California appellate court bucks national trend, allows plaintiff experts to opine that “every asbestos exposure is a substantial factor”

Courts from around the country have rejected efforts by plaintiff experts to testify that every asbestos exposure is a substantial factor in causing disease. On March 3, 2016, California’s second appellate district went the other way, and held in Davis v. Honeywell International, Inc. that the controversial “every exposure counts” theory is admissible under governing expert witness law.   Thus, although trial courts are supposed to play a “gatekeeper” role in keeping out unreliable expert evidence (Sargon Enterprises, Inc. v. University of Southern California (2012) 55 Cal.4th 747), Davis breaks the gate wide open in allowing a jury, not the trial court in its “gatekeeper” role, to decide whether to accept the theory.

Davis was aGATEPICTURE wrongful death case.  Sam Davis  worked as an auto mechanic and home remodeler from approximately 1963 to 1979.  He performed “one or two” brake jobs per day, and always used Bendix brake linings (for which defendant Honeywell was responsible). These linings contained 50 percent chrysotile asbestos by weight.  He was also allegedly exposed to asbestos as a result of his home remodel work.

Prior to trial, Honeywell filed a motion in limine to preclude plaintiff from presenting expert opinion testimony that every exposure to asbestos above background contributed to decedent’s disease. The motion was denied, and plaintiff’s pathologist (James A. Strauchen, M.D.) and pulmonologist (William Rom, M.D.) were permitted to testify and advance the theory. Ultimately, the jury found for plaintiffs, and Honeywell appealed.

Honeywell’s primary basis for appeal was that the “every exposure counts” testimony of Dr. Strauchen should have been excluded. Honeywell advanced four arguments:  (1) the testimony was speculative and illogical; (2) the regulatory standards Strauchen relied upon cannot establish causation; (3) no appropriate scientific literature supports the theory; and (4) the theory is contrary to California causation law espoused in Rutherford v. Owens Illinois (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, which held that not every exposure to asbestos is a “substantial factor” in causing disease.

Davis rejected each of Honeywell’s arguments. “Having reviewed much of the commentary and scientific literature cited in support of and against the ‘every exposure’ theory, we conclude that the theory is the subject of legitimate scientific debate.   Because in ruling on the admissibility of expert testimony the trial court ‘does not resolve scientific controversies (Sargon), it is for the jury to resolve the conflict between the every exposure theory and any competing expert opinions.”  The court focused largely on the mere existence of evidence that supported the “every exposure counts” theory, and declined to weigh the evidence or any competing inferences.   “While Honeywell is generally correct that in many (or even most) instances epidemiological studies provide the best evidence of causation, its implied argument that it is improper for an expert to rely upon any other tools to determine causation, such as case reports, is not universally accepted.”  As to Honeywell’s argument that “every exposure” contravenes Rutherford, Davis  interpreted Rutherford as not requiring a “dose level estimation,” instead issuing a sweeping statement interpreting Rutherford as supporting the conclusion that even a very small “dose” could increase the risk of asbestos-related cancer.  Davis distinguished the many cases from other jurisdictions rejecting this argument, including Betz v. Pneumo Abex, LLC (2012) 615 Pa. 504, Bostic v. Georgia-Pacific Corp. (Tex. 2014) 439 S.W.3d 332 and Moeller v. Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC (6th Cir. 2011) 660 F.3d 950. “[W]e simply disagree” that the “every exposure” theory could not be “reconciled with the fact that mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are dose-dependent.”

The Davis court did state, however, that “[w]e caution that our discussion of the materials Dr. Strauchen relied upon should not be seen as approval of either side in that scientific dispute.  Rather, we rely upon the rule of Sargon that although trial courts ‘have a substantial ‘gatekeeping’ responsibility,’ in evaluating proposed expert opinion . . . the gate tended is not a partisan checkpoint . . . If the opinion is based on materials on which the expert may reasonably rely in forming the opinion, and flows in a reasoned chain of logic from those materials rather than from speculation or conjecture, the opinion may pass, even though the trial court or other experts disagree with its conclusion or the methods and materials used to reach it.  (emphasis added)

Further, although much of the discussion relates to the “any exposure” theory, Davis pointed out that the case did not hinge on that theory.  “In this case, Dr. Strauchen was presented with a hypothetical based on the facts surrounding Davis’ exposure to dust from his work on Bendix brake linings, and testified as to estimates of the amount of asbestos fibers contained in visible dust. Therefore, his conclusion that Davis’ exposure to Bendix brake linings was a substantial factor in contributing to the risk of mesothelioma was not based simply on “any exposure” to asbestos, but instead related to an estimate of actual exposure.”

The decision is not yet final. It is still subject to a petition for rehearing, which could result in a change in the opinion, and to either or both a request for depublication and a petition for review to the California Supreme Court, either of which if granted would make this decision uncitable in California courts, though not necessarily elsewhere.

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.