Genetic Transformation Injury As A Basis For Emotional Distress Damages

The traditional rule in tort law is that the threat of future harm, not yet realized, is not sufficient to state a claim. However, over the past twenty-five years, plaintiffs in toxic tort litigation have sought to assert new non-injury damage claims, such as medical monitoring and fear of cancer. Providing compensation for an event that has not yet occurred and, indeed, may never occur, is a long way from traditional tort, which only permits recovery when a victim has suffered a harm.

In November 2012, KBR, the largest U.S. military contractor, lost a federal court jury verdict in Portland, Oregon, in the case, Bixby et al v. KBR, Inc, et al,  and ordered to pay twelve U.S. soldiers $85,000,000 in non-economic and punitive damages for alleged toxic  hexavalent chromium dust exposure at a company work site in Iraq in 2003. The trial was a test case over injuries allegedly suffered by Oregon National Guardsmen who were tasked with protecting KBR workers at Qarmat Ali, a water treatment facility the company was hired to rehabilitate after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Veterans Administration has developed a medical surveillance program for veterans who may have been exposed to hexavalent chromium at the Qarmat Ali Treatment Facility in Iraq. The program is provided free of any charge.  While VA does not expect to find many serious Qarmat Ali-related illnesses, the VA believed it prudent to monitor the health of those who may have been exposed.

The jury awarded each plaintiff $850,000 in non-economic damages (later reduced to $500,000 under the Oregon statutory damages cap) and $6,250,000 in punitive damages. The only “injury” plaintiffs had in common was an untested, fleeting, and imperceptible “genetic transformation injury” on which their emotional distress damages for fear of cancer were based.

On its pending appeal before the Ninth Circuit, KBR argues that it was error for the trial court to permit such recovery on the ground that Oregon law does not permit recovery of emotional distress damages where, as here, there is no present physical harm associated with the purported future risk of harm or, indeed, there is no physical injury at all.

An Amici Curiae brief filed by the International Association of Defense Counsel (“IADC”) and American Chemistry Council (“ACC”) argues persuasively that a majority of U.S. courts do not permit a plaintiff to satisfy the physical injury requirement through allegations of sub-cellular harm where the plaintiff is asymptomatic with no observable physical symptoms. For this important assignment, IADC and ACC turned to veteran appellate lawyers, Mary-Christine Sungaila and Patrick Kelly of Snell & Wilmer LLP,  Thieir brief provides an excellent overview of the law on this issue.

Courts are properly concerned about flooding the judicial system with false emotional distress claims. To allay this concern, some courts have imposed “floors” for recovery (e.g., a requirement that emotional distress be “serious”) and “hurdles” to recovery (e.g., the presence of physical harm requirement for emotional distress claims).

 In the KBR litigation, the plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Carson, was unable to say whether any individual plaintiff experienced a “genetic transformation injury” at Qarmat Ali, much less whether such an injury persisted in any particular individual. Moreover, he acknowledged that “genetic transformation injury” is asymptomatic with no observable physical symptoms and may be spontaneously repaired by the body.

As the Ninth Circuit held in Dumontier v. Schlumberger Technology Corp., 543 F.3d 567 (9th Cir. 2008), “not every alteration of the body is an injury” and sagely observed that “all life is change, but all change is not injurious.” Thus, even if radiation always changes DNA, that does not mean that there will always be corresponding compensable physical pain, injury or disease.

On the basis of their well-crafted arguments, Sungaila and Kelly argue that if the court were to accept plaintiffs’ claim, it would throw open the possibility of litigation by any person experiencing even the most benign sub-cellular damage. Sungaila and Kelly distinguish KBR from other cases where, for example, a plaintiff who demonstrated actual mutations that would trigger cancer upon arriving at the age of puberty or sexual maturity.

We look to the Ninth Circuit to reverse the trial court decision and to reject plaintiffs’ argument that sub-cellular or genetic transformation is sufficient, in and of itself, to permit recovery for emotional distress damages.

Dismissal of American Chemistry Council Upheld

BNA Toxics Law Reporter reports that on August 3, 2009, the First Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the American Chemistry Council ("ACC"), formerly known as the Chemical Manufacturers Association, in a case arising from a plaintiff’s long-term exposure to vinyl chloride. The First Circuit’s decision in June Taylor et al v. ACC, et al is attached. The ACC is the chemical industry’s trade association.  The ACC has been effective in improving the image of the chemical industry in the United States and in promoting safety and environmental initiatives within its membership.  The family of Claude Taylor alleged in federal district court in Massachusetts that ACC, along with several chemical manufacturers, should be found liable for failure to warn, conspiracy and fraud for helping to produce false and misleading warnings that were adopted by the PVC industry.  The plaintiff focused on an ACC publication entitled, "Chemical Safety Data Sheet SD-56", which was first published in 1954 and later revised in 1972, claiming that the publication downplayed the danger of VC exposure.  In upholding the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against the ACC, the First Circuit held that there was no evidence that the trade association had the "unlawful intent" necessary to establish "substantial assistance liability" under MA law.  The court held that it would have been necessary for plaintiff to prove that ACC was aware of Monsanto’s tortious conduct and that it intended to assist or encourage that conduct.  The wide dissemination of SD-56 within the industry was not sufficient to support the claim that the ACC was aware that Monsanto was incorporating SD-56 into its own literature.  ACC’s lawyer, Tim Couglin of Thompson Hine, successfully convinced the appeals court that: (1) ACC did not provide "substantial assistance" to Monsanto; (2) ACC had no knowledge of Monsanto’s activities; and (3) there was no record evidence to support the underlying conspiracy claim. 

Trade associations do not manufacture or market products, but they have been the targets of toxic tort and product liability plaintiffs nonetheless.  The threshold issue in these cases is whether the association owed a duty of care to the plaintiff.  In cases in which the trade association is alleged to have promulgated a safety standard, the issue often comes down to the degree of control the trade association has over its members.  In the absence of control, the trade association is not as likely to be held liable for failure to warn.  What about a trade association that endorses products?  If a plaintiff’s injury is due to a defect in a product bearing the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval", for example, is the association potentially liable?  One California court replied in the affirmative if it could be demonstrated that the association obtained economic gain from the endorsement and encouraged the public to purchase the product, and that  the plaintiff relied on the representation to his detriment.  Courts appear to recognize that it is not in the public interest to hold trade associations liable for injuries to remote plaintiffs in tort litigation.  The AAA might rank hotels on the basis of service and cleanliness.  Should the AAA be subject to liability for injuries allegedly resulting from its failing to warn its members that a hotel was located in a bad neighborhood?