TORTINI

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

Sophisticated Intermediary Defense Prevails in New York

May 9th, 2015

Several years ago, the New York Appellate Division, 4th Department, reversed summary judgment for defendants in the cases of two workers who alleged that they had developed silicosis from silica exposure to defendants’ silica, at the Olean, New York, facility of their employer, Dexter Corporation (now Henkel Corporation). The trial court motions were based upon the “sophisticated intermediary” defense, but the Appellate Division reversed, holding that there was a genuine issue of material fact with respect to potential confusion between amorphous and crystalline silica, based upon statements in an affidavit of a plaintiffs’ expert witness, made without personal knowledge. See Pete Brush, “NY Court Revives Workers’ Silica Inhalation Suits” (March 24, 2009).

On remand, further discovery and an amplified evidentiary record led to new motions for summary judgment. In a February 26, 2015, order, the New York Supreme Court for Cattaraugus County granted the motions, noting that “the sophisticated intermediary doctrine was tailor-made” for the facts of the two cases. Rickicki v. Borden Chemical, et al., Index No. 53395, and Crowley v. C-E Minerals, Inc., et al., Index No. 61024, N.Y. Supreme Ct., Cattaraugus Cty. (Feb. 26, 2015) (Patrick H. NeMoyer, J.), Slip op. at 24. See also Casetext, “Summary Judgment Re-entered After Remand from the NY Appellate Division in Rickick v. Borden” (April 2, 2015); HarrisMartin, “N.Y. Trial Court Awards Summary Judgment to Silica Defendant, Recognizes Sophisticated Intermediary Doctrine” (March 27, 2015).

The Rickicki case turned 25 years old in February 2015.

The Erosion of Employer Immunity in Tort Litigation

January 20th, 2015

The present workman’s compensation system in the United States has serious flaws. Scheduled awards are inadequate in some states, and their inadequacy fosters specious litigation against remote third parties who are not able to control the workplace use of hazardous materials. In many states, premiums are set on an industry-wide basis, and thus careless employers are not handed incentives to improve workplace hygiene. With awards low, and without the need to rate individual employers, compensation insurers do not adequately inspect and control individual employers’ conduct. Workman’s compensation statutes provide a lien against any third-party recovery, which means that employers (and their insurers) will be rewarded for their negligence if injured employees can frame liability suits against third-parties, such as suppliers of raw materials to the employers.

For the most part, organized labor and management reached their great compromise over occupational injury litigation back from about 1911 through the early 1930s. Before the passage of the various compensation acts, employees had common law negligence actions against employers for deviations from reasonable care. In some part of the country, juries were extremely sympathetic to injured workers, and equally hostile to employers. At the same time, employers had powerful defenses in the form of contributory negligence, which barred claims by workers who were the least bit careless for their own safety. The fellow-worker rule, assumption of risk, and statutes of limitations further diminished workers’ likelihood of success in pursuing tort claims. One option that was not on the table in the negotiations was to open up liability of remote vendors to employers as a way to mitigate the hardships of the common law tort system. Remote suppliers had even more potent defenses in the form of privity of contract, intervening and superseding negligence of the employers and employees, and all the other defenses that employers enjoyed. More important, however, the interlocutors realized that employers controlled the workplace, and had the greatest opportunity to prevent industrial injuries and occupational disease. When the workman’s compensation bargain was struck, labor knew that the scheduled awards would be workers’ sole or main source of compensation.

Worker’s compensation statutes made recovery for most injuries a certainty, with schedules of damages that were deeply discounted from what might be had in a jury trial. In return for well-nigh absolute liability, employers gained certainty of outcome, reduction of administrative costs, and immunity to tort liability for all but intentional harms. The remedial compensation statutes gave employers immunity, but they did not eradicate the basic common law bases for suits against employers. But for the worker’s compensation statutes, employees would have rights of action against employers. Gaps in the compensation acts translated into gaps in immunity, and reversion to the common law of negligence.

The predicate for the “deal” began to disintegrate after World War II. For one thing, changes in tort law diminished the defenses that employers had exercised so effectively before the deal. Contributory negligence gave way to comparative negligence.  Assumption of risk defenses were curtailed, and the fellow-servant rule was severely modified or abandoned.

Just when Labor might have been feeling consumed by buyer’s remorse over its deal, strict liability principles began to replace privity doctrines. In 1965, the American Law Institute adopted § 402A which provided for “Special Liability of Seller of Product for Physical Harm to User or Consumer,” based upon concerns of unequal knowledge of defects and latent hazards of products sold to consumers. Liability followed for harm caused by a product irrespective of privity of contract or warranty, and even if “the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product.” Restatement (Second), Torts § 402A (2)(a),(b) (1965).

