Further Thoughts on the Carter Apportionment Case – The Pennsylvania Experience

Carter is hard to square with commentators and precedent and the logic of the law. Juries, in their fact-finding roles, apportion in various contexts. In actions for negligence, juries consider the relative faults of the parties, and apportion responsibility in the absence of any definite quantitative basis. In considering crossclaims among defendants, juries in many states must assess each defendants relative causal contribution to the plaintiff’s overall injury and apportion liability. See, e.g., Moore v. Johns-Mansville Sales Corp., 781 F.2d 1061, 1062-65 (5th Cir. 1986) (rejecting pro-rata liability in favor of apportioned liability based upon relative causation of dose-related diseases)

Mathematical certainty is not a prerequisite to apportionment; evidence that tends to show relative proportions of damages caused by each tortfeasor, or other source, is sufficient for a jury to apportion properly. See, e.g., Scafidi v Seiler, 119 N.J. 93, 113, 574 A.2d 398 (1990) (apportionment is a traditional jury function). See also Restatement (Third) of Torts: Physical and Emotional Harm § 28, comment d (2010) (“Death as an injury may not be divisible, but damages for death are divisible.”).

As we saw in Carter, the Maryland Court of Appeals insisted upon characterizing apportionment of damages as based upon fault, when it clearly can be accomplished without reference to fault. As seen in New Jersey law and in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, apportionment on causal principles is encouraged. See Section 433A, comment a (apportionment is proper when one of the causes is the conduct of the plaintiff, regardless of whether the plaintiff’s conduct is negligent or innocent). Workman compensation cases provide many examples of fault-free, causal apportionment. See, e.g., Jenkins v. Halstead Indus., 17 Ark. App. 197, 706 S.W.2d 191 (1986) (apportionment in non-fault based workers’ compensation case). Even when apportionment is based upon fault principles, claims of synergy or mathematical inexactitude do not create a bar to reasonable divisions of damages[1].

Judges in Pennsylvania, who have heard both sides of the evidence in asbestos/smoking lung cancer cases, have upheld juries’ causal apportionments of damages. In Parker v. Bell Asbestos Mines, Ltd., plaintiff sued for her deceased husband’s death from lung cancer. Her decedent had been a heavy smoker for many years, and he had been exposed minimally to asbestos in his office job on the property of an asbestos product manufacturing plant. Plaintiffs expert witnesses (Dr. Rubin) testified that the cancer and death were the result of synergistic risk of smoking and asbestos exposure, and that they did not know how to distinguish between the risks. The defense expert witnesses (Dr. Cooper and Epstein) opined that the cancer was due solely to smoking. Judge Huyett instructed the jury that it could choose to apportion damages between asbestos and tobacco, and the jury did so. A strong panel of the Third Circuit affirmed the apportionment instruction to the jury and the jury finding. Parker v. Bell Asbestos Mines, Ltd., No. 86-1197, Slip Op. (Dec. 30, 1987) (per curiam) (Weis, Higginbotham, and Hansmann, JJ.) (affirming judgment entered on verdict that apportioned causation of lung cancer and consequent death, but remanding on a liability issue), reported only for disposition at 838 F.2d 462 (3d Cir. 1987). For about five years after Parker, the federal district courts in the Third Circuit generally followed the practice of Judge Huyett, who was affirmed by the Circuit, in giving apportionment charges[2].

The defense’s uniform success in obtaining apportionment charges in Pennsylvania law diversity cases ended with Borman v. Raymark Indus., Inc., 960 F.2d 327 (3d Cir. 1992). In Borman, neither the defendants’ (Dr. William Weiss) nor the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses (Dr. Daniel Dupont) apportioned damages in a case involving an asbestos insulator, who smoked heavily, and died of lung cancer. Borman, 960 F.2d at 331. Dr. Dupont recited the dubious 5-10-50 Mt. Sinai catechism, and gave the requisite concession that he was ignorant of any method to apportion the lung cancer outcome to asbestos and tobacco. Dr. Weiss testified that asbestos was the sole cause of Mr. Borman’s lung cancer. On this record, the trial judge, Hon. Edmund Ludwig, refused to charge the jury on apportionment. The Third Circuit affirmed on its prediction that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would disallow apportionment because the defense expert had never been asked to apportion causation, and thus the defendants could not carry their burden of proving a reasonable basis for apportionment. Id. at 334-35.

The Borman decision raised a difficult problem, which the panel of Judges Sloviter, Scirica, and Alito, never addressed: why had the defense not carried its burden of showing a basis for apportionment when:

(1) all expert witnesses agreed that tobacco was a cause of the plaintiff’s cancer;

(2) jury heard the quantified risks of tobacco and asbestos, which showed that tobacco had been a larger risk in the plaintiff’s case; and

(3) the plaintiff’s expert witness’s admitted ignorance with respect to how the outcome might be attributed to the individual risks.

