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Natasha Corb is a partner based in MG+M’s New Orleans office. Her practice focuses on environmental litigation and regulatory compliance, complex tort litigation, and products and premises liability.

Recently, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted interlocutory review of an enormous class action that could significantly impact the future of PFAS litigation. The decision came as defendants in Hardwick v. 3M, currently before the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, appealed the district court’s decision certifying what may be the largest class of plaintiffs in history. The forthcoming ruling is of particular import because it has the potential to be a landmark ruling for class actions and considerably affect the future of PFAS litigation.

Filed in 2018, named plaintiff Kevin Hardwick, a former firefighter, alleges exposure to PFAS from his gear and the fire suppressant used in his line of work. At the time, plaintiff sought nationwide certification of a class consisting of “any individual residing within the United States… with 0.05 parts per trillion (ppt) or more of PFOA and at least 0.05 ppt or more of any other PFAS in their blood serum.” For context, many reports indicate the proposed class potentially consists of 95% of the US population.

Earlier this year, the Ohio district court limited class certification to all Ohio residents who have “0.05 parts per trillion (ppt) PFOA (C-8) and at least 0.05 ppt of any other PFAS in their blood serum.” The district court explained this was the most appropriate step because, while Ohio recognizes medical monitoring claims, a number of other states do not recognize such a claim.  That said, the court also stated it might expand the class to other states that also recognize these claims. Even reducing the class to only Ohio residents results in a certified class of at least 11 million people, making it the largest class action in history.

Interestingly, the lawsuit does not seek monetary damages. Rather, plaintiffs seek injunctive relief through the establishment of a science panel to study the adverse impact of PFAS on human health, as well as medical monitoring for its affected class members.

Given the potential for massive liability due to the size of this class certification and the relief sought, defendants appealed the court’s class certification. Defendant’s arguments focused on class standing, cohesiveness, and the relief sought.

In its Order, the Sixth Circuit addressed several issues it found concerning regarding the district court’s decision. Addressing Article III standing, the Sixth Circuit found that the presence of PFAS in a plaintiff’s blood could potentially qualify as an injury-in-fact, due in part to Ohio’s recognition of medical monitoring claims after exposure to toxic substances and plaintiff analogizing the claim to battery. However, the court felt the relief sought—a science panel and medical monitoring—presented issues with regard to redressability as it would not do anything to address the presence of PFAS in plaintiff’s blood, nor prevent more from entering it. Further, the court also found plaintiff’s lack of evidentiary proof of a causal connection between his alleged injuries and the conduct of the defendants presented issues in terms of traceability.
Continue Reading Sixth Circuit Grants Interlocutory Review of Massive PFAS Class Certification

In June 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new lifetime health advisories (LHAs) for per-fluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS). PFAS are a type of man-made chemicals found in many industrial and consumer products, soil and drinking water. According to the EPA, the new LHAs for PFAS in drinking water are “the level of drinking water contamination below which adverse health effects are not expected to occur.” The new LHAs for PFAS are 3,000 to 17,000 times lower than the previous 2016 levels, which now means that even the amount of PFAS found in rainwater is considered “unsafe.” While the LHAs are not binding regulations, they do provide guidance to federal, state and local governments in developing binding regulations, including those for future Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs).

The scientific basis for these drastic reductions in the LHAs has been called into question. In fact, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) recently filed suit against the EPA seeking to challenge the new LHAs for PFAS, noting that “EPA’s revised [LHAs] for PFOA and PFOS reflect a failure of the Agency to follow its accepted practice for ensuring the scientific integrity of its process.” Although the EPA acknowledges that drinking water standards for PFAS must be based on the best available science, ACC alleges that the EPA relied upon data, which was not peer-reviewed by the Agency’s Science Advisory Board when it published its new LHAs. Interestingly, the EPA even admits on its own website that there is not a full understanding of how to detect and measure PFAS in water, the extent of human PFAS exposure, the degree to which PFAS may adversely affect people, or how PFAS can be eliminated from drinking water supplies. Despite these unknowns, the EPA nonetheless promulgated LHAs which are so low and cannot be detected by current EPA methods, further calling into question the scientific validity of the Agency’s LHAs. In addition to the suit filed by ACC, there have been multiple lawsuits[1] which seek to overturn the LHAs on two grounds: there no definitive studies that demonstrate PFAS actually causes any adverse health effects in humans; and even those studies that suggest a link between PFAS exposure and human health problems are unable to determine a minimum level of exposure where such health effects, if any, are expected to occur.

