For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

Putting the Liability Spotlight on Employers

November 30th, 2015

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that employers could be directly liable to employees for injuries that become manifest outside the time limits (300 weeks) of the Commonwealth’s workman’s compensation statute. Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., 81 A.3d 851 (Pa. 2013). The implications for so-called long latency, toxic tort claims were obvious, and the generated some commentary. SeePennsylvania Workers Regain Their Right of Action in Tort against Employers for Latent Occupational Diseases” (Feb. 14, 2014); “The Erosion of Employer Immunity in Tort Litigation” (Jan. 20, 2015).

The Legal Intelligencer has now reported the first “cashing in” or “cashing out” on the change in Pennsylvania law. Plaintiff’s lawyer, Benjamin Shein, took an employer to trial on claims that the employer was responsible for alleged asbestos exposure that caused John F. Busbey to develop mesothelioma. Bobbie R. Bailey of Leader & Berkon, in Los Angeles, defended. The case was tried before Philadelphia Judge Lisette Shirdan-Harris and a jury. After a three week trial, on November 10, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff, against the employer defendant, in the amount of 1.7 million dollars. Busbey v. ESAB Group, Phila. Court of Common Pleas, No. 120503046. Max Mitchell, “Employer Found Liable In Asbestos Verdict: Busbey v. ESAB Group $1.7 Million Verdict,” The Legal Intelligencer (Dec. 1, 2015).

For witnesses, Shein called frequent litigation-industry testifiers, Dr. Steven Markowitz on occupational disease, and Dr. Daniel Dupont, a local pulmonary physician. Shein also called one of the pink panther historians, Gerald Markowitz. SeeNarratives & Historians for Hire” (Dec. 15, 2010). The employer defendant called an industrial hygienist, Delno D. Malzahn.

According Ben Shein, the verdict represented the first trial win in Pennsylvania for an asbestos claim against an employer, since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Tooey in 2013. From the Legal Intelligencer’s account, and the line-up of litigation industry witnesses, the plaintiff’s trial evidence on exposure and standard of care seems shaky, and the winner may not be discernible until the appellate review is concluded.

In Illinois, an intermediate appellate court held out the prospect of a legal change similar to Tooey. In 2014, the Illinois Court of Appeals held that workman compensation petitioners, whose claims fell outside the Illinois statute were not barred by the exclusive remedy provisions that gave employers immunity from civil suit. Folta v. Ferro Engineering, 2014 IL App (1st) 123219. See Patrick W. Stufflebeam, “Folta v. Ferro Engineering: A Shift in Illinois Workers’ Compensation Protection for Illinois Employers in Asbestos Cases,” News & Press: IDC Quarterly (Mar. 11, 2015).

The Illinois Supreme Court allowed an appeal, as well as extensive amicus briefings from the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, the Illinois AFL-CIO, the Illinois Self-Insurers’ Association, the Illinois Defense Trial Counsel, a joint brief from insurers,[1] and a joint brief from various manufacturing companies.[2]

Earlier this month, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed and held that even though claims fell outside the Illinois workman’s compensation statute, those claims were still barred by the Act’s exclusive remedy provisions that gave employers immunity from civil suit. Folta v. Ferro Engineering, 2015 IL 118070 (November 4, 2015).

[1] the American Insurance Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, and the Travelers Indemnity Company.

[2] Caterpillar Inc., Aurora Pump Company, Innophos, Inc., Rockwell Automation, Inc., United States Steel Corporation, F.H. Leinweber Company, Inc., Driv-Lok, Inc., Ford Motor Company, and ExxonMobil Oil Corporation.

Manganese Madness Redux

November 28th, 2015

Before Dickie Scruggs had to put away his hand-tailored suits and don prison garb,[1] he financed and led an effort against the welding industry with claims that manganese in welding fume caused manganism, in several thousand tradesmen. After his conviction for scheming to bribe a judge, Scrugg’s lieutenants continued the fight, but ultimately gave up, despite having a friendly federal forum.

Scruggs has served his sentence, six years, in federal prison, and he has set out to use his freedom to promote adult education. Emily Le Coz, “Dickie Scruggs: A 2nd chance; Mississippi’s famed trial lawyer-turned-felon grants his first post-prison interview,” The Clarion-Ledger (April 25, 2015). Having confessed his crime and served his time, Scruggs deserves a second chance. Judge Zouhary of the Northern District of Ohio, however, recently ruled that the manganese litigation will not get a second chance in the form of a civil nuisance claim. Abrams v. Nucor Steel Marion, Inc., Case No. 3:13 CV 137, 2015 WL 6872511 (N.D. Ohio Nov. 9, 2015) (Zouhary, J.).