Section 402 became the vehicle for injured workers to ditch their capped damages in worker’s compensation court, and to put their cases back in front of juries, with the prospect of unlimited awards for non-economic damages. Although instigated by the perceived imbalance of knowledge between manufacturers and buyers with respect to design and manufacturing defects, strict liability doctrine quickly became a vehicle for redressing inadequacies in the workman’s compensation systems. What was problematic, however, was that there was often no inequality of knowledge between seller and purchaser, or hidden or latent hazard in the product or material.

There are exceptions to the exclusivity of workman’s compensation remedies against employers. One exception, available in most states, is for intentional torts committed by employers. The scienter requirement for intentional torts allowed only very few cases to proceed against employers in tort. A bigger gap in immunity, however, was opened in Pennsylvania, where workers regained their common law right to sue employers for negligence and other torts, for occupational diseases that manifest more than 300 weeks after last employment. Section 301(c)(2) of the Pennsylvania’s Workman’s Compensation Act, 77 P.S. § 411(2) removes these delayed manifested occupational disease claims from the scope of Pennsylvania’s Act. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court filled in the obvious logical gap: if the Act did not apply, then the employer had no immunity against a common law cause of action, which was never abolished, and was unavailable only when there was a statutory remedy under the Act. Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., 81 A.3d 851 (2013); “Pennsylvania Workers Regain Their Right of Action in Tort against Employers for Latent Occupational Diseases” (Feb. 14, 2014). See also Gidley v. W.R. Grace Co., 717 P.2d 21(Mont. 1986)).

The Tooey decision has the potential to open an important door for plaintiffs and defendants alike. With employer immunity erased, the employer’s duty of reasonable care to protect the health and safety of its employees can once again be harnessed to improve the lot of workers, without concocting Rube-Goldberg theories of liability against remote suppliers and premise owners. Juries will see the entire evidentiary case, including the actions and omissions of employers, which will tend to exculpate remote suppliers. Employers will be given incentives to train employees in workplace safety, and to document their efforts. Employers will assert comparative negligence and assumption of risk defenses, which will give the lie to the plaintiffs’ claims of inadequate warnings from the remote suppliers.  Tooey, and the prospect of employer liability, has the potential to improve the truth finding ability of juries in tort cases.

Folta v. Ferro Engineering, 2014 IL App (1st) 123219.

In June of last year, the Illinois intermediate appellate court followed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s lead in Tooey, and decided to allow a direct action against an employer when the employee’s claim was not within the scope of the Illinois workers’ compensation act. Folta v. Ferro Eng’g , 14 N.E.3d 717, 729 (Ill. App. Ct.), appeal allowed (Ill. S. Ct. Sept. 24, 2014). See Steven Sellers, “Workers’ Compensation System Threatened By Illinois Asbestos Decision, Companies Say,” 43 Product Safety & Liability Reporter (Jan. 8, 2015).

James Folta developed mesothelioma 41 years after leaving his employment with Ferro Engineering, a latency that put his claim outside the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act and Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act. The panel of the intermediate appellate court held that the same latency that denied Mr. Folta coverage, also worked to deny the employer immunity from common law suit. Mr. Folta’s asbestos exposure occurred at his Ferro workplace, from 1966 to 1970, during which time raw asbestos and many finished asbestos product suppliers provided warnings about the dangers of asbestos inhalation.

The BNA reporter, Mr. Sellers, quoted Mark Behrens, of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, as stating that:

“This case is part of an emerging national attack on state workers’ compensation systems by the personal injury bar.”

Id. Perhaps true, but the systems have been under critical attack from the public health community, legal reformers, labor, and industry, for some time. No one seems very happy with the system except employers in the specific moment and circumstance of asserting their immunity in tort actions. The regime of worker compensation immunity for employers has failed to foster worker safety and health, and it has worked to shift liability unfairly to remote suppliers who are generally not in a position to redress communication lapses in the workplace.

The Illinois Supreme Court has allowed Ferro Engineering to appeal the Folta case. Not surprisingly, the American Insurance Association, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and the Travelers Indemnity Company have filed an amicus brief in support of Ferro. Various companies — Caterpillar, Inc., Aurora Pump Co., Innophos, Inc., Rockwell Automation, Inc., United States Steel Corp., F.H. Leinweber Co., Inc., Driv-Lok, Inc., Ford Motor Co., and ExxonMobil Oil Corp. — have also banded together to file an amicus brief in support of Ferro. Ironically, many of these companies would benefit from abandoning employer immunity in occupational disease litigation. Taking the short view, the defense amicus brief argues that the Illinois Appellate Court’s decision distorts the “delicate balancing of competing interests,” and will lead to a flood of asbestos litigation in Illinois. The defense amicus further argues that the intermediate appellate court’s decision is “the first step towards unraveling the quid pro quo embodied in the acts.”

