lawjUSTICEBWThis month, attorneys working at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp Justice filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense (Seeger et al v. U.S. Department of Defense et al, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 17-00639), in which they allege that they have been exposed to dangerously high levels of carcinogens from working in contaminated areas. The four attorneys, who include Army Major Matthew Seeger and three civilian attorneys, represent Walid Bin Attash, a Yemeni man charged with helping to plot the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The attorneys’ complaint alleges that various environmental hazards at the Guantanamo Bay Camp Justice complex have been linked to nine cases of cancer since 2008 among individuals who worked at the camp, and that the U.S. Navy has not properly investigated these conditions. The nine individuals range between the ages of 35 and 52, and their diagnosed illnesses have included lymphoma, colon, brain, and appendix cancer. Camp Justice is located on the site of a former airfield, and includes temporary housing units, as well as offices where the attorneys both live and work while at the camp. This former airfield was at one point allegedly used to dispose of jet fuel.

The complaint alleges that the attorneys first approached authorities with complaints in July, 2015 and requested an investigation into whether conditions at Camp Justice had contributed to several cancer cases among employees who worked at the camp. The suit further alleges that the U.S. Navy conducted a flawed investigation of the alleged environmental hazards, failing to determine what kind of a risk they posed to personnel and further failing to determine appropriate measures to remedy the situation.

The Navy’s preliminary investigation included an industrial hygiene and habitability survey of Camp Justice’s buildings where personnel live and work. The investigation documented the presence of multiple environmental hazards, including poorly-maintained asbestos-containing floor tile, lead-based paint chips, air samples that tested positive for mercury and formaldehyde, and soil samples that tested positive for benzopryene. All of these substances have been found to be carcinogenic. The Navy’s report acknowledged that their environmental and historical investigations were limited, but nevertheless found that there was insufficient evidence to address potential exposures to carcinogens. With that, they deemed the property’s buildings to be habitable. Additionally, following a review of military health records, they concluded that the number and types of cancer cases did not meet the Center for Disease Control’s definition of a “cancer cluster” and therefore did not warrant a formal cancer cluster investigation. These and additional findings were detailed in a risk assessment report published in February, 2016, which ultimately found that the potential cancer risk cannot be determined and identified the need for further sampling in response to the carcinogens documented during the investigation.

While none of the Plaintiffs have been diagnosed with cancer at this time, they allege that they face an increased risk of developing cancer or other serious diseases, and suffer from emotional distress, upper respiratory symptoms and infections, migraine headaches, itching
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In a 2-1 opinion, the Fourth District Court of Appeal continued to apply the law which bars marrying into a cause of action, but a strong dissenting opinion and noted public policy concerns could trigger further review.

In Florida, as in various other jurisdictions, the courts follow the common law marriage before injury rule. This rule requires a party to be married to the injured person prior to the time of the injury in order to assert a claim for loss of consortium – i.e. loss of companionship and support. The rationale behind this rule is that a person should be unable to marry into a cause of action. This rule has been consistently applied in personal injury cases including toxic tort and products liability cases of the “creeping” variety, such as asbestos and tobacco.

In the recent decision issued in Janis Kelly v. Georgia-Pacific, LLC, et al., No. 4D15-4666 (Fla. 4th DCA February 22, 2017) the Court was asked to look at this issue in the context of a wrongful death claim. In Kelly, Plaintiffs originally filed a personal injury claim asserting causes of action for negligence, strict liability, and for Mrs. Kelly’s loss of consortium arising from Mr. Kelly’s alleged exposure to asbestos while working in construction from 1973 to 1974. Mr. and Mrs. Kelly were not married until 1976, two years after Mr. Kelly’s alleged asbestos exposure. Mr. Kelly died during the course of the litigation at which time Mrs. Kelly amended the complaint to allege a claim for wrongful death, which included a demand for loss of consortium damages. The Defendants moved to dismiss Mrs. Kelly’s claims for loss of consortium as Mr. and Mrs. Kelly were not married at the time of Mr. Kelly’s alleged injury. When the trial court granted the motion to dismiss, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the remaining claims and the appeal followed.

On appeal, the Court addressed whether the Florida Wrongful Death Act supersedes the common law requirement that a spouse must be married to the decedent before the time of the injury to recover consortium damages. And, the Court revisited the question of whether the common-law marriage before injury rule should apply in “creeping” cases where the injury is a latent injury that does not reveal itself until after the parties marry.

On the first issue, the Court looked to the legislative intent of Florida’s Wrongful Death Act, to determine if the Act supersedes the common law of loss of consortium– i.e. did the statute unequivocally state that it changes the common law or is it so repugnant to the common law that the two cannot coexist. Thornber v. City of Fort Walton Beach, 568 So.2d 914, 918 (Fla. 1990). In applying Thornber, the Court found that the plain language of the Act clearly intended to allow for the survivors of the decedent to recover damages, including the surviving spouse to recover “consortium-type” damages. See ACandS, Inc. v. Redd, 703 So.2d 494 (Fla. 3d DCA 1007). The Court found,
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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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california-160550_960_720Last month, the California Supreme Court issued a ruling on two coordinated “take-home” asbestos exposure cases, in which it held that employers using asbestos in the workplace have a duty of care to protect an employees’ household members from exposure to asbestos through off-site contact with employees who carry asbestos fibers on their work clothing and/or persons, also referred to as “take-home” exposure plaintiffs.  The Court noted that the duty of care existed regardless of whether the plaintiff states a claim for general negligence or premises liability.  This ruling helps clarify the law in California on the duty of care owed to “take-home” exposure plaintiffs, and in doing so further establishes California as a plaintiff-friendly state in asbestos litigation.

The Court’s opinion was premised on two “take-home” asbestos cases.  In one matter, the plaintiff filed suit against various defendants alleging that they exposed him to asbestos and caused his peritoneal mesothelioma.  Among the defendants was Pneumo Abex, LLC.  The plaintiff alleged that his uncle worked and was exposed to asbestos in a Pneumo Abex plant, which he then took home on his clothes and person and to which the plaintiff was subsequently exposed to during the 1970s.  In the other matter, the plaintiffs filed a wrongful death lawsuit against various defendants, alleging that their mother passed away from mesothelioma after also having been exposed to asbestos.  Among other defendants, the plaintiffs alleged that BNSF Railway Company employed and exposed the decedent’s husband to asbestos fibers, which he then brought home to the household he shared with the decedent, thereby exposing her to asbestos as well.

The Supreme Court set out to determine whether an employer or premises owner using asbestos has a duty to protect individuals secondarily exposed to asbestos through the clothing and persons of individuals either employed by the defendant or on the defendant’s premises.  After evaluating the facts and law, the Court held that “[w]here it is reasonably foreseeable that workers, their clothing, or personal effects will act as vectors carrying asbestos from the premises to household members, employers have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent this means of transmission,” and that the duty applies to employers and “also applies to premises owners who use asbestos on their property, subject to any exceptions and affirmative defenses generally applicable to premises owners.”  However, the Court noted that this duty  extends only to members of a worker’s household, regardless of whether they are a relative.

In reaching this holding, the California Supreme Court first noted that California Civil Code section 1714 “establishes a general duty to exercise ordinary care in one’s activities,” thereby meaning that the issue is not whether a new duty should be established, but rather whether the Court should create an exception such that employers and premises owners would not owe a duty of reasonable care towards a workers’ household members secondarily exposed to asbestos.  California law requires that courts consider the factors outlined in Rowland v. Christian, 69 Cal. 2d 108 (1968)
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