The often uncertain nature of environmental stigma claims has resulted in diverse and often confusing jurisprudence. Stigma damage claims seek recovery of damages to the reputation of the realty.  Stigma damages represent the market’s perception of the decrease in property value caused by an injury to the property.

In the typical diminution of property value claim, the general rule is that a property owner may seek recovery of diminution of property value or the cost of remediation, but not both.  However, in certain circumstances, claimants contend, there is an “additional” diminution of value due to a public health concern about the subject property or contamination on adjacent property for which recovery is sought.  This is the subset of diminution of property value claims where claimants argue that damages should be awarded on account of stigma.

Stigma claims raise conundrums for the courts.  On the one hand, courts desire to make a distressed plaintiff whole.  On the other hand, courts want to award only those damages that are proven with reasonable certainty.  Industry groups argue that stigma damages should not be permitted because they subject industry to the whim of any landowner able to obtain speculative testimony about the future economic impact of a temporary condition – even a condition that  a regulatory agency considers satisfactorily addressed.  These arguments take on even greater poignancy where the claimant’s property has not been physically impacted and the purported stigma is claimed to derive from mere proximity to a contaminated parcel.

On August 22, 2014, the Texas Supreme Court issued a thoughtful decision examining a number of these issues in Houston Unlimited, Inc.Metal Processing v. Mel Acres Ranch (No. 13-0084). The court performed a painstaking analysis of the opinions of the claimant’s diminution of property value expert, and rejected her methodology and conclusions across the board. As a result of finding the evidence supporting the property diminution claim insufficient, the court declined to take up the stigma issue.  Nevertheless, its discussion of stigma claim jurisprudence is noteworthy.

The Texas Supreme Court observed that American courts and commentators struggle with the issue of whether and when to allow recovery for stigma damages.  Most jurisdictions agree that plaintiffs must experience some physical injury to their property before they may recover stigma damages.  Although courts are divided on whether the injury must be shown to be permanent, defendants have expressed concern that a landowner should not be compensated when the loss is based primarily on public perceptions, which can change over time.

Equally problematic are cases in which the plaintiff’s property has not been contaminated or even threatened with contamination.  Some courts have awarded stigma damages to property owners who could demonstrate that their proximity to a landfill where hazardous wastes were dumped, for example, resulted in a loss of their home’s property value.  There is concern among commercial landowners that the possibility of property owners collecting damages in the absence of any direct physical impact to their homes could increase the number of claimants in mass tort property damage suits.

In reversing the Court of Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court observed that the struggle over whether to even allow recovery of stigma damages arises primarily from the conflicting goals of fully compensating the plaintiff for an injury while only awarding those damages that can be proven with a reasonable certainty.  The court observed that even when it is legally possible to recover stigma damages, it is often legally impossible to prove them.  This is because evidence based on conjecture, guess, or speculation is inadequate to prove stigma damages, not only as to the amount of the loss of value, but also as to the portion of the loss caused by the defendant’s conduct.

Based upon the rigor to which the high court subjected the claimant’s diminution of property value claims, Texas trial courts now are on notice that any diminution of property value, whether or not stigma is alleged, must be supported by strong evidentiary proof and reliable expert testimony.

This blog was originally posted on the Environmental & Toxic Tort Defense Insight blog on September 23, 2014. Click here to read the original article. 

 

Bookmark and Share

Categories: Environmental Law | Toxic Tort

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

It is necessary that natural gas be substituted for coal and oil as an energy source if the world is to have any chance of avoiding runaway greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions, particularly from the developing world.

At present, it is unrealistic to expect renewable energy sources (solar, wind and geothermal) to serve as a foundation for national energy policy. In the United States, even with the best use of conservation, energy efficiency and renewables, the combination of these various “alternatives” will not become a substitute for fossil fuels for a very long time.

In a thoughtful article in the New York Law Journal on January 2, 2014, titled  “Countries Approach Fracking With Interest and Caution,” Stephen L. Kass, makes the case that natural gas from hydraulic fracturing should be an important component of a comprehensive energy strategy, both in the United States and abroad. According to Kass, fracking is attractive to: (1) economists seeking to stimulate development; (2) national security officials seeking independence from unreliable oil suppliers; and (3) environmentalists who seek to avoid runaway GHG emissions, particularly from developing countries.

In the United States, fracking now accounts for a staggering 25% of domestic natural gas (a figure expected to rise to 50% by 2035). In addition to lowering energy costs, according to Kass, fracking is widely credited with reducing U.S. “carbon intensity” and GHG emissions.

Fracking places the environmental community between the proverbial rock and a hard place. On the one hand, environmentalists recognize that fracking offers enormous environmental benefits in terms of reduced GHGs. On the other hand, environmentalists continue to be concerned that fracking fluids may contaminate precious water sheds.

Therefore, it is the goal of the environmental community that the amount of water used in fracking be minimized through recycling, that double-walled drill shafts and other controls be effectively utilized to minimize fugitive methane releases, and that waste fluids be adequately treated on-site before being recycled, discharged to water treatment plants or re-injected. The oil and gas industry’s refusal to disclose the composition of its fracking fluids has become an unnecessary distraction from these key environmental concerns.

