On January 31, 2017, President Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although time will tell, this post assumes he will make it through the Senate confirmation process, and take his place at 1 First Street, Northeast. Currently, Judge Gorsuch sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, having been appointed to same by President George W. Bush on July 20, 2006.  While at the Tenth, Judge Gorsuch issued two interesting decisions which may prove instructive as to how he views the Court’s role as the evidentiary gatekeeper[1] of expert testimony. A discussion of those two cases, and what they foretell with regard to “all exposures contribute” testimony follows.

Graves v. Mazda Motor Corp., 2010 WL 5094286.

This case arises out of Mrs. Graves’ trip to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Upon arriving at the Hattiesburg airport, she picked up her rental car—a Mazda 6 with an automatic transmission. At the end of her stay and while en route to the airport to depart for home, Mrs. Graves got lost and pulled over to ask for directions. When exiting the car, Mrs. Graves left the engine running but thought she had placed the car’s shifter in “park.” As it turns out, the gear shifter was in “reverse” and, when she stepped out, the car rolled backwards, knocked her to the ground, and ran her over. Mrs. Graves sought damages from Mazda for the injuries she suffered, alleging that the company’s gear shifter was defectively designed. In support of her claim, she offered expert testimony from an expert human factors engineer. The district court, however, excluded the expert’s testimony as unreliable and then, given the absence of any other probative evidence of liability, granted Mazda’s summary judgment motion. On appeal, the plaintiff sought to undo the district court’s decision.

The district court noted that the expert failed to provide any data or industry standard, or to conduct any testing to confirm his view that Mazda’s gear shift design was defective. Instead, the expert’s proffered testimony that merely described how the Mazda shifter works, and from this, his leap to the conclusion that Mazda’s design fails to allow for “smooth” shifting and so is defective and unreasonably dangerous.

Judge Gorsuch, writing for the three judge panel (Kelly, J., Ebel, J.) noted that without any reference to data suggesting how “smoothly” an ordinary consumer would expect a gear shift to move, without any confirming evidence indicating how Mazda’s design might cause shifting troubles for ordinary drivers, without any reference to how engineering standards might have counseled against Mazda’s gear shift design, and without any other evidence suggesting its reliability, the district court was right to exclude the expert’s testimony. Judge Gorsuch noted that the expert did provide a list of “safety systems analysis” techniques that, he contended, Mazda should have used in assessing its design, but even here, the expert failed to offer any evidence suggesting that Mazda actually failed to use these techniques, or if it
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louisiana-890549_960_720Causation opinions from plaintiff’s experts in asbestos exposure cases have undergone a puzzling evolution as they continue to face successful challenges. From “every exposure” to “every exposure above background” and “every significant exposure,” each iteration has attempted to make the same end run around the plaintiff’s burden of proof by stating that all exposures in a lifetime work together to cause disease. A recent federal decision, however, struck another blow to the “every exposure” theory, adding to the growing case law debunking it as nothing more than junk science.

Under the “every exposure” theory advanced by plaintiff’s attorneys in asbestos litigation, each defendant whose product plaintiff may have worked with or around, no matter how infrequently, is equally liable. The theory claims that each exposure contributes to the development of disease, without making any attempt to quantify the specific exposures from various products. This is particularly problematic when you consider that exposures to asbestos from certain products may be so low that, taken individually, may not have resulted in disease. The “every exposure” theory glosses over these de minimis exposures with the opinion “each and every exposure” to asbestos contributes to the causation of disease.

Recently, federal courts have begun to critically analyze this “every exposure” theory, and to demand a more stringent causation analysis. In Smith v. Ford Motor Co, a Utah federal court found held that the “each and every exposure theory is based on a lack of facts and data.” Smith involved a plaintiff’s expert who opined that the plaintiff’s mesothelioma was caused by his total and cumulative exposure, with all exposures playing a contributory role. The court excluded that testimony, finding that the “every exposure” theory “asks too much from too little evidence as far as the law is concerned. It seeks to avoid not only the rules of evidence but more importantly the burden of proof.” Likewise, in Yates v. Ford Motor Co., a case out of the Eastern District of North Carolina, the court excluded testimony of another well-known plaintiff’s expert, finding that his adherence to the “each and every exposure” theory lacked a basis in supporting facts or data.

And most recently, in Bell v. Foster Wheeler Energy Corp., the Eastern District of Louisiana referenced the growing line of exclusionary opinions and stated that the “deficiencies of the “each and every exposure” theory of causation in asbestos exposure cases have been extensively discussed.” The court held that the theory is not an acceptable theory of causation because it amounts to “nothing more than the ipse dixit of the expert.” Though some state and federal courts continue to permit the “every exposure” theory, cases like Smith, Yates, and Bell add to the growing number of jurisdictions requiring plaintiffs to meet their burden of proof.
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