March 2014

Court Ruling

Background: Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC (“Garlock” or “Debtors”) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June 2010.  Garlock had been an active asbestos defendant for its asbestos-containing precut gaskets, sheet gasket material, and packing materials.  In January, after extensive discovery and a trial held under seal, the Bankruptcy Court issued an opinion (pdf download) in which it estimated Garlock’s liability for present and future mesothelioma claims.  The Court adopted the Debtors’ estimate of $125 million despite the $1-$1.3 billion estimate of the representatives of current and future claimants (“Claimants”).

Estimation Analysis: In the past, bankruptcy courts have taken a variety of approaches to estimating liability for present and future claims, which has led to billions of dollars being set aside for claimants in asbestos bankruptcy trusts.  Here, Debtors requested that the Court follow a “legal liability” approach, in which the merits of claims are considered and an econometric analysis is conducted to determine the likelihood of recovery.  Meanwhile, Claimants requested that the Court follow a “settlement approach” based on extrapolating data from Garlock’s past settlements in the tort system.

Before making a determination, Judge George R. Hodges allowed Garlock to conduct additional discovery in 15 cases that it settled or took to trial.  Plaintiffs in these cases were represented by 5 major asbestos plaintiff firms.  In every case, Garlock found that evidence of alternative exposure was withheld.  The Court found on average pre-settlement disclosure of exposure to 2 bankrupt entities’ products, but after settlement those same plaintiffs made claims to an average of 19 bankruptcy trusts.  The Court found several occasions when lawyers misrepresented a plaintiff’s exposure history to judges and juries only to later file claims against trusts for products to which they had previously denied exposure.  Garlock has filed civil lawsuits against several plaintiff firms based on allegations of fraud.  For more details on the allegations and related litigation see the Court’s opinion and accounts from NPR, Forbes, and BusinessWeek.

While the Court recognized a comfort in relying on settlement history to estimate liability, it found in this case a “divorce” from that process was necessary and it adopted the Debtors’ approach and estimate.  The Court determined that the Claimants’ approach did not adequately account for cases in which exposure evidence was withheld and it did not take into consideration the cost of litigation as a driving factor in settlements.  The Court concluded that Garlock’s products were made of low potency chrysotile asbestos and generally Claimants had also been exposed to more potent amphibole asbestos from other manufacturers’ products.  Based on this alternative exposure and the fact that some claimants had never been exposed to asbestos from a Garlock product, the Court concluded Garlock should be responsible only for a small percentage of each claimant’s recovery and only if exposure actually occurred.

The Court adopted the analysis of Dr. Charles E. Bates of Bates White.  It found that $25 million was a reliable estimate of Garlock’s liability to its approximately 4000 current mesothelioma claimants, which is an average of $6,000 per claimant.  The Court also determined $100 million was sufficient to cover future claims based on Dr. Bates’ analysis.  News accounts expect Claimants to challenge these rulings.

Implications: Other entities want to know more about the evidence under seal.  Legal Newsline, which is owned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, has moved for access to records of the alleged fraud described in the Court’s decision under the First Amendment.  The organization wants the Court to unseal the transcripts of its trial, so it can gather information regarding the plaintiffs’ alleged conduct in those asbestos cases.  Ford Motor Company joined the request last week and claimed that it may have been induced into inflated settlements in some of the cases in which Garlock conducted additional discovery.  If the Court releases the records, it will surely offer a glimpse into the practices of the asbestos plaintiffs’ bar.

Recently, the Delaware Supreme Court decided Tumlinson v. Advanced Micro Devices, Inc., No. 672, 2012 (Del. Nov. 21, 2013). This case provides a great example of the so-called “gatekeeper” function of the court when it comes to the admission of expert testimony in civil cases. More importantly, it provides context concerning the admissibility of expert epidemiological testimony under the Daubert standard in products liability cases. In Tumlinson, the Supreme Court affirmed a decision of the trial court that excluded an epidemiologist’s expert testimony on the ground that it failed to satisfy the reliability requirements of Delaware Rule of Evidence 702 and Del. R. Evid. 702.

The Facts

The defendant, Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (“AMD”), a Delaware corporation with offices in several major U.S. and global cities, manufactures semiconductors used in computers. In 2008, the plaintiffs, who worked in AMD’s plants, filed suit against AMD based on their theory that chemicals used in the manufacture of AMD’s semiconductors caused birth defects in their children.

To support their claims, the plaintiffs retained an expert epidemiologist who concluded that the chemicals allegedly present in the AMD plant caused their children’s birth defects. AMD filed a motion in limine, wherein it argued that the epidemiologist’s opinion was unreliable because too many analytical gaps existed in her methodology to render a sound opinion. The trial court agreed.

Daubert Factor #1: Whether the expert’s opinion can be (and has been) tested.

The trial court first found that the expert’s opinion could not be tested because it lacked sufficient specificity. In this case, each of the plaintiffs’ children suffered birth defects that were very different in nature. The court observed that the epidemiologist was unable to identify which specific chemical or combination of chemicals caused the children’s different birth defects. The court further found that the expert did not distinguish between the differing work environments between the two plaintiffs or consider, specifically, how these different environments may have impacted the level of exposure.

Daubert Factor # 2: Whether the expert’s method has been subject to peer review and publication.

The court next considered whether the expert’s methods were subject to peer review and publication. The plaintiffs’ counsel argued that the expert’s opinion was peer reviewed because it was based on three studies that the expert synthesized before formulating her own conclusion. The court ruled that an expert’s opinion, even if based on the synthesis of peer reviewed studies, must demonstrate an independent indicia of reliability. The court found that there was nothing in the record to provide this independent reliability and, furthermore, the studies cited by the expert were produced in the context of other litigation and, themselves, unreliable.

Daubert Factor #3: Whether the methodology has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

Finally, the trial court found that the epidemiologist failed to demonstrate that she relied on techniques that have gained acceptance in the scientific community. In reaching this conclusion, the court first observed that there are multiple scientific approaches that epidemiologists use to establish causation. Turning to the expert’s opinion, the court then found that she did not demonstrate that her opinion was the product of any of these accepted approaches. Specifically, the expert failed to detail her method of weighing the importance and validity of the data sources she used to form her opinion.

Take-Away:

When assessing the validity of an expert report, it is important to consider the factors highlighted above: does the report sufficiently state the scientific method used? Is the opinion based on reliable, peer reviewed sources? Does the expert consider objective data? Has the expert set forth each analytical step toward reaching his or her conclusion or has the expert ignored any consideration that might alter the opinion? As this lower court’s opinion and its affirmance by the Delaware Supreme Court demonstrate, the answers to these questions may determine the fate of your clients in complex product liability litigation.