In the long run, environmental concerns are likely to be largely addressed by increased and moreeffective regulation and by self-policing by industry. From the standpoint of providing an inexpensive fuel to tens of millions of American homeowners, the stakes are simply too high for environmentalists, who support fracking with these reservations, to concede defeat. As industry continues to demonstrate that fracking can be performed in a safe and environmentally sound manner, opposition to the practice will most likely diminish.

This blog was originally posted on January 24, 2014, on the Toxic Tort Litigation Blog by Bill Ruskin. Click here to read the original entry. 

Bookmark and Share

Categories: Toxic Tort

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

The New York Court of Appeals ruling that came down last week in Doe v. Guthrie Clinic, 2014 NY Slip Op 00138 (Court of Appeals 1/9/14), should prove helpful in evaluating the liability of medical corporations in cases involving the disclosure of confidential patient information where the breach of confidentiality is unrelated to the patient's treatment. In Guthrie Clinic, a nurse at the clinic treating the plaintiff for sexually transmitted disease recognized the plaintiff as the boyfriend of her sister-in-law, prompting the nurse to send her sister-in-law a series of text messages concerning the boyfriend's medical condition (i.e. his STD).  The ruling came in response to the certification of a question to the New York Court of Appeals from the Second Circuit, which had earlier disposed of other of plaintiff's claims. 

The key holding in the Court of Appeals decision is that liability did not extend to the medical corporation because its "duty of safekeeping a patient's confidential medical information is limited to those risks that are reasonably foreseeable and to actions within the scope of employment".  The Court analogized the facts here to those in N.X. v. Cabrini Med. Ctr, 739 N.Y.S.2d 348, a 2002 case where the defendant hospital was not found strictly liable for a surgical resident's sexual assault on a sedated patient. 

The Court reaffirmed the rule that "under the doctrine of respondeat superior, an employer may be vicariously liable for the tortious acts of its employees only if those acts were committed in the furtherance of the employer's business and within the scope of employment."  Under both the facts of Cabrini and Guthrie, the tortious actions of the employee were not reasonably foreseeable.

In a decision handed down on March 25, 2013, the Second Circuit dismissed that part of plaintiff's claim seeking to hold the medical corporation liable under a theory of respondeat superior. The Second Circuit determined that the nurse's motive in disclosing confidential patient information was entirely personal. The Court certified to the New York Court of Appeals the question whether NY recognized a common law right of action for breach of the fiduciary duty of confidentiality against medical corporations under the facts presented. 

The dissent to the majority opinion of the Court of Appeals argued that a patient's disclosure of confidential information is necessary for treatment and that the patient has no control over what happens to this information.  The dissent argued further that, just as in the Cabrini case scenario, involving a sedated patient laying helplessly in her hospital bed, a medical corporation should be held to an independent duty to prevent an employee from acting outside the scope of his employment and harming the patient. 

In response to the dissent, the majority rejoined that if the dissent found the majority holding too "narrow," the "dissent's reasoning is flawed for the opposite reason; it is too broad."  The Court was clearly unwilling to impose a strict liability standard for the release of confidential medical information.

The Court of Appeals decision is well-reasoned and correct, but issues over alleged breach of patient confidentiality are sure to be raised again.  As the dissent noted, "technological advances have made it possible to collect and house patient data in ways accessible to a patient's doctor and other health care provider staff.  Computers and cellular devices have transformed medical record keeping and health care service provision, making access to such data fast and easy."  Confidential patient information is increasingly being transmitted via web and mobile devices--tablets and smartphones.  

Issues concerning what measures are reasonably required to keep these networks secure will no doubt be raised in the future.

This blog was originally posted on January 21 on the Toxic Tort Litigation blog. Click here to read the original entry. 

Bookmark and Share

Categories: Court of Appeals

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

Reptile strategy has taken the plaintiffs' bar by storm. The Reptile theory asserts that you can prevail at trial by speaking to, and scaring, the primitive part of jurors' brains, the part of the brain they share with reptiles. The Reptile strategy purports to provide a blueprint to succeeding at trial by applying advanced neuroscientific techniques to pretrial discovery and trial.

The fundamental concept is that the reptile brain is conditioned to favor safety and survival. Therefore, if plaintiff's' counsel can reach the reptilian portion of the jurors' brains, they can influence their decisions; the jurors will instinctively choose to protect their families and community from danger through their verdict.  Thus, the focus of the plaintiff’s case is on the conduct of the defendant, not the injuries of the plaintiff. The jurors are not interested in plaintiff’s injury, even when severe, according to the theory. Rather, the only truly effective way to engage jurors is to demonstrate how the defendant's conduct endangers the jurors and their families. 

The gurus of Reptilian trial strategy are David Ball and Don Keenan, whose book, “Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution” purportedly gives its adherents a significant edge over the defense in jury trials.  Several prominent lawyers on the plaintiff’s side have cited this book as the new bible of advocacy.  The Seattle Zen Legal Blog authored by plaintiff lawyer Pat Trudell extols the theory in an article titled "Beyond the Reptilian Brain" and recites the mantra of the true believers, "The Reptile Always Wins." But do they?

Even as this new doctrine is gaining popularity in the plaintiff bar, the defense bar is mounting a counter-attack. An excellent article concerning the Reptile strategy and the defense response is titled, “Make Boots Out of That Lizard – Defense Strategies to Beat the Reptile,” authored by Minton Mayer, of Wiseman Ashworth Law Group in Tennessee (DRI, The Voice, 9/25/13). Mayer provides good tips for defusing the subliminal codes plaintiffs seek to embed in the jury’s psyche.

