Lenient Asbestos Causation Standard Rejected In Toxic Tort Case

Guest Blogger M.C. Sungaila, one of California’s most best known appellate advocates,  briefed and successfully argued the Molina appeal discussed here on behalf of Shell and Chevron. 

A California appeals court rejected the lenient increased risk causation standard used to establish causation in asbestos cases in a toxic tort case not involving asbestos.  The Second Appellate District of the California Court of Appeal in Los Angeles upheld a defense verdict last month, in  Molina v. Shell Oil Company et al, determining that the trial court correctly refused to charge the Rutherford “increased risk” instruction applicable in asbestos cases because the ability of a product to cause the type of harm suffered by the plaintiff was hotly contested.

After a five-week trial and four days of deliberations in the trial court, a jury concluded that William Molina – who suffered from a variety of cancers and other ailments — was not entitled to damages for his alleged exposure to defendants’ solvents during his 17-year career at a Firestone tire plant. The jury found that neither the solvents’ design nor any warning associated with them was a substantial factor in causing Molina’s non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL). Molina appealed, claiming among other things that the causation instruction used in California’s asbestos litigation should have been given to the jury.

The appeals court court stopped short, however, of holding that the more liberal  Rutherford causation standard can never apply outside the asbestos context. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal addressed a question repeatedly posed to trial courts throughout the state over the last five years: should a more lenient causation standard adopted by the California Supreme Court in the asbestos context be extended to other types of toxic tort cases like benzene? The appellate court’s answer was a qualified "no".

Causation, of course, is an essential element of a tort action. California has definitively adopted the substantial factor test of the Restatement Second of Torts for cause-in-fact determinations. Implicit in the substantial factor causation standard in a toxic tort case is the requirement of proving both that a chemical can cause a particular adverse health effect and that it did cause that effect in the plaintiff.  In other words, proof of causation necessarily includes a threshold determination whether, in reasonable medical probability, a particular chemical is capable of causing in humans the type of harm suffered by the plaintiff (i.e., “general causation”).  If the chemical does not possess that capacity, the chemical cannot have caused the particular plaintiff’s claimed harm.  But if the chemical does have that capacity, then the causation inquiry shifts to whether the plaintiff’s exposure to the chemical in question was, in reasonable medical probability, a substantial factor in causing this particular plaintiff’s harm (i.e., “specific causation”). Toxic tort causation also involves a threshold element of exposure. In order to determine whether an exposure is a possible contributing factor to a plaintiff’s injury, ‘[f]requency of exposure, regularity of exposure, and proximity of the . . . product to [the] plaintiff are certainly relevant.” (Lineaweaver v. Plant Insulation Co. (1995) 31 Cal.App.4th 1409, 1416.)

Molina contended that California Civil Jury Instruction (CACI) No. 435, a relaxed “increased risk” causation instruction, should have been given because of the difficulties of proving cancer causation. The defendants successfully urged that the increased risk instruction under Rutherford should not apply where, as in Molina’s case, the ability of a chemical to cause a particular type of cancer is hotly disputed and far from well-established.

In Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 960, at the end of the first phase of trial, the jury concluded that exposure to asbestos fibers proximately caused the decedent’s lung cancer and awarded damages. After this phase, several defendants settled. In a second phase of trial, the jury was asked to apportion damages and allocate fault to the remaining defendant, Owens-Illinois. Owens-Illinois objected to the use of an instruction in the second phase of trial which stated that, once the plaintiff had established both that he was exposed to defendants’ asbestos and that his injuries were legally caused by asbestos exposure generally, the burden then shifted to the defendant to establish that its product was not a legal cause of the plaintiff’s harm.

The California Supreme Court rejected the use of the burden-shifting instruction as too “fundamental” a departure from traditional substantial factor causation. However, the Court concluded that, rather than be required to “trace the unknowable path of a given asbestos fiber,” a “plaintiff[] may prove causation in [an] asbestos-related cancer case[] by demonstrating that the plaintiff’s exposure to defendant’s asbestos-containing product in reasonable medical probability [fn. omitted] was a substantial factor in contributing to the aggregate dose of asbestos the plaintiff or decedent inhaled or ingested, and hence to the risk of developing asbestos-related cancer, without the need to demonstrate that fibers from the defendant’s particular product were the ones, or among the ones, that actually produced the malignant growth.”

Thus, in Rutherford, “it was already determined what caused the plaintiff’s illness—asbestos. The only remaining issue before the Court was the proper standard for determining who manufactured or supplied the asbestos that caused the plaintiff’s illness.” (Loewen, Causation in Toxic Tort Cases: Has the Bar Been Lowered? (Spring 2003) 17 Nat. Res. & Env’t 228, 229 (hereafter Loewen).) As one commentator observed: “This is undoubtedly the reason that the Rutherford court consistently and repeatedly limited its holding to ‘asbestos-related cancer cases’: its language linking risk to cause was expressly limited to cases where it has been determined that the cancer was ‘asbestos-related.’” (Ibid.) Accordingly, Rutherford does not apply in a case like this, where the ability of the defendants’ products to cause the plaintiff’s type of cancer is hotly disputed.

