Railroading Scientific Evidence of Causation in Court

Harold Tanfield spent 40 years or so working for Consolidated Rail Corporation (and its predecessors), from 1952 to 1992.  Mr. Tanfield’s widow sued Conrail, under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (“FELA”), 45 U.S.C.A. §§ 51-60, for negligently overexposing her late husband to diesel fumes, which allegedly caused him to develop lung cancer. Tanfield v. Leigh RR, No. A-4170-12T2, New Jersey Superior Court, App. Div. (Aug. 11, 2014) Slip op. at 3. [cited below as Tanfield].

The trial court granted Conrail summary judgment on grounds that plaintiff failed to show that Conrail had breached a duty of care.  The appellate court reversed and remanded for trial. The Appellate Division’s decision is “per curiam,” and franked “not for publication without the approval of the Appellate Division.” Only two of the usual three appellate judges participated.  The panel decided the case one week after it was submitted.

The plaintiff relied upon two witness, a co-worker of her husband, and an expert witness, Steven R. Tahan, M.D.  Dr. Tahan is a pathologist, an Associate Professor, Department of Pathology, Harvard Medical School, and the Director of Dermatopathology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  Dr. Tahan’s website lists melanoma as his principal research interest. A PubMed search reveals no publications on diesel fume, occupational disease, or lung cancer.  Dr. Tahan’s principal research interest, skin pathology, was decidedly not at issue in the Tanfield case.

The panel of the Appellate Division quoted from the relevant paragraphs of Tahan’s report:

“Mr. Tanfield was a railroad worker for 35 years, where he was exposed to a large number of carcinogenic chemicals and fumes, including asbestos, antimony, arsenic, benzene, beryllium, cadmium, carbon disulfide, cyanide, DDT, diesel fumes, diesel fuel, dioxins, ethylbenzene, lead, methylene chloride, mercury, naphthalene, petroleum hydrocarbon, polychlorinated biphenyls, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, toluene, vinyl acetate, and other volatile organics.

I have reviewed the cytology and biopsy slides from the right lung and confirm that he had a poorly differentiated malignant non-small cell carcinoma with both adenocarcinomatous and squamous features.  I have reached the following conclusions to a reasonable degree of medical certainty based on review of the above materials, my education, training, and experience, and review of published studies.

Mr. Tanfield’s more than 35 year substantial occupational exposure to an extensive array of carcinogens and diesel fumes without provision of protective equipment such as masks, respirators, and other filters created a long-term hazard that substantially multiplied his risk for developing lung cancer over the baseline he had as a former smoker.  It is more likely than not that his occupational exposure to diesel fumes and other carcinogenic toxins present in his workplace was a significant causative factor for his development of lung cancer and death from his cancer.”

Tanfield at 6-7.

Mr. Tanfield’s co-worker testified to what appeared to him to be excessive diesel fumes in the workplace, but there is no mention of any quantitative or qualitative evidence to any other lung carcinogen.  The Appellate Division states that the above three paragraphs represent the substance of Dr. Tahan’s report, and so it appears that there is no quantification of Tanfield’s smoking abuse, or the length of time between his discontinuing his smoking and the diagnosis of his lung cancer.  There is no discussion of any support for the alleged interaction between risks, or for any quantification of the extent of his increased risk from his lifestyle choices as opposed to his workplace exposure(s). There is no discussion of what Dr. Tahan visualized in his review of cytology and pathology slides, which permitted him to draw inferences about the actual causes of Mr. Tanfield’s lung cancer.

The trial judge proceeded on the assumption that there was an adequate proffer of expert opinion on causation, but that Dr. Tahan’s opinions on the failure to provide masks or respirators was a “net opinion,” a bit out of Tahan’s area of expertise.  Tanfield at 8. The Appellate Division apparently thought having a skin pathologist opine about the duty of care for a railroad was good enough for government work.  The appellate court gave the widow the benefit of the lower evidentiary threshold for negligence under FELA, which supposedly excuses the lack of an industrial hygiene opinion.  Tanfield at 10.  According to the two-judge panel, “[t]he doctor’s [Tahan’s] opinions are backed by professional literature and by his own considerable years of research and experience.” Tanfield at 11.  The Panel’s statement is all the more remarkable given that Tahan had never published on lung cancer, exposure assessments, or industrial hygiene measures; the vaunted experience of this witness was irrelevant to the issues in the case. Perhaps even more disturbing are the gaps in the proofs concerning the lack of causal connection between many of the alleged exposures and lung cancer generally, any discussion that the level of exposure to diesel fumes, from 1952 to 1992, was such that the railroads knew or should have known that that level of diesel fume caused lung cancer in workers.  And then there is the lurking probability that Mr. Tanfield’s smoking was the sole cause of his lung cancer.

Over 50 years ago, the New York Court of Appeals rejected a claim for leukemia, based upon allegations of benzene exposure, without any quantification of risk from the alleged exposure.  Miller v. National Cabinet Co., 8 N.Y.2d 277, 283-84, 168 N.E.2d 811, 813-15, 204 N.Y.S.2d 129, 132-34, modified on other grounds, 8 N.Y.2d 1025, 70 N.E.2d 214, 206 N.Y.S.2d 795 (1960). It is time to raise the standard for New Jersey courts’ consideration of epidemiologic evidence.

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