In the April 2013 edition of For The Defense, David C. Marshall, a lawyer with Turner Padget Graham & Laney PA in Columbia, South Carolina, provides an in-depth discussion of new trial strategy in "Lizards and Snakes in the Courtroom." According to Marshall, using the "reptile" successfully "requires creating safety rules and demonstrating that a defendant violated the rules, subjecting a plaintiff and the surrounding community to needless danger....  Thus, in closing, the lawyer using this strategy must show a jury how the dangers presented by a defendant extend beyond the facts of a case and affect the surrounding community so the entire case boils down to community safety versus danger." Marshall provides useful litigation tips for keeping the reptile at bay during trial.

Similarly, Kathy Cochran, a defense lawyer with Wilson Smith Cochran Dickerson in Seattle, WA, cautioned in the DRI Today blog in 2010, "As defense lawyers, we need to recognize this [Reptile strategy]  for what it is. It is an attempt to resurrect Golden Rule arguments, which are usually impermissible. Jurors are not to be asked to put themselves in the place of a party and make a judgment based on that virtual reality. Ball and Keene provide advice to their readers on how to circumvent this evidentiary rule. "  

Cochran cautions, "we will now see plaintiffs emphasizing 'safety rules' and trying to gain admissions from defense experts that such rules are important for the safety of the community. "Never separate a rule from the danger it was designed to prevent. ... The greater the danger, the more the Reptile [juror] cares." 

In an article titled, “Atticus Finch Would Not Approve: Why a Courtroom Full of Reptiles is a Bad Idea,” (American Society of Trial Consultants, May 2010), authors Stephanie West Allen, Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Diane Wyzga provide a scathing critique of reptile theory and suggest that an effective alternative is providing jurors with a persuasive narrative at trial. According to the authors, reptile strategy “disrespects” jurors and could result in juror backlash. Fear-based tactics direct attention in an uncertain and unpredictable manner; in contrast, thoughtful narrative directs attention toward action grounded in the reflective mind. According to the authors, “narrative shines the mental flashlight of attention which can refigure the brain and change behavior.”

In summary, whether you conclude that reptile tactics have validity or not, it makes sense for defense counsel to become familiar with them. If plaintiff’s counsel is going to use the defendant’s deposition to lay the framework for the use of a reptile strategy at trial, defense counsel had better prepare his client for the questions that will undoubtedly be asked during that deposition.

This blog was originally posted on October 4. Click here to visit the original post. 


Bookmark and Share

Categories: Environmental Law

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

The typical “take-home” plaintiff is a bystander such as the child who claims she was exposed to asbestos while playing in the basement where her father’s work clothes covered with asbestos dust were laundered. Across the United States, the battle lines are being drawn in these “take-home” or “household” asbestos cases.  In a prior article, we examined how various courts around the country analyzed the issues of "duty" and "foreseeability" presented by these cases. 

On July 8, 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals, in a case titled Georgia-Pacific LLC v. Farrar, reversed a lower court judgment in a case involving “take-home” for “household” asbestos exposure. The court rejected the trial court’s use of a broad foreseeability standard to identify the scope of a product manufacturer’s duty. Rather, the appeals court adopted a standard that examined foreseeability based on scientific knowledge about the potential harm to non-users at the time the product was used. At the same time, the court also offered a healthy dose of skepticism whether it was even feasible to warn non-users of product dangers.

The Maryland high court relied, in part, upon a 2005 New York State Court of Appeals holding in Matter of NYC Asbestos Litigation.  In that case, the plaintiff John Holdampf was employed by the Port Authority from 1960-1996 in various blue collar positions, during which time Holdampf was exposed to asbestos. Although the Port Authority offered laundry service, much of the time he opted to bring his dirty work clothes home for cleaning for reasons of convenience and because there were no showers available at work.

Elizabeth Holdampf, who washed her husband’s soiled uniforms, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in August 2001. In ruling on behalf of the Port Authority, the Court of Appeals rejected her argument that the Port Authority’s status as an employer placed it in a position to control or prevent John Holdampf from going home with asbestos-contaminated work clothes or to provide warnings to him and other employees and through them, to household members such as her.

The New York high court was also skeptical of plaintiff’s assurances that a ruling in favor of Elizabeth Holdampf would not result in “limitless liability” finding that drawing a line, once a precedent was established, would not be so easy to draw.  The Court of Appeals' cautionary  language concerning the risk of  potentially "limitless liability" is instructive. 

In sum, plaintiffs are, in effect, asking us to upset our long-settled common-law notions of an employer’s and landowner’s duties. Plaintiffs assure us that this will not lead to ‘limitless liability’ because the new duty may be confined to members of the household of the employer’s employee, or to members of the household of those who come onto the landlord’s premises.

This line is not so easy to draw, however. For example, an employer would certainly owe the new duty to an employee’s spouse (assuming the spouse lives with the employee), but probably would not owe the duty to a babysitter who takes care of children in the employee’s home five days a week. But the spouse may not have more exposure than the babysitter to whatever hazardous substances the employee may have introduced into the home from the workplace. Perhaps, for example, the babysitter (or maybe an employee of a neighborhood laundry) launders the family members’ clothes. In short … the specter of limitless liability is banished only when the class of potential plaintiffs to whom the duty is owed is circumscribed by the relationship. Here, there is no relationship between the Port Authority and [plaintiff].

