Birth Defects Case Exceeds NY Court of Appeal’s Odor Threshold

The so-called “weight of the evidence” (WOE) approach by expert witnesses has largely been an argument for subjective weighting of studies and cherry picking of data to reach a favored, pre-selected conclusion. The approach is so idiosyncratic and amorphous that it really is no method at all, which is exactly why it seems to have been embraced by the litigation industry and its cadre of expert witnesses.

The WOE enjoyed some success in the First Circuit’s Milward decision, with much harrumphing from the litigation industry and its proxies, but more recently courts have mostly seen through the ruse and employed their traditional screening approaches to exclude opinions that deviate from the relevant standard of care of scientific opinion testimony.[1]

In Reeps, the plaintiff child was born with cognitive and physical defects, which his family claimed resulted from his mother’s inhalation of gasoline fumes in her allegedly defective BMW. To support their causal claims, the Reeps proffered the opinions of two expert witnesses, Linda Frazier and Shira Kramer, on both general and specific causation of the child’s conditions. The defense presented reports from Anthony Scialli and Peter Lees.

Justice York, of the Supreme Court for New York County, sustained defendants’ objections to the admissibility of Frazier and Kramer’s opinions, in a careful opinion that dissected the general and specific causation opinions that invoked WOE methods. Reeps v. BMW of North America, LLC, 2012 NY Slip Op 33030(U), N.Y.S.Ct., Index No. 100725/08 (New York Cty. Dec. 21, 2012) (York, J.), 2012 WL 6729899, aff’d on rearg., 2013 WL 2362566.

The First Department of the Appellate Division affirmed Justice York’s exclusionary ruling and then certified the appellate question to the New York Court of Appeals. 115 A.D.3d 432, 981 N.Y.S.2d 514 (2013).[2] Last month, the New York high court affirmed in a short opinion that focused on the plaintiff’s claim that Mrs. Reeps must have been exposed to a high level of gasoline (and its minor constituents, such as benzene) because she experienced symptoms such as dizziness while driving the car. Sean R. v. BMW of North America, LLC, ___ N.E.3d ___, 2016 WL 527107, 2016 N.Y. Slip Op. 01000 (2016).[3]

The car in question was a model that was recalled by BMW for a gasoline line leak, and there was thus no serious question that there had been some gasoline exposure to the plaintiff’s mother and thus to the plaintiff and thus perhaps to the plaintiff in utero. According to the Court of Appeals, the plaintiff’s expert witness Frazier concluded that the gasoline fume exposures to the car occupants exceeded 1,000 parts per million (ppm) because studies showed that symptoms of acute toxicity were reported when exposures reached or exceeded 1,000 ppm. The mother of the car’s owner claimed to suffer dizziness and nausea when riding in the car, and Frazier inferred from these self-reported, in litigation, symptoms that the plaintiff’s mother also sustained gasoline exposures in excess of 1,000 ppm. From this inference about level of exposure, Frazier then proceeded to use the “Bradford Hill criteria” to opine that unleaded gasoline vapor is capable of causing the claimed birth defects based upon “the link between exposure to the constituent chemicals and adverse birth outcomes.” And then using the wizardry of differential etiology, Frazier was able to conclude that the mother’s first-trimester exposure to gasoline fumes was the probable cause of plaintiff’s birth defects.

There was much wrong with Frazier’s opinions, as detailed in the trial court’s decision, but for reasons unknown, the Court of Appeals chose to focus on Frazier’s symptom-threshold analysis. The high court provided no explanation of how Frazier applied the Bradford Hill criteria, or her downward extrapolation from high-exposure benzene or solvent exposure birth defect studies to a gasoline-exposure case that involved only a small percentage of benzene or solvent in the high-exposure studies. There is no description from the Court of what a “link” might be, or how it is related to a cause; nor is there any discussion of how Frazier might have excluded the most likely cause of birth defects: the unknown. The Court also noted that plaintiff’s expert witness Kramer had employed a WOE-ful analysis, but it provided no discussion of what was amiss with Kramer’s opinion. A curious reader might think that the Court had overlooked and dismissed “sound science,” but Justice York’s trial court opinion fully addressed the inadequacies of these other opinions.