In Molina’s case, defendants’ toxicology expert testified that solvents do not cause NHL.  While one plaintiffs’ expert asserted that solvents could cause NHL, another plaintiffs’ expert testified that the evidence of a causal link between benzene and NHL was “weak” and therefore he could not state to a reasonable degree of medical probability that benzene could cause NHL.  Moreover, one of plaintiffs’ experts admitted that NHL is frequently idiopathic or of unknown origin.

The Court of Appeal agreed that the trial court correctly refused the Rutherford “increased risk” instruction applicable in asbestos cases. Rutherford involved a very different situation: in that case, a jury had already determined that the asbestos had caused the plaintiff’s lung cancer. The only remaining question was which manufacturers were responsible. The cause of Mr. Molina’s NHL, however, was not established.  In fact, the capability of defendants’ products to cause Mr. Molina’s injury was one of the most critical and hotly disputed issues in the case.

California’s Take On Mold Claims, Expert Testimony, And The Two-Part General And Specific Causation Test

Guest Blogger M.C. Sungaila  is a partner in the appellate law firm of Horvitz & Levy in Los Angeles. Her appellate work has helped shape toxic tort law in California, including the scope of the duty to warn sophisticated users of product hazards and the guidelines for admitting expert testimony at trial.

Toxic Tort Litigation Blog’s post earlier this year about a Michigan appellate court’s affirmance of an award to residents of a home overrun with mold – without any expert testimony to prove causation – raises the question: what would happen to such a claim in a more famously liberal state like California? In this instance at least, California seems more likely to come to a more ‘conservative’ conclusion than Michigan.


Expert Testimony


California not only requires expert testimony for complex causation questions; it tests the foundation for that testimony and requires trial courts to exclude expert opinions that are unsupported. See an early article describing the development of these standards by M.C. Sungaila and David M. Axelrad published in California Lawyer. The California courts of appeal have specifically considered the admissibility of expert testimony in mold cases and ruled in favor of the defendants. Most recently, in Dee v. PCS Property Management, one of the appellate divisions in Los Angeles confirmed the trial court’s ability to exclude unfounded expert testimony in a residential mold case. Darcee Dee lived in an apartment for slightly over four months. She sued her landlord and property management company for alleged physical injuries, as well as fear of cancer, from living in an apartment that purportedly had toxic mold in it. After hearing the plaintiff’s experts testify over several days concerning their opinions and the foundation for them, the trial court granted the defendants’ motions in limine to exclude most of the experts’ testimony based on a lack of foundation. The remaining portions of Dee’s claims were tried to a jury, and the jury rejected her claims. The appellate court affirmed the judgment in Dee, concluding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding plaintiff’s experts for lack of an adequate foundation.  Each of Dee’s experts sought to testify that her exposure to mold mycotoxins caused her symptoms and her susceptibility to cancer, without any evidence that she was exposed to potentially harmful mycotoxins at her residence. The court relied on the decision in another mold case, Geffcken v. D’Andrea,  and distinguished its own prior decision in Roberti v. Andy’s Termite, the only published opinion to have rejected the trial court’s authority under the California Evidence Code to thoroughly analyze the foundation for expert testimony in order to determine its admissibility.  For another take on the Geffcken and Dee mold decisions, see an article on the Kring & Chung LLP website.


Toxic Tort Causation Standards


While California appellate courts would be certain to require expert testimony on causation, it is not as clear how they would analyze causation in a toxic tort case.  In toxic tort cases, a plaintiff must generally prove not only that a chemical or substance can cause a particular adverse health effect but also that it did cause the harm to the plaintiff.  Proof of causation therefore necessarily includes a threshold determination whether, as a matter of reasonable medical probability, a particular chemical is capable of causing in humans the type of harm suffered by the plaintiff (i.e., “general causation”). If the answer is that the chemical does not possess that capacity, then the chemical cannot have been a cause of plaintiff’s harm. But if the chemical does have that capacity, then the causation inquiry (in jurisdictions like California which apply a substantial factor causation standard) becomes whether the plaintiff’s exposure to the chemical in question was as a matter of reasonable medical probability a substantial factor in causing the particular plaintiff’s harm (i.e., “specific causation”).   For a helpful analysis of causation in toxic tort cases, see the excellent discussion by David E. Bernstein, a Professor at the George Mason University School of Law, in an article  titled "Getting to Causation in Toxic Tort Cases".  This two-step general and specific causation framework is almost universally accepted by federal courts analyzing toxic tort causation (including the Ninth Circuit, see, e.g., Golden v. CH2M Hill Hanford Group, Inc. (9th Cir. 2008) 528 F.3d 681, 683).  Trial courts in California have analyzed proof of causation in toxic tort cases along general and specific causation lines as well. California appellate courts have not, however, expressly adopted the general and specific causation distinction in a published decision. This has led to some confusion, as plaintiffs have attempted to convince courts that such a “two-part”causation test is incompatible with California’s prevailing causation standards.  In Dee v. PCS Property Management, the plaintiff raised this argument on appeal, but the Court of Appeal declined to reach it because the jury had found no negligence, which made an argument about causation standards “irrelevant.” An opportunity to address the general and specific causation distinctions head-on may come later this year, however, when the Court of Appeal in Los Angeles is likely to hear argument in and decide the plaintiffs’ appeal of summary judgment in a high-profile benzene exposure case brought by former students at Beverly Hills High. The appellate docket for the case, Lee v. Venoco, is attached here. The original summary judgment decision ruled on the admissibility of expert opinion on both general causation and specific causation.