Finally, we must consider the likely consequences of adopting the expanded duty urged by plaintiffs. While logic might suggest (and plaintiffs maintain) that the incidence of asbestos-related disease allegedly caused by the kind of secondhand exposure at issue in this case is rather low, experience counsels that the number of new plaintiffs’ claims would not necessarily reflect that reality

Despite the cautionary alarm sounded by the New York Court of Appeals concerning the danger of"limitless liability", New York trial courts continue to distinguish cases on their facts to permit recovery for "take-home" claimants. 

On May 13, 2013, Justice Sherry Klein Heitler, the presiding judge for the New York City Asbestos Litigation, denied a motion for summary judgment brought by the Long Island Railroad (“LIRR”) in Frieder v. Long Island Railroad,  a case in which the injured party, Morton Frieder, was diagnosed with mesothelioma despite having never worked hands-on with asbestos-containing materials. Frieder spent seven years working in a diner (appropriately named, as any LIRR commuter would agree, the "'Dashing Dan Diner) located within the gated premises of the LIRR’s Morris Park train repair yard, where asbestos-containing materials were used “routinely” by the LIRR. 

Judge Heitler determined that while Mr. Frieder never worked hands-on with asbestos, he testified that a “couple hundred” LIRR workers would dine at the diner during breakfast, coffee breaks and lunch daily. These LIRR workers never changed out of their work clothes before eating at the diner. When they came into the diner “they would bang off their boots, take their gloves off and throw them on the counter. If they had a coat or jacket on, they would just shake it off” causing “dust all over the place” that required Mr. Frieder and other diner workers to perform “really heavy sweeping and cleanup of the diner.”

Judge Heitler ruled that the Court of Appeals holding in Holdampf could not be relied upon by the LIRR because the facts presented in Frieder were different, to wit, LIRR had control of the workplace where the dinner was located (inside the walls of the rail yard).   Under this unique set of facts, she reasoned, her ruling would neither run afoul of Holdampf nor open the floodgates of "limitless liability".  Based upon her discussion of the "take-home" case law, Judge Heitler appears prepared to apply the brakes to "take-home" asbestos claims in New York City. 

This blog was originally posted on July 23 on the Toxic Tort Litigation Blog. Click here to read the original entry.  

Bookmark and Share

Categories: Asbestos

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

There is significant tension between the goals of scientific research and the demands of litigation. For scientific researchers, the amount of time required to respond to discovery takes away valuable time that might be otherwise devoted to research. Injustice and unfairness may result when a scientist, who has taken no part in litigation, is served with a lengthy subpoena requiring him to devote large chunks of time to produce the required information. 

In an article published in the journal Neurology by Brad A. Racette, MD; Ann Bradley, JD; Carrie A. Wrisberg, JD; and Joel S. Perlmutter, MD, titled “The Impact of Litigation on Neurologic Research,”Neurology 67(12):2124 (Dec. 2006), the authors complain about the burden of time responding to discovery demands:  

"Any hint of scientific data that support such a cause and effect relationship often encourages plaintiffs' attorneys to file suits against corporations alleging harm to their clients forcing corporations and employers to defend themselves. Both plaintiff and defendant teams hire expert witnesses who are frequently active investigators in relevant fields to bolster their positions. These legal proceedings can influence investigators and hamper research. Interactions with researchers can lead to personal financial or career gain that may bias research findings or impugn other investigators. Even researchers who have not been retained by either side of a legal dispute may be forced to respond to subpoenas for research data causing a substantial loss of research time for investigators and financial burdens on universities. Courts may require release of research records containing personal health information that could sully the trust research participants have in investigators. Litigation and its peripheral effects may bias investigators, impede research efforts, and harm research participants, thereby undermining efforts to understand the cause of neurologic disease."

In a rejoinder to this article, defendant’s counsel in the Welding Fume  Products Liability Litigation, Nathan A. Schachtman, wrote in a reply titled, “Response: The Impact of Litigation on Neurologic Research,” Neurology69(5):495 (Apr. 2007), that the Racette article offered a one-sided, incomplete picture of the interaction between scientific research and the law. 

Schachtman observes that the authors failed to disclose that the welder screenings for their study were funded by plaintiffs as part of an effort to solicit personal injury clients. Defendants served subpoenas to obtain the study’s underlying data only after plaintiffs’ counsel heavily relied on the authors’ study. Thus, Schachtman argues, the authors were not disinterested researchers inadvertently caught up in litigation. He states, “the authors collaborated with plaintiffs’ counsel so closely that counsel invoked litigation privileges to cloak the work in secrecy.” 

In what might be characterized as a sur-reply, Dr. Racette responded that his early collaboration with the plaintiffs had been greatly overstated. Perhaps the best advice, albeit cynical,  to scientific researchers may be to steer completely clear of lawyers at all costs and to avoid the temptation to be "helpful" to lawyers involved in litigation. Of course, the legal profession is the worse off if the best scientists are fearful of becoming involved in the judicial system. 

