Frye Decision in BMW Case Results in Exclusion of Plaintiff’s Experts

In a thoughtful decision handed down in Reeps v. BMW of North America, LLC, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 33030(u), on December 16, 2012 in New York County Supreme Court, the Hon. Louis B. York excluded the expert testimony of plaintiff’s two key causation experts in a toxic tort case where plaintiff alleged that a child’s birth defects were attributable to the mother’s in utero exposure to gasoline vapors.

In an earlier article on this blog about the same case, we examined the decision by the First Department, on an interlocutory appeal, which determined that: (1) defendants had failed to demonstrate that the infant’s parents disposed of their BMW with knowledge of its potential evidentiary value; and (2) that plaintiff’s claims against the BMW dealer, sounding in product liability and breach of implied and express warranty, should be dismissed because the dealer was a service provider, not a product seller.

 In that article, we also discussed plaintiff’s burden in having to prove general causation at trial, that is, whether exposure to chemical components in gasoline fumes have been associated in the scientific literature with cerebral palsy and the other abnormalities alleged. We discussed that if plaintiff is able to prove general causation, she will then have to prove specific causation, that is, whether the dose and duration of exposure to the purported teratogen was sufficient to cause the specific birth defect.

 In a Frye decision (tantamount to a dismissal), Judge York analyzed plaintiff’s expert disclosures made pursuant to CPLR 3101(d) for Shira Kramer, Ph.D., and Linda Frazier, M.D., M.P.H. Both experts submitted detailed reports. In support of its Frye motion, BMW submitted affidavits by its own experts, Anthony Scialli, M.D. and Peter Lees, Ph.D. Dr. Scialli is an OB-GYN and reproductive toxicologist. Dr. Lees is a specialist in industrial hygiene and environmental health science. The experts on both sides of the dispute were highly credentialed with impressive CV’s.

The timeline of events leading up to the filing of the case is as follows:

1991-In March and again in November, the 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 Reep’s inhalation of gas fumes early in her pregnancy.

1994-BMW recalls BMW525i vehicles due to a safety defect that caused odor due to feed fuel hose.

Plaintiff’s experts attributed the child’s birth defects to gasoline vapors his mother inhaled during the first trimester of her pregnancy while driving her BMW. Dr. Kramer offered the opinion that gasoline vapors and specific chemical constituents of gasoline, such as toluene and other solvents, are casually related to an elevated risk of birth defects among children exposed to these chemicals in utero. Dr. Kramer applied a “weight-of-evidence” assessment of the association between exposure to gasoline vapors, and the chemical constituents of gasoline vapors, and an increased risk of birth defects and other adverse birth outcomes. She based her assessment on the epidemiological, medical and toxicological literature.

For her part, Dr. Linda Frazier opined that the mother was exposed to developmental hazards due to substances and compounds found in gasoline vapors, which included toxic substances capable of severely damaging a developing fetus during the first trimester. She was able to determine that the exposure levels by the mother to gasoline were high, based upon her reported symptoms of headache, nausea and irritation of the throat. Studies have found that these symptoms occur at gasoline vapor concentrations of at least 1,000 ppm.

 As noted by the Court, Dr. Scialli concluded that no scientific publication has ever established a causal relationship between the inhalation of gasoline during pregnancy and the birth defects diagnosed in Sean Reeps. Further, he criticized Dr. Kramer’s reliance on two human case report articles suggesting an association between leaded gasoline and birth defects for lack of “specificity.” The adverse outcomes in those studies were different from those in Sean Reeps’ case. Other studies cited by plaintiff’s experts discuss the effects of gasoline’s ingredients (such as toluene, ethylbenzene, zylene and benzene) on reproductive and developmental outcomes. However, taken together, these components account for no more than 2% gasoline vapors. To have inhaled a significant amount of these gasoline components would have had fatal consequences for the mother.

Finally, Dr. Scialli asserted that plaintiff’s experts failed to consider causes other than gasoline vapor inhalation for the developmental delays diagnosed in Sean Reeps. For example, intrauterine infection is among the most common causes of cerebral palsy. Mrs. Reeps had a history of herpes simplex infection and a rash during her pregnancy.