The problem with the defense position is that there already a flood of asbestos litigation in Illinois and elsewhere, and the problem lies not in damming the flood, but ensuring its equitable resolution. Divining what a legislature intended is always a risky business, but it seems unlikely it had any clear understanding of diseases with latencies in excess of 25 years. And while the Ferro decision has the potential to unravel the defense’s understanding of employer immunity in long-latency occupational disease cases, the real issue is whether bringing the employer to the table in civil litigation over occupational diseases will result in more equitable allocation of responsibility for the harms alleged. Even a “wrong” decision by the Illinois Supreme Court will have the advantage of inciting the Illinois legislature to clarify what it meant, and perhaps to recalibrate tort law to acknowledge the primary role of employers in providing safe workplaces.

Pennsylvania Workers Regain Their Right of Action in Tort against Employers for Latent Occupational Diseases

February 14th, 2014

Worker’s compensation legislation was part of great compromise in the rough-and-tumble battles between labor and management in the first few decades of the last century.  In virtually every state, employers had a common law duty to provide a reasonably safe workplace.  In tort litigation, however, employers enjoyed several powerful affirmative defenses:  contributory negligence, the fellow-servant rule, and assumption of risk.  Workers enjoyed increasingly sympathetic juries and generous damage awards.  Worker’s compensation statutes made recovery for most injuries a certainty, with schedules of damages that were deeply discounted from what might be had in a jury trial. In return for well-nigh absolute liability, employers gained certainty of outcome, reduction of administrative costs, and immunity to tort liability for all but intentional harms.

After World War II, tort law began to change dramatically.  Contributory negligence gave way to comparative negligence.  Assumption of risk defenses were curtailed, and the fellow-servant rule was severely modified or abandoned.  Labor was feeling buyers’ remorse over the workman’s compensation deal.

In 1965, the American Law Institute adopted § 402A which provided for “Special Liability of Seller of Product for Physical Harm to User or Consumer,” based upon concerns of unequal knowledge of defects and latent hazards of products sold to consumers. Liability followed for harm caused by a product irrespective of privity of contract or warranty, and even if “the seller has exercised all possible care in the preparation and sale of his product.” Restatement (Second), Torts § 402A (2)(a),(b) (1965).

Section 402A was inspired by tort cases in New Jersey and California, involving consumer products, but the Restatement was quickly, and unthinkingly, applied to sales made to large manufacturing employer-purchasers in which there was no real inequality of knowledge between seller and purchaser, or hidden or latent hazard in the product or material. (Think about how knowledgeable the United States Navy was about the hazards of asbestos insulation products it bought for ship building.) Section 402 became the vehicle for injured workers to ditch their capped damages in worker’s compensation court, and to put their cases back in front of juries, with the prospect of unlimited awards for non-economic damages.

In the workers’ compensation era, very few injured workers succeeded in making out intentional torts that would overcome their employers’ immunity to suit. Late last year, however, Pennsylvania workers regained their common law right to sue employers for negligence and other torts, for occupational diseases that manifest more than 300 weeks after last employment. Section 301(c)(2) of the Pennsylvania’s Workman’s Compensation Act, 77 P.S. § 411(2) removes these delayed manifested occupational disease claims from the scope of the Act. Since the Act’s inception, most courts have held that late manifestation (over 300 weeks) deprived the claimant of a recovery under the Act, but did not remove the employer’s immunity from suit. In an opinion issued in November 2013, Justice Todd, writing for herself and four other justices, held that the statute’s exclusion of late-manifesting occupational diseases (after 300 weeks) does not leave claimants without a remedy; the statute simply removes the latent disease cases from the purview of the Act, and returns them to the vicissitudes of common law litigation. Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., 81 A.3d 851 (2013).

The Tooey decision has profound implications for how occupational disease litigation claims will be litigated.  For decades, Pennsylvania juries were treated to a faux spectacle that suggested that plaintiffs, with claimed occupational diseases, were the “victims,” of remote suppliers’ failure to warn, when in reality their diseases were largely or totally the result of employer and employee negligence. Not only will plaintiffs sue their employers, but third-party vendors will seek contribution or indemnification from negligent employers. Employers will assert comparative negligence and assumption of risk defenses, which will give the lie to the plaintiffs’ claims of inadequate warnings from the remote suppliers.  Just possibly, Tooey will let the truth come out.

