Ninth Circuit Rejects Plaintiffs’ “Every Exposure Counts” Theory

4-4A Ninth Circuit panel including former Chief Judge Kozinski last week rejected the “every exposure” theory advanced by many plaintiff expert witnesses, who thereby try to impose liability on defendants responsible for only vanishingly small amounts of asbestos.

McIndoe v. Huntington Ingalls Inc. framed the question in terms of the substantial factor test. “Absent direct evidence of causation, a party may satisfy the substantial-factor test by demonstrating that the injured person had substantial exposure to the relevant asbestos for a substantial period of time.” The Ninth Circuit found this evidence lacking, thereby justifying summary judgment to defendants.

At most the heirs have provided evidence that McIndoe was “frequently” present during the removal of insulation aboard the Worden and was present 20–30 times during such removal aboard the Coral Sea. But, as the district court found, even if McIndoe was around asbestos dust several times, his heirs presented no evidence regarding the amount of exposure to dust from originally installed asbestos, or critically, the duration of such exposure during any of these incidents.

Plaintiffs “argue[d] that evidence of prolonged exposure is not needed, because they presented the opinion of Dr. Allen Raybin—a medical expert who asserted that every exposure to asbestos above a threshold level is necessarily a substantial factor in the contraction of asbestos-related diseases.”

Both the Ninth Circuit and the district court rejected this argument on the ground that the “every exposure” theory of asbestos causation” amounts “to reject[ing] the substantial-factor test as a whole.” Plaintiffs’ expert “did not make distinctions between the overall dose of asbestos McIndoe breathed aboard the ships and that portion of such exposure which could be attributed to the shipbuilders’ materials,” and his “testimony aims more to establish a legal conclusion—what general level of asbestos exposure is required to show disease causation—than to establish the facts of McIndoe’s own injuries.” Thus, the defendant shipbuilders were entitled to summary judgment.

McIndoe was decided under federal maritime law, and so may not be directly applicable in state law cases. It joins a long list of cases that have rejected the every exposure theory, but interestingly comes mere weeks after a California appeals court allowed every exposure testimony. McIndoe’s emphasis on the amount and duration of exposure is consistent with most decisions on point, and may offer an additional reason for California defendants to seek to remove cases to federal court.

In another holding, McIndoe found that naval warships do not constitute “products,” so that only negligence and not strict liability was available to plaintiffs. Arguably the holding on required evidence of substantial factor causation would be the same under both theories.

MDL Court Rules That Work on Two Pumps Not a Substantial Factor

Substantial factor?  I know it when I see it.

Many of us have struggled for quite some time in reaching a consensus on what level of exposure does, and does not, constitute a “substantial factor” when assessing causation of an asbestos-related disease.  In a recent order on a motion for summary judgment, Judge Eduardo Robreno of the asbestos MDL, applying maritime law, weighed in on the issue.  His decision gives additional guidance, if it does not end the discussion.

The case involved a former U.S. Navy sailor who testified to exposure to original asbestos-containing gaskets and packing used with two pumps found on the virtually new USS Downes.  Even while accepting that evidence as accurate, Judge Robreno granted the MSJ by determining this was a “mere minimal exposure” as described in Lindstrom v. A-C Prod. Liab. Trust, 424 F. 3d 488 at 492. Judge Robreno stated:

Although there is evidence that Plaintiff was exposed to respirable dust from the original gasket and packing used with a single Buffalo electric fire pump, and the original gasket used with a single Buffalo evaporator pump —-, maritime law requires more than a “mere minimal exposure” to support a finding of causation. (Citation omitted.)  As such, no reasonable jury could conclude from the evidence that Decedent was exposed to asbestos from a product manufactured and/or supplied by Defendant such that it was a substantial factor in the development of his illness.

Other courts have likewise relied upon Lindstrom to reject claims that minimal exposures constituted a substantial factor.  The Sixth Circuit expressed the sentiment memorably in Moeller v. Garlock Sealing Technologies, 660 F.3d 950 at 955 (6th Cir. 2011):

On the basis of the record, saying that exposure to Garlock gaskets was a substantial cause of [plaintiff’s] mesothelioma would be akin to saying that one who pours a bucket of water into the ocean has substantially contributed to the ocean’s volume.

From a defense prospective, this order from Judge Robreno compares favorably with other attempts to define a substantial factor.  In California, for example, we must deal with the language of Jones v. John Crane, Inc., 35 Cal. Rptr. 3d 144 (2005).  In Jones, John Crane argued that the exposures attributable to its products were comparable to ambient levels of asbestos in the community at large, and paled in comparison to the plaintiffs’ other exposures (10 fiber hours, or .005 fiber years, compared to an estimated 200 fiber years of exposure to asbestos-containing insulation and 2.8 fiber years from ambient exposures). Plaintiff experts challenged the defense calculations and offered expert testimony that every exposure contributed to the risk.  The court ruled against the defense: “[A] level of exposure that is the equivalent of that to which one might be exposed in the ambient air over a lifetime is not necessarily insignificant.”

While the order from Judge Robreno gives us at least one example of what does not constitute a substantial factor, it provides scant guidance as to how to assess future cases.  Nevertheless, at least when maritime law is applied, it is reassuring to know that there are some acknowledged exposure scenarios that do not qualify as substantial factors.