How then is a court to balance the competing needs for transparency in litigation and permitting scientific researchers, often unrepresented by counsel, with the peace and tranquility necessary to perform their research?  As the court observed in In Re Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation, 534 F.Supp.2d 761 (2008), Dr. Racette had performed some assessments for plaintiffs’ counsel during the nascent stages of the MDL, but later severed his ties with plaintiffs and took no more payments from them. Under these circumstances, the MDL court opted in favor of disclosure. The MDL court reasoned that where an author publishes an article with a view toward litigation, a probability of bias exists which undermines the logic supporting the admission of this material through the “learned treatise” exception to the hearsay rule. In some cases, the “learned treatise” is excluded from evidence due to the taint of suspected bias. On other occasions, the treatise is admitted but subject to impeachment on cross-examination. 

The difficulty arises when a party’s expert reaches his expert opinions by relying on a study performed by a scientific researcher who is completely disinterested in the litigation. In this instance, what intrusion into this scientist’s life will be permitted? Merely because an author has reached a conclusion that dissatisfies one side or the other in litigation should not make that scientific researcher a “target” of a burdensome subpoena.

Pursuant to a very different set of facts, the Appellate Division, First Department, recently ruled in Weitz & Luxenberg v. Georgia-Pacific LLC, 2013 N.Y. Slip.Op. 04127 (6/6/13), that Georgia-Pacific must turn over for in camera review by the Court internal communications related to scientific studies it commissioned into the safety of its products. This discovery dispute arose in the context of the Weitz & Luxenberg New York City Asbestos Litigation (“NYCAL”) cases in which Georgia-Pacific is a defendant. 

In 2005, Georgia-Pacific funded eight published research studies to aid in its defense of asbestos-related litigation. To facilitate this endeavor, Georgia-Pacific entered into a special employment relationship with Stewart Holm, its Director of Toxicology and Chemical Management, to perform expert consulting services under the auspices of in-house counsel, whom the Court found was significantly involved in the pre-publication process. 

The studies at issue were designed to cast doubt on the capability of chrysotile asbestos to cause cancer. The Court observed that despite the extensive participation of in-house counsel, none of the articles disclosed in-house counsel’s involvement. Citing the In Re Welding Fume Products Liability Litigation,  the Appellate Division determined that, “large corporations often invest strategically in research agendas whose objective is to develop a body of scientific knowledge favorable to a particular economic interest or useful for defending against particular claims of legal liability.” 

In determining that the studies and related documents should be subject to in camera scrutiny, the Court stated that the trial court was rightfully wary of prejudicing plaintiffs by permitting the sudden introduction of the studies or experts on the eve of trial, or in the many other pending asbestos cases. Therefore, the principles of fairness, as well as the spirit of the Case Management Order, required more complete disclosure. The Court held that it would be inappropriate to permit Georgia-Pacific to use its expert’s conclusions as a sword by seeding the scientific literature with Georgia-Pacific-funded studies, while at the same time using the privilege as a shield, by withholding the underlying raw data that might be prone to scrutiny by the opposing party which may affect the veracity of its expert’s conclusions. In it’s in camera review, the court will evaluate whether the crime-fraud exception to the attorney-client privilege applies to certain of the client communications in dispute. 

In high stakes toxic tort litigation, such as the NYCAL or Welding Fume litigations, it is not unusual for both well-heeled plaintiffs and defendants to fund studies to support their positions in litigation. In such instances, most courts will require extensive disclosure of the data underlying these studies’ findings. 

However, this is very different from the situation where an independent scientist, who is uninvolved in any litigation, finds that his scientific research and underlying data is the subject of litigation scrutiny. Although some discovery may be appropriate in these instances, forcing scientific researchers to devote an inordinate amount of their time complying with litigation requests may have a chilling effect on the research community’s willingness to take on scientific challenges relating to important public health issues. 

*This blog was originally posted on June 19 by Bill Ruskin on the Toxic Tort Litigation Blog. Click here to read the original entry. 

Bookmark and Share

 

In a decision issued on March 7, 2013, the Supreme Court of Florida reaffirmed Florida’s commitment to adherence to the economic loss rule in product liability litigation. In Tiara Condominium Association, Inc. v. Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc. etc., et al., No. SC10-1022, the high court provides a helpful discussion of the origin and development of the economic loss rule. In summary, the economic loss rule is described as “the fundamental boundary between contract law, which is designed to enforce the expectancy interests of the parties, and tort law, which imposes a duty of reasonable care and thereby encourages citizens to avoid causing physical harm to others.” Thus, economic loss has been defined by Florida courts as “damage for inadequate value, costs of repair and replacement of the defective product, or consequent loss of profits – without any claim of personal injury or damage to other property.” In other words, economic losses are “disappointed economic expectations,” which are protected by contract law, rather than tort law.

Despite the rule’s underpinnings in the product liability context, the economic loss rule has also been applied to circumstances when the parties are in contractual privity and one party seeks to recover damages in tort for damages arising in contract.

In a product liability context, the economic loss rule was developed to protect manufacturers from liability for economic damage caused by a defective product beyond those damages provided by warranty law.  In discussing the development of economic loss rule principles, the Florida Supreme Court analyzed the California Supreme Court’s holding in Seely v. White Motor Co., 403 P.2d 145 (Cal. 1965). In Seely, the California Supreme Court held that the doctrine of strict liability in tort did not supplant causes of action for breach of express warranty.

