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?