Although the LHAs are unenforceable, they will likely serve as the foundation for future federal, state and local regulation of PFAS. While it is critical to protect human life, any effort to quantify maximum safe levels of exposure must be based on sound science, as any regulations will have a profound impact on the US economy and virtually every industry. For example, regulations that lower the MCLs or ban the use of PFAS[2] could derail President Biden’s plan to return semiconductor manufacturing to the US, as a large production of advanced semiconductors requires PFAS. Moreover, unnecessarily low regulatory levels or bans could harm renewable energy efforts and negatively impact the aerospace, automotive, building
Continue Reading The Chemical Industry Challenges the EPA’s New Lifetime Health Advisories for PFAS

California has just added per- and poly-fluoralkyl substances (PFAS) to the list of chemicals requiring consumer warnings under Proposition 65, meaning that state residents can soon expect to see the words “cancer” and “reproductive harm” on such common consumer products as shampoo, nail polish, cookware and fast food.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that have been widely used for decades in consumer products such as fast food wrappers, clothing and carpets, as well as industrial products such as firefighting foam. Although there are no epidemiological studies showing a statistically significant link between exposure to PFAS and disease, in 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science Advisory Board stated that the chemical is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” State regulations of PFAS in water and consumer products swiftly followed, with California in the forefront. In addition to proposed legislation to ban the use of PFAS in cosmetics, California is now requiring any business that sells PFAS-containing products to provide a warning with the product, or face penalties of $2,500 per “violation.”

The impact of this latest regulation cannot be understated—PFAS are found in a wide variety of consumer products, and California is the world’s fifth largest economy. California obviously holds substantial influence in setting the standards for manufacturers, sellers and producers of goods across the globe. As such, the practical impact of adding PFAS to the list of chemicals regulated under California law is that a significant percentage of any business engaged in national or interstate commerce will now be required to place warnings on common, every-day products. Even virtual market place forums such as Amazon may be subject to Prop 65 enforcement actions. In order to manage Prop 65 risks and liabilities, businesses are advised to periodically review regulatory changes to ensure they remain compliant with Prop 65 requirements. In addition to implementing a system to track regulatory changes, it is also prudent that businesses adopt contractual provisions aimed at reducing their liability for a potential Prop 65 enforcement action. As more PFAS are added to the list in the coming years, it is crucial that businesses take the necessary steps now to minimize their risks and liabilities.
Continue Reading California Adds PFAS to List of Chemicals Subject to Prop 65 Enforcement Actions

American_Sugar_Refining_Arabi_1913_PostcardRecently, the Louisiana Supreme Court in Arceneaux et al. v. Amstar Corp. et. al, 2015-0588 (La. 9/7/16, 1) decided that, in long latency disease cases, an insurer’s payments of defense costs may be prorated when the insurer’s occurrence-based policy was effective only during part of the plaintiffs’ exposure years.

Plaintiffs in Arceneaux alleged hearing loss from occupational noise exposures at American Sugar Refining, Inc.’s (“American Sugar”) facility in Arabi, Louisiana. Id. at 1-2. The approximately one hundred plaintiffs’ exposures occurred between 1941 – 2006. Id. at 2. Continental Casualty Company (“Continental”) issued eight general liability policies to American Sugar, effective from March 1, 1963 – March 1, 1978. Id. Each policy contained bodily injury exclusions for injuries that American Sugar employees experienced in the course and scope of their employment. Id. Importantly, in the last policy, the exclusion was deleted by special endorsement. Id. That endorsement was effective on December 31, 1975, and provided bodily injury coverage through March 1, 1978, for a total of twenty-six months. Id.

American Sugar brought a third-party demand against Continental alleging that Continental’s duty to defend required a complete defense in accordance with the policy, even if some of the plaintiffs’ claims fell outside of the coverage period. Id. Continental asserted that defense costs should be prorated amongst the insurers, and periods of non-coverage should be borne by the insured. Id. Particularly, Continental maintained that a complete defense was improper because its policies only covered twenty-six months of the alleged sixty-year exposure period.  Id.

Prior to assessing the merits of Continental’s argument, the Court distinguished an insurer’s duty to defend from its duty to indemnify. Id. at 5. The duty to defend “arises whenever the pleadings against the insured disclose even a possibility of liability” Id. (emphasis added). In contrast, an insurer’s duty to indemnify in long latency disease cases requires liability “to be prorated among insurance carriers that were on the risk during periods of exposure to injurious conditions” Id. at 5-6 (citing Norfolk S. Corp. v. California Union Ins. Co., 2002-0369, pp. 42-43 (La. App. 1. Cir. 9/12/03), 859 So.2d 167, 197-98, writ denied, 2003-2742 (La. 12/19/03), 861 So.2d 579). While Louisiana courts determined that proration is proper in regard to an insurer’s duty to indemnify, no such precedent existed as to its duty to defend. Id. at 6-7. Thus, prior to Arceneaux, insurers and insureds had no defined method to allocate defense costs in latent disease lawsuits.

At the outset of its analysis, the Court discussed two nationwide approaches to allocating defense costs in long latency disease cases: the pro rata allocation, and joint and several allocation. Id. at 7. “Under pro rata allocation, insurance carriers of triggered policies are responsible for a share of defense costs based at least in part on the period of time they are on the risk.” Id. If an insured has periods of non-coverage after defense costs are divided, then an insurer only pays its pro rata share. Id. Conversely, joint and
Continue Reading LA Supreme Court Ruling a Sweet One for Insurer