In Abrams, plaintiffs sued Nucor for trespass and private nuisance because of “hazardous” and “ultra-hazardous” levels of manganese, which landed on plaintiffs’ property from defendant’s plant. Plaintiffs did not claim personal injury, but rather asserted that manganese particulate damaged their real property and diminished its value.[2]

The parties agreed that the alleged indirect trespass would require a showing of “unauthorized, intentional physical entry or intrusion of a chemical by aerial dispersion onto Plaintiffs’ land, which causes substantial physical damage to the land or substantial interference with the reasonable and foreseeable use of the land.” Abrams, 2015 WL 6872511, at *1. Plaintiffs intended to make this showing by demonstrating, with the help of their hired expert witness, Jonathan Rutchik, that the manganese deposited on their land was harmful to human health.

Dr. Rutchik, a physician who specializes in neurology and preventive/ occupational medicine, was a veteran of the Scruggs’ offensive against the welding industry. Rutchik testified for plaintiffs in a losing effort in California, and was listed in other California cases. See, e.g., Thomas v. The Lincoln Electric Co., Alameda County 13 Case No. RG-06-272122; formerly Solano County Case No. FCS-027382), notes of Jonathan Rutchik’s testimony from Jan. 20, 2009, before Hon. Robert B. Freedman and a jury.

In Abrams, as an expert expert witness, Dr. Rutchik was able to conclude, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, “that persons who reside full time in the ‘class area’ [0.25 to 0.5 miles from Nucor’s steel plant] for a period of ten (10) years or more will suffer harm to their health caused by such chronic exposure to such elevated levels of manganese”. Abrams, 2015 WL 6872511, at *3.  Having served as a trial judge in a welding fume case, Judge Zahoury is also a veteran of Scrugg’s litigation industry’s offensive against manganese. Perhaps that background expertise helped him see through the smoke and fume of Dr. Rutchik’s opinions. In fairly short order, Judge Zahoury found that Rutchik’s opinions were conclusory, overly broad, general, and vague, not “the product of reliable principles and methodology,” and not admissible. Id. Judge Zahoury was no doubt impressed by jarring comparison of Dr. Rutchik’s opinion that Plaintiffs “will suffer harm to their health,” with the good health of the nearby residents, who had not shown any symptoms of manganese-related exposures.

Rutchik had not conducted any physical examinations to support a claim that there was prevalent illness; nor did he rely upon any testing of his extravagant, litigation-driven claims. Rutchik has thus failed to “test [his] hypothesis in a timely and reliable manner or to validate [his] hypotheses by reference to generally accepted scientific principles as applied to the facts of the case renders [his] testimony . . . inadmissible.” Id. at *4 (citations omitted). Being unsupported by the record or by efforts to test his theories empirically, Rutchik’s opinion had to be excluded under Rule 702.

Rutchik has published on manganese toxicity, but he has consistently failed to disclose his remunerated service to the litigation industry in cases such as Thomas and Abrams. See Jonathan S. Rutchik, Wei Zheng, Yueming Jiang, Xuean Mo, “How does an occupational neurologist assess welders and steelworkers for a manganese-induced movement disorder? An international team’s experiences in Guanxi, China, part I,” 54 J. Occup. Envt’l Med. 1432 (2012) (No disclosure of conflict of interest); Jonathan S. Rutchik, Wei Zheng, Yueming Jiang, Xuean Mo, “How does an occupational neurologist assess welders and steelworkers for a manganese-induced movement disorder? An international team’s experiences in Guanxi, China Part II,” 54 J. Occup. Envt’l Med. 1562 (2012) (No disclosure of conflict of interest); Jonathan S. Rutchik, “Occupational Medicine Physician’s Guide to Neuropathy in the Workplace Part 3: Case Presentation,” 51 J. Occup. Envt’l Med. 861 (2009) (No disclosure of conflict of interest); Jonathan S Rutchik, et al., Toxic Neuropathy: Practice Essentials, Background, Pathophysiology,” Medscape Reference (April 30, 2014) (“Disclosure:  Nothing to disclose” [sic]).

[1] “Richard Scruggs,” in Wikipedia, at <>, last visited Nov. 27, 2015.

