Seventh Circuit Franks ‘Every Exposure’ Theory for Extinction

In Krik v. Exxon Mobil Corp., no. 15-3112, 2017 WL 3768933, Slip op. (7th Cir. Aug. 31, 2017) [slip op. cited as Krik], a jury found that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer, which is not particularly noteworthy. The plaintiff, Charles Krik, however, wanted the jury to find that asbestos exposure, either alone or with his 45 pack-year smoking history caused his lung cancer. The jury found that smoking was the sole cause. Hannah Meisel, “7th Circuit Affirms Exxon’s Trial Win In Asbestos Cancer Suit,” Law360 (Sept. 1, 2017).

Krik’s asbestos exposure was not particularly impressive, and he apparently did not have asbestosis. He claimed asbestos exposure from his four years of work aboard naval vessels, occasionally removing insulation materials, and his two weeks as an independent contractor at an Exxon Mobil refinery, where he replaced heaters supposedly insulated with asbestos. Exxon Mobil disputed whether the heaters even had asbestos in them. The naval vessels would have had asbestos insulation from many manufacturers, but Krik focused on Owens-Illinois because it is the only solvent company remaining in the plaintiffs’ asbestos-powered perpetual litigation machine.

Lung cancer in a man with minor asbestos exposure with very substantial tobacco consumption – who are you going to call? See Arthur Frank Report, 2011 WL 12192776 (2011).

Arthur Frank is a physician who counts himself among the intellectual progeny of the late Irving Selikoff. Like Selikoff, Frank is intensely interested in outcomes that help workers show that their work has caused them illness. In furthering his interests, Frank sometimes makes things up, such as the “each and every exposure” theory. Frank is also a proponent of the “big-tent” theory of causation, which attempts to keep every possible defendant in a lawsuit, bu asserting that every asbestos exposure, regardless of its intensity, duration, quantity, variety of asbestos, or fiber length, constitutes a cause of plaintiff’s lung cancer.

Defendants moved to bar Frank’s opinions under Federal Rule of Evidence 702. See Exxon Mobil’s motion, at 2013 WL 10847058. Judge Lee of the Northern District of Illinois found that Arthur Frank’s opinions, in the form of the “each and every exposure theory,” “any exposure theory,” “single fiber theory,” or “no safe level of exposure theory” was scientifically insubstantial and inadmissible under Rule 702. Krik at 2-3. Judge Lee thus ruled that Krik could not offer expert witness opinions that espoused “every exposure” is substantial.

After Judge Lees’ ruling, Krik’s case was transferred to Judge Manish Shah, for trial. Despite the earlier ruling by Judge Lee, Krik’s counsel called Dr. Frank to testify at trial, with a repackaged opinion about Krik’s “cumulative exposure” caused his lung cancer, and every constituent exposure to that cumulative exposure was causally responsible.

After a voir dire examination of Frank, Judge Shah concluded that Frank’s opinion was still untethered to any “specific quantum of exposure attributable to the defendants, but was instead based on his medical and scientific opinion that every exposure is a substantial contributing factor to the cumulative exposure that causes cancer.” Krik v. Owens‐Illinois, Inc., No. 10‐CV‐07435, 2015 WL 5050143, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 25, 2015). Frank and plaintiffs’ counsel had attempted to circumvent the earlier ruling by Judge Lee, but their ruse failed to fool Judge Shah. On appeal to the Seventh Circuit1, a panel affirmed Judge Shah’s reasoning and exclusion of Arthur Frank’s opinions. Krik at 4-5.

Arthur Frank is used to making things up, including the law. The law of causation in most jurisdictions distinguishes between substantial and insubstantial contribution, but Frank decreed: “Either it’s zero or it’s substantial; there is no such thing as not substantial.” R. 66‐3 at 23, pageID 923. Really? In Frank’s mind, even a minute, perhaps a second, of fleeting exposure, would be a substantial contributing factor to a plaintiff’s lung cancer because he has legislated insubstantial out of existence. R. 376 at 273–74, pageID 10146‐47.

Frank’s testimony presented several problems:

First, his cumulative exposure theory was no different from the previously excluded “each and every exposure” theory. Even Frank, in his deposition testimony conflated “each and every exposure” with a cumulative exposure theory.

Second, Frank’s opinion did not conform to the legal standard. In the initial ruling on Frank, Judge Lee held that plaintiff must show that asbestos was a “substantial contributing factor” to his injury2.