Rockefeller and McCarthy — The Rush from Responsibility

December 4th, 2013

William Rockefeller was the engineer who operated the Metro-North Railroad train at 83 mph around the Spuyten Dyvel curve, in the Bronx.  The general speed limit is 70 mph, and the speed limit going into the curve is 30 mph.  The train derailed, killing four passengers and injuring many more, some very seriously.  Rockefeller told investigators that he had become “dazed,” whatever that means in the absence of some “dazing” event.  Matt Flegenheimer & William K. Rashbaum, “Train Engineer Was Dazed Before Crash, Lawyer Says” (Dec. 3, 2013 ). George Orwell would have appreciated the slippery and soul-less use of the passive voice.  Who did the dazing?

Jeffrey P. Chartier, Rockefeller’s lawyer, described his client as suffering from “highway hypnosis.”  Chartier, testifying for his client, claimed that Rockefeller had lost concentration only momentarily, and that he was “extremely remorseful.” Metro-North trains are pretty substantial trains, not the sort that can accelerate momentarily from 30 to 82 mph.

Rockefeller is a member of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, and so, of course, his union representative, Anthony Bottalico, had to weigh in on the issue. Bottalico casually mentioned that Rockefeller had described himself as having nodded off before the derailment.  When pressed, Bottaclico realized his error in acknowledging responsibility, and he quickly changed up:

“People use the word ‘zoned out,’ ‘nod,’ ‘fell asleep,’ … I’m not a sleep expert.”

Bottalico’s indiscretion, in speaking to the media about a pending investigation (and trying to spin the facts to exculpate the union engineer) led the safety board to remove the union as a party to the investigation.

The search for responsibility is part of our human condition.  Legal categories often drive the search.  In occupational exposure cases, employers have tort immunity by virtue of workman’s compensation immunity.  The Depression-era bargain between labor and management on workplace injuries pushes our legal system, and the litigation industry, to place responsibility on remote vendors of products and raw materials to the workplace, despite their lack of control over the dissemination of information on the job.  In most so-called sophisticated intermediary cases, the accident or injury would not have occurred at all had the employer and the employees done their respective jobs with respect to providing a safe workplace.

In the Spuyten Duyvil crash, Rockefeller’s lawyer and rail safety pundits suggest that automatic systems might have prevented the derailment.  The hard fact remains, however, that Rockefeller was the most important link in the causal chain.  He was the “least expensive” means to avoid the disaster because it was his job and his responsibility to do so.  Had Rockefeller simply done his job, four people killed in the crash would be alive today.  And many more would not be crippled and in pain.

In today’s New York Times, Joe Nocera muses about how Long Island Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, was diagnosed with lung cancer. McCarthy, who is 69 years old, was a life-long cigarette smoker, yet in her court filings she refers to her lung cancer as her asbestos disease. Joe Nocera, “The Asbestos Scam” N.Y. Times (Dec. 3, 2013). We live in a free country (well, sort of free) and people should be free to deceive themselves and indulge their superstitions.  But surely we can draw the line at deceiving others with such nonsense.  McCarthy was never an asbestos insulator or an asbestos-exposed tradesperson.  McCarthy’s lawyer, supposedly told The New York Post that “it has been conclusively proven that cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure act synergistically to cause lung cancer.”

Nocera points out that in fact it has not.  Even Selikoff himself, who did so much to perpetuate a theory of multiplicative, synergistic reactivity, wrote that his insulator cohort synergistic risk estimates could not be extrapolated to other exposures (such as the evanescent household exposures alleged by Congresswoman McCarthy):

“These particular figures apply to the particular groups of asbestos workers in this study.  The net synergistic effect would not have been the same if their smoking habits had been different; and it probably would have been different if their lapsed time from first exposure to asbestos dust had been different or if the amount of asbestos dust they had inhaled had been different.”

Selikoff, et al., “Asbestos Exposure, Cigarette Smoking and Death Rates,” 330 Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. at 487 (1979). Despite Selikoff’s atypical care, his colleagues who carried the Mt. Sinai banner into courtrooms all around this country, glibly ignored his qualification.  See alsoIrving Selikoff and the Right to Peaceful Dissembling.”  Of course, when Selikoff’s heirs updated his insulator study, they did not find evidence of interaction even for insulators who lacked sufficiently heavy exposure to cause asbestosis.  Steve Markowitz, Stephen Levin, Albert Miller, and Alfredo Morabia, “Asbestos, Asbestosis, Smoking and Lung Cancer: New Findings from the North American Insulator Cohort,” Am. J. Respir. & Critical Care Med. (2013). SeeThe Mt. Sinai Catechism” (June 7, 2013).  I doubt that these qualifications will find their way into the reporting of The New York Post.

Ultimately, Irving Selikoff and his heirs helped create a litigation industry that has placed responsibility for asbestos disease on vendors, not employers, and completely out of proportion to any realistic appraisal of traditional tort law. Rockefeller and McCarthy, and Selikoff (and the litigation industry he helped to start) all illustrate the misallocation of responsibility for avoidable human suffering.  Denialism is where you find it.