In that case, the court was confronted with a situation in which plaintiff sought recovery for economic loss resulting from his purchase of a truck that failed to perform according to expectations. The court concluded that the strict liability doctrine was not intended to undermine the warranty provisions of sales or contract law, but was designed to govern the wholly separate and distinct problem of physical injuries caused by defective products. In East River Steamship Corp. v. Transamerica Delaval, Inc., 476 U.S. 858 (1986), the U.S. Supreme Court adopted the reasoning of Seely when it considered the issue of economic loss resulting from defective products in the context of admiralty.

According to the Supreme Court, when the damage is to the product itself, “the injury suffered – the failure of the product to function properly – is the essence of a warranty action, through which a contracting party can seek to recoup the benefit of its bargain.” Recognizing that the extending strict product liability law to cover economic damages would result in “contract law… drowning in a sea of tort,” the Supreme Court held that “the manufacturer in a commercial relationship has no duty either under a negligence or a strict products liability theory to prevent a product from injuring itself.” Thus, from the outset, the focus of the economic loss rule was directed to damages resulting from defects in the product itself.

In a Client Alert, dated July 5, 2011, Stites & Harbison lawyers John L. Tate and Cassidy R. Rosenthal wrote about the Kentucky Supreme Court’s adoption of the economic loss rule in Giddings & Lewis, Inc. v. Industrial Risk Insurers (6/18/11). The Court unanimously held that “a manufacturer in a commercial relationship has no duty under a negligence or strict products liability theory to prevent a product from injuring itself.” The Court wrote: “We believe the parties’ allocation of risk by contract should control without disturbance by the courts via product liability theories.”
As discussed by Mr. Tate and Ms. Rosenthal, in Giddings & Lewis, the manufacturer sold a sophisticated machining center to an industrial concern. The parties set forth their mutual obligations in a detailed commercial contract. After seven years of continuous operation and after the contract’s express warranty expired, the machining center malfunctioned in a spectacular fashion – throwing chunks of steel weighing thousands of pounds across the factory floor. The costs to repair the machining center and to get the business up and running again were almost $3 million. After reimbursing the machine’s owner for its losses, a consortium of insurance companies asserted a subrogation claim against the machining center’s manufacturer. With the warranty expired, the insurance companies sued in negligence, strict liability, negligent misrepresentation, and fraudulent misrepresentation. What could be more tortious conduct that this?  

Applying the economic loss doctrine, the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Tate holding that the purchaser could not recover from the manufacturer under any tort theory. The consortium was limited to contractual remedies, all of which expired years earlier.

Despite such groundbreaking decisions, is the economic loss rule under-utilized in products liability and commercial litigation today?  Of course, if personal injury results from an alleged defect, the rule does not apply. However, not infrequently, complaints alleging damages arising from a defective product that purportedly caused economic loss sound in negligence or strict products liability. Are defense lawyers seeking dismissal of these tort claims on the basis of the economic loss rule as often as they should?

This blog was originally posted on the Toxic Tort Litigation Blog on April 3 by Bill Ruskin. Click here to see the original post. 


Bookmark and Share

Categories: Product Liability | Toxic Tort

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

As a general proposition, a defendant at trial suffers unfair prejudice when the court does not permit the jury to learn of certain facts that, if disclosed, would reveal a witness’s bias or self-interest.  If a witness with no apparent motive for lying gives strong testimony favoring one side at trial, that testimony may have a significant impact on the jury.  It is for this reason that all potential bias or self-interest of both fact and expert witnesses must be vigorously explored during pre-trial discovery.

In Polett v. Public Communications, Inc., No. 1865 EDA 2011, slip op. (Pa. Super. March 1, 2013), a verdict for a whopping for $27.6 million in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County, Civil Division, was reversed on multiple grounds. However, for purposes of this article, we focus on the finding by the Superior Court that it was error for the trial court not to permit the jury to learn that plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Richard Booth, an orthopedic surgeon, had been a named defendant earlier in the litigation and had entered into a tolling agreement with the plaintiffs. Under such a tolling agreement, a plaintiff can await the outcome at trial and decide afterward whether to pursue the party with whom she had entered into the tolling agreement.  Dr. Booth's best protection against being sued at a later date was to ensure that the plaintiffs made a substantial recovery at trial.  Is this self-interest?  You bet!

By way of background, in mid-2006, Zimmer, a medical device manufacturer, launched the Gender Solutions Knee, a knee replacement device designed specifically for women. Zimmer hired Public Communications, Inc. (“PCI”), a marketing firm, to produce a sales video, which would include interviews and footage of patients who had undergone successful knee replacement surgery using the device. Plaintiff Margo Polett underwent successful bilateral knee replacement surgery. On account of her good surgical outcome, her treating physician, Dr. Richard Booth, recommended Mrs. Polett to Zimmer as a candidate to participate in Zimmer’s sales video.

Plaintiffs allege that following the videotaping, which involved Mrs. Polett riding on a stationery exercise bike, her condition worsened and she underwent four further surgeries in failed attempts to repair the damage that plaintiffs alleged occurred during the filming of the promotional video.  Dr. Booth admitted in deposition that the “sword of litigation” hung suspended above his head. Substantial evidence was developed during discovery that when Dr. Booth first gave his causation testimony, which supported plaintiffs’ theory of the case, he had a strong incentive to place responsibility on the medical device manufacturer and the filming company and away from himself.
Due to his clear self-interest in presenting causation testimony favorable to plaintiffs, the Superior Court determined that the defendants should have been permitted to demonstrate Dr. Booth’s partiality as a doctor who faced the possibility of litigation; who did not think he was at fault; who did not want to alienate his patient; and who squarely placed responsibility for Mrs. Polett’s injuries on the filming company and the device manufacturer.  

