I recall encountering Dr. Joseph Sokolowski in one of my first asbestos personal injury cases, 32 years ago. Dr. Sokolowki was a pulmonary specialist in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and he showed up for plaintiffs in cases in south Jersey as well as in Philadelphia. Plaintiffs’ counsel sought him out for his calm and unflappable demeanor, stentorious voice, and propensity for over-interpreting chest radiographs. (Dr. Sokolowski failed the NIOSH B-Reader examination.)
At the end of his direct examination, the plaintiff’s lawyer asked Dr. Sokolowski the derigueur “substantial factor” question, which in 1985 had already become a customary feature of such testimonies. And Dr. Sokolowski delivered his well-rehearsed answer: “Each and every exposure to asbestos was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s disease.”
My cross-examination picked at the cliché. Some asbestos inhaled was then exhaled. Yes. Some asbestos inhaled was brought up and swallowed. Yes. Asbestos that was inhaled and retained near the hilum did not participate in causing disease at the periphery of the lung. Yes. And so on, and so forth. I finished with my rhetorical question, always a dangerous move, “So you have no way to say that each and every exposure to asbestos actually participated in causing the plaintiff’s disease?” Dr. Sokolowski was imperceptibly thrown off his game, but he confessed error by claiming the necessity to cover up the gap in the evidence. “Well, we have no way to distinguish among the exposures so we have to say all were involved.”
Huh? What did he say? Move to strike the witness’s testimony as irrational, and incoherent. How can a litigant affirmatively support a claim by asserting his ignorance of the necessary foundational facts? The trial judge overruled my motion with alacrity, and the parties continued with the passion play called asbestos litigation. The judge was perhaps simply eager to get on with his docket of thousands of asbestos cases, but at least Dr. Sokolowski and I recognized that the “substantial factor” testimony was empty rhetoric, with no scientific or medical basis.
Sadly, the “substantial factor” falsehood was already well ensconced in 1985, in Pennsylvania law, as well as the law of most other states. Now, 32 years later, with ever increasingly more peripheral defendants, each involving less significant, if any, asbestos exposure, the “substantial factor” ruse is beginning to unravel.1
Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co.
Arthur Juni was a truck and car car mechanic, who worked on the clutches, brakes, and manifold gaskets of Ford trucks. Juni claimed to have sustained asbestos exposure in this work, as well as in other aspects of his work career. In 2012, Juni was diagnosed with mesothelioma; he died in 2014. Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Products Co., at *1,No. 190315/12 2458 2457, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 01523 (N.Y. App. Div. 1st Dep’t, Feb. 28, 2017).
Juni sued multiple defendants in New York Supreme Court, for New York County. Most of the defendants settled, but Ford Corporation tried the case against the plaintiff’s widow. Both sides called multiple expert witnesses, whose testimony disputed whether the chrysotile asbestos in Ford’s brakes and clutches could cause mesothelioma. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, but the trial court granted judgment nothwithstanding the verdict, on the ground that the evidence failed to support the causation verdict. Id. At *1; see Juni v. A. 0. Smith Water Prod., 48 Misc. 3d 460, 11 N.Y.S.3d 415 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2015).
Earlier this week, the first department of the New York Appellate Division affirmed the judgment for Ford. 2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 01523. The Appellate Division refused to approve plaintiffs’ theory of cumulative exposure to show causation. The plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Drs. Jacqueline Moline and Stephen Markowitz, both asserted that even a single asbestos exposure was a “substantial contributing” cause. The New York appellate court, like the trial court before, saw through the ruse, and declared that both expert witnesses had failed to support their assertions.
The “Asbestos Exception” Rejected
Although New York has never enacted a codified set of evidence rules, and has never expressly adopted the rule of Daubert v. Merrill Richardson, the New York Court of Appeals has held that there are limits to the admissibility of expert witness opinion testimony. Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., 7 N.Y.3d 434 (2006), and Cornell v. 360 W. 51st St. Realty, LLC, 22 NY3d 762 (2014); Sean Reeps. v BMW of North Am., LLC, 26 N.Y.3d 801 (2016). In Juni, the Appellate Division, First Department, firmly rejected any suggestion that plaintiffs’ expert witnesses in asbestos cases are privileged against challenge over admissibility or sufficiency because the challenges occur in an asbestos case. The plaintiff’s special pleading that asbestos causation of mesothelioma is too difficult was invalidated by the success of other plaintiffs, in other cases, in showing that a specific occupational exposure was sufficient to cause mesothelioma.
The Appellate Division also rejected the plaintiff’s claim, echoed in the dissenting opinion of one lone judge, that there exists a “consensus from the medical and scientific communities that even low doses of asbestos exposure, above that in the ambient environment, are sufficient to cause mesothelioma.” The Court held that this supposed consensus is not material to the claims of a particular plaintiff against a particular defendant, especially when the particular exposure circumstance is not associated with mesothelioma in most of the relevant studies. In Juni, the defense had presented many studies that failed to show any association between occupational brake work and mesothelioma. The court might also have added that a characterization of low exposure is extremely amiguous, depending upon the implicit comparison that is being made with other exposures. It is impossible to fit a particular plaintiff’s exposure into the scale of low, medium, and high without some further context.