The last point would have supported a directed verdict for the defense, but given that the case was permitted to go forward, the Borman decision represents the unfair allocation of tobacco-caused (or tobacco risked) damages to defendants sued for asbestos products.[3]

Borman also poses a serious constitutional due process problem. The defendant on appeal cited to the unpublished Third Circuit opinion Court, Parker v. Bell Asbestos Mines, Ltd., No. 86-1197, slip op. at 2-7 (3d Cir. Dec. 30, 1987) (per curiam). The Circuit essentially ignored this precedent because it was unpublished and thus had no “precedential value.” 960 F.2d at 333 n.9 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing Third Circuit Internal Operating Procedure 5.6 (July 1990)). The characterization of the earlier Parker decision as having no precedential value, when it resolved the same legal issues between other parties, and provided notice to other litigants how the Third Circuit resolved the issue, was quite arbitrary.[4] The Third Circuit’s current IOP continues the distinction between precedential and non-precedential opinions. See also United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Local Appellate Rule 28.3(b) (Citation Form; Certification) (Aug. 1, 2011) (“For each legal proposition supported by citations in the argument, counsel must cite to any opposing authority if such authority is binding on this court, e.g., U.S. Supreme Court decisions, published decisions of this court, or, in diversity cases, decisions of the highest state court.) (emphasis added). The upshot of the practice of marking decisions non-precedential is that judges are permitted to decide like cases differently solely because the earlier judges decided to keep their decisions “private.”

Between the Third Circuit’s Parker decision in 1987, and its Borman decision in 1992, many state court judges in Pennsylvania gave apportionment charges. Judge Della Porta’s charge in Dixon v. Celotex Corp., was typical and it resulted in the jury’s apportioning damages in a smoking lung cancer case, involving some asbestos exposure, to both tobacco and asbestos. Dixon v. Celotex Corp., Phila. Cty. Ct. C.P. No. 4576, Oct. Term 1982, Opinion Sur Post-Trial Motions at p.3 (Mar. 3, 1991) (affirming judgment entered upon jury verdict, which apportioned the causes of plaintiff’s lung cancer 65% to cigarette smoking and 35% to asbestos exposure). Judge Della Porta was especially unimpressed by the complaint that the apportionment lacked a mathematical basis with apodictic certainty:

“It is worth noting here that we engage in sophistry if it is required that some mathematical formula be presented to the jury before it can allocate percentages when there are two or more causes for one injury. Let’s not forget that this is the same jury which is asked to determine the monetary value of ‛pain and suffering’ without any guidance whatsoever on how to arrive at a fair and adequate figure.”

Id. See also Mohan v. Carey Canadian Ltd., Phila. Cty. Ct. C.P., No. 8007-3931 (Charge to Jury on April 9, 1986) (Hon. Berel Caesar) (jury instruction that pre-dated Parker: “if you find that you can reasonably split out the effects of asbestos and the injuries caused by asbestos from the injuries caused by smoking, then you should do so and assign a percentage to them.”)

In one lung cancer case, tried in 1992 in Philadelphia state court, the defense presented a defense expert witness (Dr. Theodore Rodman) that tobacco and asbestos contributed equally to plaintiff’s lung cancer. The plaintiff’s expert witness (Dr. Irwin Stoloff) hedged, but acknowledged that both asbestos and tobacco contributed, with asbestos perhaps more so. Dorothy Rothermel, Executrix of the Estate of Leland Rothermel, Deceased v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., et al., No. 8704-1464 (Philadelphia Cty. July 17, 1992) (Judge Richard B. Klein). On these facts, distinguishable from the Borman case, the trial judge gave an apportionment instruction:

The trial judge, waxing professorial, charged the jury as follows regarding the apportionment of causation:

“The next question, the first part of it is, ‛Is there a reasonable basis to apportion responsibility for Mr. Rothermel’s lung cancer between cigarette smoking and asbestos exposure’. Why did we ask that question? Because pretty much the formal statement of the law, which is put forth by a number of professors and adopted by the courts, is called the Restatement of the law. This is in torts, and says damages are to be apportioned among two or more causes when A, there are distinct harms, or B, there is a reasonable basis for determining the contribution of each cause to a single harm.

Well, there aren’t distinct harms here that we’re talking about. That would be, for example, if someone has in this kind of a context both asbestos is and emphysema from cigarette smoking. So part of your shortness of breath is caused by emphysema, and part of it is caused by asbestos if it’s symptomatic, and the doctors will tell you how much of each they think it is, but then you come to a figure. But this is one disease, lung cancer, and it’s up to you to figure out whether it’s appropriate to apportion.

* * *

The first question is do you think this is something where it’s appropriate to divide it between the two or not. If you do, then make that division[.] …[Y]ou’ve heard what the different doctors said, one says 50/50, the other says somewhat less than 50 percent due to smoking, asbestos is a little more than that, based on his reasoning.

So it’s up to you first to decide if it’s appropriate, and if it’s reasonable, there’s a reasonable way to separate the two of them out as [causative] factors and to make the allocation, and then if so, then you go to B and divide them up, just making sure that the two equal 100 percent. If you don’t think it’s appropriate to allocate between the two of them, then skip to No. 3.