[2] Plaintiffs attempted to expand their claims to particulate matter, including manganese on the eve of trial, but Judge Zouhary would have none of this procedural shenanigan.

FOIA Exemptions Gobble Up The Statute

November 27th, 2015

Last week, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case in which petitioners sought review of a First Circuit decision that upheld the “commercial information” exemption (exemption 4) to the Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552 (FOIA). New Hampshire Right to Life v. Dep’t Health & Human Services, 778 F.3d 43 (1st Cir. 2015). See Lyle Denniston, “Court bypasses FOIA challenge,” SCOTUSblog (Nov. 16, 2015).

An anti-abortion group filed a FOIA request to obtain documents that Planned Parenthood had sent to the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services, in support of federal funding, for family planning activities in New Hampshire. The requested documents described Planned Parenthood’s internal medical standards and guidelines, as well as its set fees for various services. The federal trial court upheld the agency’s refusal to disclose the Planned Parenthood documents on the basis of § 552(b)(4) (Exemption 4, for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information obtained from a per­son and privileged or confidential”), as well as internal agency documents, on the basis of § 552(b)(5) (Exemption 5). The First Circuit affirmed the non-freedom of information. 778 F.3d 43.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, dissented from the Court’s denial of review. New Hampshire Right to Life, No. 14–1273, SCOTUS (Nov. 16, 2015) [Thomas Dissent] Justice Thomas intimated that the First Circuit’s decision may well have offended the Supreme Court’s interpretation of FOIA as reflecting “a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unless information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language.” Department of Defense v. FLRA, 510 U. S. 487, 494 (1994).

Justice Thomas noted that the First Circuit based its conclusion not on the ordinary meaning of the term “confidential,” but on speculation whether FOIA disclosure might harm Planned Parenthood’s position in a conjectured market. The First Circuit ordained the Planned Parenthood manual confidential because “[a]potential future competitor could take advantage of the institutional knowledge contained in the Manual” to com­pete against the organization in the future. Justice Thomas intimated that he, and concurring Justice Scalia, disapproved of this speculation upon speculation approach. Thomas Dissent at 2. The dissenters also noted that the Supreme Court has yet to interpret Exemption 4, to FOIA, and that the lower courts have embraced this exemption as a broad exclusion, in derogation of the language and spirit of FOIA.

In discovery efforts to obtain information about litigation science, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health and Science (NIEHS), FOIA officers appear to invoke Exemption 4 routinely to deny disclosure. One case in point was the effort to obtain information about NIEHS-funded research of Dr. Brad A. Racette, on the prevalence of parkinsonism among welding tradesmen in Wisconsin Great Lakes shipyards. Racette is an academic researcher, on the faculty of Washington University St. Louis; he is not engaged in any commercial enterprise, in any imaginable use of the word “commercial.” His Wisconsin research was sponsored by the Boilermakers’ union, which had worked with the litigation industry (trial bar) to develop a litigation case against the manufacturers of welding rods. FOIA requests for scientific data, protocols, and analyses were met, by NIEHS, with over-zealous redactions with the invocation of FOIA exemptions, including assertions that data and analyses were “confidential commercial information.”

The redaction of one of Racette’s ESNAP reports, on Grant Number SR01ES13743-4, is illustrative. The multi-year grant, entitled “Epidemilogy [sic] of Parkinsonism in Welders,” was awarded to principal investigator Brad Racette in 2007. On October 29, 2009, Racette submitted a report that included data and data analysis. The NIEHS, on its own, or acting at the request of the principal investigator, redacted data, analyses, and conclusions, on grounds of “confidential commercial information.” Invoking an exemption for “commercial information” for federally funding of an epidemiologic study, conducted by university-based scientists seems an extreme distortion of the FOIA statute.

Cynics may say that Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented in the Planned Parenthood case because they were eager, to advance their theological ideology to exploit the opportunity to order disclosure that could hurt the good work that Planned Parenthood does. The dissenting justices deserve, however, to be taken at their word, and applauded for chastising their colleagues who were willing to abide the frustation of the word and spirit of the FOIA statute. Sadly, federal agencies seem to be determined to make information unfree. In the most recent evaluations, the Department of Health and Human Services received a failing grade, among the lowest grades for FOIA performance and responsiveness; only the State Department failed with a lower score. National Freedom of Information Coalition, “FOIA report card shows federal agencies missing the mark,” (Mar. 16, 2015); Center for Effective Government, “Making the Grade – Access to Information Scorecard 2015.”