 In ruling on the motion, the Court made several significant holdings, which defense lawyers should find useful. My observations about  some of the notable points in Judge York’s decision are as follows:

1. Plaintiff contended that a motion for a Frye hearing should be precluded by the procedural posture of the case. Plaintiff pointed out that defendant had already made and lost a summary judgment motion. In response, the Court determined that a Frye hearing is evidentiary, separate from dispositive motions, and can be held prior or during the trial. Thus, the Court found it appropriate, at this juncture in the case, to consider a Frye challenge. Although trial courts may apply different procedural rules, it may be not always be necessary for the defendant to mount  Frye challenge as part of a dispositive motion;

2. Under Frye, it is not sufficient to merely utilize accepted methodology in reaching an opinion. Rather, it is necessary that the accepted technologies be properly performed and generate results accepted as reliable within the scientific community.  Plaintiff’s experts, Judge York determined, were merely playing lip service to accepted methodology “while pursuing a completely different enterprise”. Thus, the court should explore not just whether plaintiff’s expert cites to an accepted methodology, but whether than methodology was properly applied by the expert in reaching a causation opinion;

3. Plaintiff’s failure to submit affidavits from their experts in opposing defendant’s motion proved fatal in hindsight. In bringing a Daubert or a Frye motion, or in responding to a Daubert or a Frye motion, it is generally sound practice to submit an expert affidavit on behalf of the challenged expert to either explain, or to bolster, the expert’s opinion. Here, defendant’s motion provided plaintiff a roadmap report to the purported weaknesses in the experts’ arguments. Affidavits responding to the criticism of their reports could only have helped their cause.

4. Judge York drew an analogy to a deficiency in Dr. Kramer’s expert report to the expert report in the landmark Court of Appeals case, Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp. In Parker, plaintiff’s expert concentrated on the relationship between benzene and the risk of developing AML – an association that was not in dispute. Key to the Parker litigation, however, was the relationship, if any, between gasoline containing exposure as a component and AML

In the instant case, the Court found that Dr. Kramer was essentially mixing apples and oranges in attempting to extrapolate from the studies concerning gasoline components to gasoline itself.  Parker remains the touchstone in New York toxic tort jurisprudence.

5. According to the decision, Dr. Kramer’s conclusion on general causation was inadequate because Dr. Kramer failed to state unambiguously that exposure to gasoline vapors during early gestation is causally related to the specific conditions diagnosed in the infant plaintiff specifically.

6. Dr. Kramer failed to meet the Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp. requirement that the expert assess the threshold level at which maternal exposure to gasoline vapors is capable of producing adverse effects generally, or in the case at bar, specifically. Citing Parker, Judge York held that “the threshold level of exposure is an element of general causation.”

 7. The expert’s statement that there is an “association” between a specific chemical and an adverse birth outcome is not sufficient to establish “causation.” Citing the Appellate Division’s decision in Fraser v. 301-52 Townhouse Corp,  the Court held that “association” is not equivalent to “causation.”  Words matter–how the expert characterizes her opinion is important.

Reflecting the importance that New York state courts need to give to proof of both "general" and "specific" causation, the Court summarized its view as follows:

 “Dr. Kramer’s and Dr. Frazier’s opinions do not comport with methodologies prevailing in the epidemiological and toxicological scientific communities and on occasion depart from generally accepted rules of drawing conclusions from premises. They provide insufficient support for the conclusion that exposure to gasoline in some unidentified concentration in the first trimester of pregnancy can cause cerebral palsy, microcephaly or any other condition found in Sean Reeps (general causation), or that such exposure actually led to his illness (specific causation).

 In words that any defendant’s trial counsel would want to hear, the Court held,
“The Frye’s ‘general acceptance’ test is intended to protect juries from being misled by expert opinions that may be couched in formidable scientific terminology but that are based on fanciful theories.”

The Court found that conducting a separate Frye hearing would be “redundant” considering that plaintiff’s extensive reports fully presented their arguments.

 It is likely that this decision will be appealed given what is at stake. Stay tuned.


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.