In so holding, the appellate court concluded that the probative value of the tolling agreement outweighed the danger of unfair prejudice. Although the use of a tolling agreement for impeachment purposes was a matter of first impression for Pennsylvania courts, other Pennsylvania courts had found that analogous agreements were admissible to show bias or prejudice.
Another type of agreement between a plaintiff and a defendant is referred to as a “Mary Carter agreement." These agreements are a means of effectuating a settlement with some but not all defendants in a multi-party lawsuit.  Like the tolling agreement in Polett, evidence of a Mary Carter agreement's existence should be presented before the jury, but they are often shrouded in secrecy and never reach the light of day.

Mary Carter agreements usually incorporate the following basic elements although the terms vary from case to case:

1. the defendant in an multi-party lawsuit who enters into the agreement guarantees that the injured plaintiff  will receive a certain amount, even if the plaintiff fails to receive a judgment against that defendant or the amount of the judgment obtained is less than the guaranteed amount;
2. the agreeing defendant’s liability, which is capped, can be reduced or even eliminated by increasing a co-defendant’s liability;
3. the agreement is kept secret from the jury absent court-ordered disclosure; and
4. the agreeing defendant remains in the lawsuit as a party.
 
For obvious reasons, Mary Carter agreements have been challenged as being unethical. Arguably, the agreement contravenes the canons of professional conduct concerning candor and fairness; conflicts of interest; unjustified litigation; and taking technical advantage of opposing counsel. Because Mary Carter agreements are collusive agreements between parties with supposedly adverse interests, they create an inherent danger of perjury.

Moreover, these agreements mislead the jury into thinking that the agreeing defendant has interests adverse to those of the plaintiff, when, in fact, the defendant may sometimes share in the proceeds of the plaintiff’s recovery. In my view, lawyers who enter into Mary Carter agreements are walking into an ethical minefield. In New York, these agreements are considered contrary to public policy and are not permitted..

But whether the agreement in question is a tolling agreement or Mary Carter agreement, the finder of fact should be fully apprised of any relevant information that might give rise to bias or interested testimony. It is discouraging that the Polett court seemingly failed to understand this basic premise of trial fairness.

This article was originally posted on March 27 on the Toxic Tort Litigation Blog by Bill Ruskin. You can read the original post here

Bookmark and Share

Categories: Product Liability | Toxic Tort

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

On March 27, 2013, a jury in federal district court in Bridgeport, Connecticut awarded Cara Munn, a 20-year-old woman who formerly attended the Hotchkiss School  in Lakeville, Connecticut, $41,750,000 in a case styled Orson D. Munn III et al. v. The Hotchkiss School, No. 3:09cv0919 (SRU).  The case raises important issues concerning "duty" and "assumption of risk."

The jury determined that Hotchkiss, a prestigious prep school, was negligent for two reasons: (1) in failing to warn plaintiff before or during a school sponsored trip to China during the summer of 2007 about the risk of insect-borne illness on the trip; and (2) in failing to ensure that plaintiff used protective measures to prevent infection by an insect-borne disease while visiting Mt. Pan in China.

In an article appearing in the Connecticut Law Tribune (Vol. 39, No. 13), titled "Tick Bite Leads To Big Verdict," it was reported that the school was faulted specifically  for not warning plaintiff (and her parents) that she would be traveling in mountainous and forested terrain. As a result, the jury determined that the plaintiff was not aware that she had to protect herself from insects by wearing bug repellent, long sleeve shirts and trousers, and by avoiding brushy undergrowth.

According to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint, Ms. Munn's parents had Cara flown back to the United States in July '07, where she was hospitalized for several weeks at Weill Cornell Medical Center in the pediatric ICU and later at the Rusk Institute for extensive rehab.  As a result of her severe encephalitis, plaintiff suffered severe neurological and motor injuries, including permanent loss of speech. 

The case, which will almost certainly be appealed, raises significant issues concerning duty and the assumption of personal responsibility by parents who agree to have their child travel abroad for educational purposes. Apart from the obvious differences in food, culture and living conditions, traveling abroad carries many potential risks, some of which are foreseeable and some of which are not. Stepping back from the facts presented by this particularly tragic case, should a high school be held responsible for failing to prevent a student from being bitten by a tick in China? What if the tick had bitten her during a field trip to Central Park?

Assuming that the Second Circuit upholds this verdict, what does this case portend for high schools and colleges that plan educational trips abroad? Is there some bright line test that would provide guidance to a school evaluating the safety concerns of its students? Short of wrapping all of their students in cocoons and keeping them closely monitored in classroom settings, how can any school protect against the kind of unforeseen liability presented by this case?  

Hotchkiss' Answer to Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint states that plaintiffs' claims should be barred by the doctrine of assumption of risk.  The school argues that plaintiffs voluntarily assumed the risk of travel to China as evidenced by their execution of the pre-trip Agreement, Waiver, and Release of Liability.  In this agreement, plaintiffs agreed that Hotchkiss "would not be responsible for any injury to person or property caused by anything other than its sole negligence or willful misconduct" (emphasis added). Would legal weight did the court give to this release? 