Third, Frank’s opinion lacked an adequate scientific foundation. Krik was tasked with showing that asbestos was a “substantial contributing factor” to his lung cancer. Krik at 7; Krik, 76 F. Supp. 3d at 747 (Lee, J.). Frank’s opinion on “every exposure” did not help him make out his case.

The trial court judges recognized, putting aside the issue of thresholds, that asbestos‐induced lung cancers are dose dependent. At the very least, any attempt to attribute a person’s lung cancer to an exposure requires a consideration of the timing and quantum of exposure. Frank, in defiance of basic common sense and basic toxicologic principles, would – if allowed by courts – treat every exposure, regardless how de minimis, as a substantial contribution to the total exposure and the total risk. Krik at 8; Krik, 76 F. Supp. 3d at 753 (Lee, J.).

The panel of the Seventh Circuit found the trial judges’ exclusion of the Frank nonsense to be well supported and well within their discretion as gatekeepers3. Krik at 14

Krik’s counsel also complained that the trial court refused to admit the so-called Helsinki document4, a 1997 statement of public policy statement of scientists who opined that “[c]umulative exposure on a probability basis should thus be considered the main criteria for the attribution of a substantial contribution by asbestos to lung cancer risk.” R. 412‐4 at 4, pageID 13657.

The problem for counsel, and for Frank, was that Frank never referred to or embraced the Helsinki statement as an “authoritative text.” If he had, he would have been roundly impeached by the statement’s pronouncement that the “likelihood that asbestos exposure has made a substantial contribution increases when the exposure increases.” Id. The Seventh Circuit held that the exclusion of this document as a stand-alone piece of evidence did not support plaintiff’s theory, and that its exclusion was not an abuse of discretion5. Krik at 15-17.

1 The appellate court noted that it reviewed de novo the question whether the trial court properly applied Rule 702. The district court’s decision to exclude or admit expert witness opinion testimony is reviewed only for “abuse of discretion.” Krik at 4 (citing C.W. ex rel. Wood v. Textron, Inc., 807 F.3d 827, 835 (7th Cir. 2015). The party proponent has the burden of showing that the challenged expert witness testimony satisfies the Rule 702 statutory requirements, by a preponderance of evidence. Id. (citing Lewis v. CITGO Petroleum Corp., 561 F.3d 698, 705 (7th Cir. 2009).

2 Krik v. Crane Co., 76 F. Supp. 3d 747, 753 (N.D. Ill. 2014) (citing Lindstrom v. A‐C Prod. Liab., 424 F.3d 488, 493 (6th Cir. 2005) (applying maritime law); Thacker v. UNR Indus., Inc., 603 N.E.2d 449, 457 (Ill. 1992) (Illinois law).

3 The panel noted that the Sixth and Ninth Circuits had ruled similarly. McIndoe v. Huntington Ingalls Inc., 817 F.3d 1170, 1177 (9th Cir. 2016); Lindstrom v. A‐C Prod. Liab., 424 F.3d 488, 493 (6th Cir. 2005) (“The requirement, however, is that the plaintiff make a showing with respect to each defendant that the defendant’s product was a substantial factor in plaintiff’s injury … . A holding to the contrary would permit imposition of liability on the manufacturer of any product with which a worker had the briefest of encounters on a single occasion.”).

5 Accord Rockman v. Union Carbide Corp., No. CV RDB‐16‐1169, 2017 WL 3022969, at *5 (D. Md. July 17, 2017); Bell v. Foster Wheeler Energy Corp., No. CV 15‐6394, 2016 WL 5847124, at *3, n.3 (E.D. La. Oct. 6, 2016), recon. denied, No. CV 15‐6394, 2017 WL 876983 (E.D. La. Mar. 6, 2017); Watkins v. Affinia Group, 2016‐Ohio‐2830, ¶ 37, 54 N.E.3d 174, 182; In reJames Wilson Assoc., 965 F.2d 160, 173 (7th Cir.1992); United States v. Dixon, 413 F.3d 520, 524–25 (5th Cir. 2005); Yates v. Ford Motor Co., 113 F. Supp. 3d 841, 862 (E.D.N.C. 2015); Betz v. Pneumo Abex, LLC, 44 A.3d 27, 47, 55 n.35 (Pa. 2012); Bostic v. Georgia‐Pacific Corp., 439 S.W.3d 332, 356–57 (Tex. 2014).

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