligence; (2) strict products liability; (3) breach of express warranty; and (4) breach of implied warranty (merchantability) . The timeline of events is as follows:

1991-In March and again in November, Reeps bring their 1989 BMW 525i to Hassel Motors, a licensed BMW dealer, to fix an exhaust odor inside the car.  Dealer fails to identiify an exhaust odor in March, but later identifies problem as a split fuel hose and repairs it under warranty.

1992-In May, Sean Reeps is born with birth defects, including cerebral palsy, which plaintiffs  attribute to Debra’s  inhalation of gas fumes early in pregnancy.

1994-BMW recalls BMW525i vehicles due to safety defect that caused odor due to feed fuel hose. Car is no longer with plaintiffs at the time.

On summary judgment, BMW argued that plaintiff’s claims were barred by the doctrine of spoliation because plaintiff could not establish a prima facie case without the car or the fuel hose to show the actual alleged defect.  BMW’s expert testified by affidavit that the Reeps’ leakage was caused by a split in the fuel hose, not by the defect that was the subject of the recall.  Thus, in the absence of the actual fuel hose, BMW argued, plaintiff could not demonstrate a defect.

The trial court rejected BMW’s spoliation argument, holding that there was no evidence of “willful or contumacious conduct” by plaintiff in disposing of the car. Remarkably, the Reeps’ BMW was actually found, but clearly not in the same condition as it was in 1991 and, not surprisingly, without the original fuel hose. The trial court held that plaintiff was not “barred from pursuing his claim, but rather he will have the onerous trial burden of proving his case solely by circumstantial evidence.”

New York law requires that to establish a prima facie case for strict product liability or design defect, a plaintiff must show that the manufacturer marketed a product that was not reasonably safe in its design; that it was feasible to design the product in a safer manner; and that the defective design was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injury. When the product at issue is no longer available, and the plaintiff seeks to prove a manufacturing defect by circumstantial evidence, the plaintiff must not only establish that the product did not perform as intended, but must also exclude all other causes of failure not attributable to the manufacturer.

The trial court denied Hassel’s motion for summary judgment. The gravamen for plaintiff’s claims against Hassel was that it was negligent in failing to find the split fuel hose when the Reeps first complained of fuel odor in March 1991. Plaintiffs argued that if Hassel had identified and repaired the problem, Mrs. Reeps would not have inhaled any fumes during her pregnancy. In denying the dealer’s motion for summary judgment, the court observed that there is a high bar for obtaining summary judgment in a negligence action. As the court noted, “Simply put, Hassel must prove that it was not negligent when it failed to find a source of the gas fumes complained of by the Reeps in March 1991. It has not done so.”

In its decision, dated April 5, 2012, the Appellate Division, First Department, weighed in on both the spoliation issue and the motion for summary judgment by Hassel. On the spoliation issue, the Appellate Division held that the defendants “failed to demonstrate that the parents disposed of the vehicle with knowledge of its potential evidentiary value.” Moreover, the court discussed the existence of other available evidence, including BMW’s Recall Bulletin and Hassel Motors-service records for the relevant period, which served to mitigate the loss of the vehicle. Basically, the court examined two of the key factors in evaluating spoliation sanctions – prejudice and intent – and determined that the movants had failed to establish either element in seeking sanctions.

As to plaintiff’s claims against Hassel, the Appellate Division held that the product liability and breach of implied and express warranty claims should be dismissed because the service provider did not design, manufacture, distribute or sell the vehicle. This holding may be the most important in the case because it clarifies that service providers, as opposed to product sellers, can not be held liable under strict product liability or breach of warranty theories of liability. Therefore, the only remaining claim against Hassel sounds in negligence, which may be difficult for plaintiff to establish at trial after a twenty year hiatus.

Apart from its other burdens, plaintiff will have to demonstrate general causation at trial, that is, whether exposure to chemical components in gasoline fumes have been associated in the scientific literature with the specific teratogenic effects alleged, including cerebral palsy. If plaintiff is able to prove general causation, he will then have to prove specific causation, that is, whether the dose of the purported teratogen was high enough, and lasted for a sufficient duration, to cause the specific birth defect.

The plaintiff attributes his injury to Debra Reeps’ inhalation of gas fumes during the first couple of months of her pregnancy between August 1991 and November 1991, when the problem with the vehicle was fixed. Are the alleged teratogenic effects associated with a toxic exposure early in pregnancy? How often did Debra Reeps ride in the automobile during those first couple of months? If the odor problem was significant, is it likely that the Reeps would not have returned their BMW 525i, which was under warranty, to the dealership before November? Because there is no expert deposition discovery under New York state practice, we will have to await trial to learn how these issues plays out.