The Court of Appeals acknowledge that “odor thresholds” can be helpful in estimating a plaintiff’s level of exposure to a potentially toxic chemical, but it noted that there was no generally accepted exposure assessment methodology that connected the report of an odor to adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Frazier, however, had not adverted to an odor threshold, but a symptom threshold. In support, Frazier pointed to three things:

  1. A report of the American Conference of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), (not otherwise identified) which synthesized the results of controlled studies, and reported a symptom threshold of “mild toxic effects” to be about 1,000 ppm;
  1. A 1991 study (not further identified) that purportedly showed a dose-response between exposures to ethanol and toluene and headaches; and
  1. A 2008 report (again not further identified) that addressed the safety of n-Butyl alcohol in cosmetic products.

Item (2) seems irrelevant at best, given that ethanol and toluene are again minor components of gasoline, and that the exposure levels in the study are not given. Item (3) again seems off the report because the Court’s description does not allude to any symptom threshold; nor is there any attempt to tie exposure levels of n-Butyl to the experienced levels of gasoline in the Reeps case.

With respect to item (1), which supposedly had reported that if exposure exceeded 1,000 ppm, then headaches and nausea can occur acutely, the Court asserted that the ACGIH report did not support an inverse inference, that if headaches and nausea had occurred, then exposures exceeded 1,000 ppm.

It is true that ) does not logically support ), but the claimed symptoms, their onset and abatement, and the lack of other known precipitating causes would seem to provide some evidence for exposures above the symptom threshold. Rather than engaging with the lack of scientific evidence on the claimed causal connection between gasoline and birth defects, however, the Court invoked the lack of general acceptance of the “symptom-threshold” methodology to dispose of the case.

In its short opinion, The Court of Appeals did not address the quality, validity, or synthesis of studies urged by plaintiff’s expert witnesses; nor did it address the irrelevancy of whether the plaintiff’s grandmother or his mother had experienced acute symptoms such as nausea to the level that might be relevant to causing embryological injury. Had it done so, the Court would have retraced the path of Justice York, in the trial court, who saw through the ruse of WOE and the blatantly false claim that the scientific evidence even came close to satisfying the Bradford Hill factors. Furthermore, the Court might have found that the defense expert witnesses were entirely consistent with the Centers for Disease Control:

“The hydrocarbons found in gasoline can cross the placenta. There is no direct evidence that maternal exposure to gasoline causes fetotoxic or teratogenic effects. Gasoline is not included in Reproductive and Developmental Toxicants, a 1991 report published by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) that lists 30 chemicals of concern because of widely acknowledged reproductive and developmental consequences.”

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Medical Management Guidelines for Gasoline” (Oct. 21, 2014, last updated) (“Toxic Substances Portal – Gasoline, Automotive”); Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Public Health Statement for Automotive Gasoline” (June 1995) (“There is not enough information available to determine if gasoline causes birth defects or affects reproduction.”); see also National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, Occupational Exposure to Refined Petroleum Solvents: Criteria for a Recommended Standard (1977).

[1] See, e.g., In re Denture Cream Prods. Liab. Litig., 795 F. Supp. 2d 1345, 1367 (S.D. Fla. 2011), aff’d, Chapman v. Procter & Gamble Distrib., LLC, 766 F.3d 1296 (11th Cir. 2014). See alsoFixodent Study Causes Lockjaw in Plaintiffs’ Counsel” (Feb. 4, 2015); “WOE-fully Inadequate Methodology – An Ipse Dixit By Another Name” (May 1, 2012); “I Don’t See Any Method At All”   (May 2, 2013).

[2]New York Breathes Life Into Frye Standard – Reeps v. BMW” (March 5, 2013); “As They WOE, So No Recovery Have the Reeps” (May 22, 2013).

[3] See Sean T. Stadelman “Symptom Threshold Methodology Rejected by Court of Appeals of New York Pursuant to Frye,” (Feb. 18, 2016).

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