Based upon the Verdict Form presented to the jury, it would appear that the trial court gave short shrift to the language in the release.  The jury was asked the following questions: (1) Was one or more of Hotchkiss' negligent acts or omissions a cause-in-fact of Cara Munn's injuries; and (2) Was one or more of Hotchkiss' negligent acts or omissions a substantial factor, that acting alone or in conjunction with other factors, brought about Cara's injuries? 

Those inquiries are a lot different from asking whether the jury finds that Hotchkiss' "sole negligence or willful misconduct" caused the injuries.  Although the jury determined that plaintiff did not contribute to any degree whatsoever in causing her injuries, it was not asked to consider whether other intervening factors played any role in causing Cara's injuries.

There are circumstances when a school can and should be held responsible when things go wrong on a school outing.  Three examples come quickly to mind: (1) sending kids into a war zone despite State Department warnings; (2) sending kids abroad into an epidemic earlier identified by the CDC; or (3) taking non-swimmers for an ocean swim outing without proper supervision. 

How is Munn different from these scenarios?  Is a random bug bite as foreseeable, if at all, as the kinds of risks discussed in the three scenarios above? According to Hotchkiss' summary judgment memorandum, the CDC reported that plaintiff was the first U.S. traveler ever to have reported TBE after traveling in China. Moreover, no U.S. traveler since plaintiff has developed the disease.  Therefore, how unreasonable was it for Hotchkiss not to take precautions against a risk of harm that arguably had such a slight likelihood of taking place?  Shouldn't plaintiffs have had to prove that the defendant was on prior notice of the existence of circumstances that could give rise to an injury? 

Plaintiffs' expert, Peter Tarlow once led a group of children, including his own son, on a tour of Israel.  If a child on that Israel tour had been unexpectedly assaulted by someone holding anti-Zionist views, would Dr. Tarlow expect to be held responsible for any resultant injury because he was "on notice" of decades of endemic unrest in the region? 

Two strong CT trial lawyers squared off against each for this eight day trial--for the plaintiffs, Antonio Ponvert of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, one of the New England plaintiff bar's preeminent firms, and for the defendant, Penny Q. Seaman of Wiggin & Dana, one of Connecticut's oldest and most accomplished firms.  The bar should expect to see excellent post-trial briefing as events unfold.  

*This was originally posted on April 5 on Toxic Tort Litigation Blog. Read the current post here

Bookmark and Share

Categories: Law Suit | Medical Liability | Toxic Tort

Actions: E-mail | Comments

 

The Toxic Tort Litigation Blog brings to the attention of defense practitioners weapons to add to their defense arsenal. An article in the Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law Reporter (6/14/02), titled "Making the Most of Twombly/Iqbal in Product Liabililty Cases," offers a valuable primer concerning how the pleading requirements under Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure have been reinterpreted and reshaped by the U.S. Supreme Court in two landmark decisions, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S 662,129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009).

In the article, Arnold & Porter’s Anand Agneshwar and Paige Sharpe review how these two decisions have been employed in product liability litigation either to win outright dismissals of complaints or to force plaintiffs to clearly state in their complaints – and not after discovery – precisely what they seek to prove. Motions brought under Twombly and Iqbal have come to be known as Twiqbal motions.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s publication of Twombly in 2007, federal trial courts were guided by the holding in Conley v. Gibson, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1957. Pursuant to the holding of that case, “a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief.” As Mr. Agneshwar and Ms. Sharpe point out, Twombly retired the “no set of facts” language of Conley, and in its place issued a plausibility standard under which plaintiffs must provide “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of the cause of action will not do so.” Thus, in order to “nudge [] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible,” plaintiffs must provide a complaint with “enough heft to show that the pleader is entitled to relief.”

The policy rationale for this holding is the avoidance of “potentially enormous expense of discovery in cases with no reasonably founded hope that the discovery process will reveal relevant evidence.” Twombly left unclear whether its pleading directives applied to all civil cases brought in federal court, or just antitrust cases. However, two years later, the Iqbal court made clear that the pleading requirements in Twombly were to be applied across-the-board.

How successful have Twiqbal motions been in product liability cases? A 2011 law review article by Professor William M. Janssen in the Louisiana Law Review, which focused on pharmaceutical and medical device litigation, found that some 21% of the 264 cases studied were dismissed on Iqbal grounds during the relevant time period. This statistic suggests that it would be imprudent to file a Twiqbal motion in every product liability case. Thankfully, Mr. Agneshwar and Ms. Sharpe provide a series of factors that should be considered prior to filing a Rule 8(a) motion.

As a general rule, defense counsel should carefully scrutinize their adversary’s pleadings in products cases to evaluate whether plaintiff has properly alleged facts to support an essential element of a claim, such as how a product is defectively designed (design defect claim) or how specifically defendants’ product labeling is insufficient (failure to warn claim). A complaint that contains only conclusory allegations is vulnerable to Twiqbal attack. 

Bookmark and Share

 
 

Submit Blog

If you wish to submit a blog posting for DRI Today, send an email to today@dri.org with "Blog Post" in the subject line. Please include article title and any tags you would like to use for the post.
 
 
 

Search Blog


Recent Posts

Categories

Authors

Blogroll



Staff Login