Single Exposure Sufficiency Rejected
The evidence that chrysotile itself causes mesothelioma remains weak, but the outcome of Juni turned not on the broad general causation question, but on the question whether even suggestive evidence of chrysotile causation had been established for the exposure circumstances of an automobile mechanic, such as Mr. Juni. Plaintiffs’ expert witnesses maintained that Juni’s cumulative asbestos exposures caused his mesothelioma, but they had no meaningful quantification or even reasonable estimate of his exposure.
Citing the Court of Appeals decision in Reeps, the Appellate Division held that plaintiff’s expert witnesses’ causation opinions must be supported by reasonable quantification of the plaintiff’s exposure, or some some scientific method, such as mathematical modeling based upon actual work history, or by comparison of plaintiff’s claimed exposure with the exposure of workers in reported studies that establish a relevant risk from those workers’ exposure. In the Juni case, however, there were no exposure measurements or scientific models, and the comparison with workers doing similar tasks failed to show a causal relationship between the asbestos exposure in those tasks and mesothelioma.
Expert Witness Admissibility and Sufficiency Requires Evaluation of Both Direct and Cross-examination Testimony and Relied Upon Studies
The Juni decision teaches another important lesson for challenging expert witness testimony in New York: glib generalizations delivered on direct examination must be considered in the light of admissions and concessions made on cross-examination, and the entire record. In Juni, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses, Jacqueline Moline and Stephen Markowitz, asserted that asbestos in Ford’s friction products was a cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma. Cross-examination, however, revealed that these assertions were lacking in factual support.
On cross-examination, the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ statements about exposure levels proved meaningless. Moline attempted to equate visible dust with sufficient asbestos exposure to cause disease, but she conceded on cross-examination that studies had shown that 99% of brake lining debris was not asbestos. Most of the dust observed from brake drums is composed of resins used to manufacture brake linings and pads. The heat and pressure of the brake drum causes much of the remaining chrysotile to transform into a non-fibrous mineral, fosterite.
Similarly, Markowitz had to acknowledge that chrysotile has a “serpentine” structure, with individual fibers curling in a way that makes deeper penetration into the lungs more difficult. Furthermore, chrysotile, a hydrated magnesium silicate, melts in the lungs, not in the hands. The human lung can clear particulates, and so there is no certainty that remaining chrysotile fibers from brake lining exposures ever reach the periphery of the lung, where they could interact with the pleura, the tissue in which mesothelioma arises.
Increased Risk, “Linking,” and Association Are Not Causation – Exculpatory Epidemiologic Studies
When pressed, plaintiffs’ expert witnesses lapsed into characterizing the epidemiologic studies of brake and automobile mechanics as showing increased risk or association, not causation. Causation, not association, however, was the issue. Witnesses’ invocation of weasel words, such as “increased risk,” “linkage,” and “association” are insufficient in themselves to show the requisite causation in long-latency toxic exposure cases. For automobile mechanics, even the claimed association was weak at best, with plaintiffs’ expert witnesses having to acknowledge that 21 of 22 epidemiologic studies failed to show an association between automobile mechanics’ asbestos exposure and risk of mesothelioma.
The Juni case was readily distinguishable from other cases in which the Markowitz was able to identify epidemiologic studies that showed that visible dust from a specific product contained sufficient respirable asbestos to cause mesothelioma. Id. (citing Caruolo v John Crane, Inc., 226 F.3d 46 (2d Cir. 2000). As the Appellate Division put the matter, there was no “no valid line of reasoning or permissible inference which could have led the jury to reach its result.” Asbestos plaintiffs must satisfy the standards set out in the New York Court of Appeals decisions, Parker v. Mobil Oil Corp., 7 NY3d 434 2006), and Cornell v. 360 W. 51st St. Realty, LLC, 22 N.Y.3d 762 (2014), for exposure evidence and causal inferences, as well.
New York now joins other discerning courts in rejecting regulatory rationales of “no safe exposure,” and default “linear no threshold” exposure-response models as substitutes for inferring specific causation.2 A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but in jurisprudence, consistency is often the bedrock for the rule of law.
1 The ruse of passing off “no known safe exposure” as evidence that even the lowest exposure was unsafe has been going on for a long time, but not all judges are snookered by this rhetorical sleight of hand. See, e.g., Bostic v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 439 S.W.3d 332, 358 (Tex. 2014) (“the failure of science to isolate a safe level of exposure does not prove specific causation”).
2 See, e.g. Bostic v. Georgia-Pacific Corp., 439 S.W.3d 332, 358 (Tex. 2014) (failing to identify safe levels of exposure does not suffice to show specific causation); Henricksen v. ConocoPhillips Co., 605 F. Supp. 2d 1142, 1165-66 (E.D. Wash. 2009) (rejecting a “no threshold” model of exposure-response as unfalsifiable and unvalidated, and immaterial to the causation claims); Pluck v. BP Oil Pipeline Co., 640 F.3d 671, 679 (6th Cir. 2011) (rejecting claim that plaintiff’s exposure to benzene “above background level,” but below EPA’s maximum permissible contaminant level, caused her cancer); Newkirk v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 727 F. Supp. 2d 10006, 1015 (E.D. Wash. 2010) (rejecting Dr. David Egilman’s proffered testimony on specific causation based upon his assertion that there was no known safe level of diacetyl exposure).