* * *

. . . [W]hen you come to a damage figure, even if you have allocated between asbestos and cigarette smoking, don’t discount for that in the damage phase. We’ll do that later.”

Trial Transcript, July 2, 1990, at 117-25 (Instructions of Hon. Richard B. Klein).

The jury apportioned damages equally between asbestos and tobacco, consistent with the defense expert witness’s testimony. By post-trial motion, the defendant, Owens-Illinois, requested the trial court to mold the injury’s verdict to reflect this apportionment. The court denied this motion, 24 Phila. 332 (1992), and the Superior Court affirmed in an unpublished per curiam decision. 433 Pa. Super. 643, 638 A.2d 276 (1993). After a full briefing and oral argument in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, that Court dismissed the appeal as having been improvidently granted. Rothermel v. Owens-Illinois Glass Co., 542 Pa. 358; 667 A.2d 2 (1995) (per curiam). In other words, the Pennsylvania justices did not want to call whether Borman had accurately predicted their decision, because they would not decide.

Pennsylvania law on apportionment, as is the case with so much of Pennsylvania products liability law, remains unclear and up in the air.

[1] See, e.g., Brisboy v. Fibreboard Corp., 429 Mich. 540, 556, 418 N.W.2d 650, 657 (1988)(upholding jury apportionment, under comparative negligence principles, of the roles of plaintiff’s cigarette smoking and the defendant’s asbestos product in causing plaintiff’s lung cancer); Hao v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 69 Haw. 231, 738 P.2d 416 (1987) (fault-based apportionment ratio of 51% smoking to 49% asbestos affirmed); Gideon v. Johns-Manville Sales Corp., 761 F.2d 1129, 1138-40 (5th Cir. 1985) (under Texas law, determination of apportionment is for the jury; it is capable of weighing the evidence as to each potential cause); Fulgium v. Armstrong World Indus., Inc., 645 F. Supp. 761, 763 (W.D. La. 1986) (apportionment allowed under Louisiana law); Champagne v. Raybestos-Manhattan, Inc., 212 Conn. 509, 562 A.2d 1100, 1118 (1989) (commenting on the jury verdict apportioning damages: “It is the province of the jury to determine the credibility and weight to be given the evidence”)

[2] DeSilvio v. Raymark Indus., Inc., No. 86-2340, U.S.D.C., E.D. Pa., Court’s Charge and Interrogatories to the Jury, N.T. at 3.82-83 (Oct. 21, 1988) (Hon. Norma L. Shapiro) (applying New Jersey law of causal apportionment to instruct the jury that it could apportion plaintiff’s claimed fear of cancer between smoking and asbestos causes); Jordan v. Fibreboard Corp., No. 85-5655, Jury Instruction on Apportionment of lung cancer in asbestos case, June 16, 1989 (McGlynn, J.); Backman v. Celotex Corp., Civil Action No. 87-4081 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 8, 1990) (Jury Charge and Interrogatory); Henderson v. Keene Corp., Charge to the Jury and Verdict Sheet in Civ. Action No. 87-7973 (E.D. Pa. 1991) (Pollak, J.).

[3] See Richard A. Shuter, “Apportionment of Damages–Third Circuit Predicts Pennsylvania Courts Would Not Allow Jury to Apportion Liability In A Cigarette Smoking, Exposure Case–Borman v. Raymark Ind., Inc.,” 66 Temp. L. Rev. 223, 229 (1993) (“All other jurisdictions that have addressed the apportionment of damages issue in an asbestos exposure, cigarette smoking case, have permitted the jury to apportion damages.”).

[4] No citation and no precedent rules are deeply problematic, and have attracted a great deal of scholarly attention.  See Erica Weisgerber, “Unpublished Opinions: A Convenient Means to an Unconstitutional End,” 97 Georgetown L.J. 621 (2009);  Rafi Moghadam, “Judge Nullification: A Perception of Unpublished Opinions,” 62 Hastings L.J. 1397 (2011);  Norman R. Williams, “The failings of Originalism:  The Federal Courts and the Power of Precedent,” 37 U.C.. Davis L. Rev. 761 (2004);  Dione C. Greene, “The Federal Courts of Appeals, Unpublished Decisions, and the ‘No-Citation Rule,” 81 Indiana L.J. 1503 (2006);  Vincent M. Cox, “Freeing Unpublished Opinions from Exile: Going Beyond the Citation Permitted by Proposed Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32.1,” 44 Washburn L.J. 105 (2004);  Sarah E. Ricks, “The Perils of Unpublished Non-Precedential Federal Appellate Opinions: A Case Study of The Substantive Due Process State-Created Danger Doctrine in One Circuit,” 81 Wash. L.Rev. 217 (2006);  Michael J. Woodruff, “State Supreme Court Opinion Publication in the Context of Ideology and Electoral Incentives.” New York University Department of Politics (March 2011);   Michael B. W. Sinclair, “Anastasoff versus Hart: The Constitutionality and Wisdom of Denying Precedential Authority to Circuit Court Decisions.”  See generally The Committee for the Rule of Law (website) (collecting scholarship and news on the issue of unpublished and supposedly non-precedential opinions).

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