Issuing an opinion that could lower the  bar for proving toxic tort causation, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that direct expert testimony may not be necessary to prove causation in a toxic tort case and that a plaintiff may rely on circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences to withstand summary judgment. See Lowery v. Enbridge Energy LP, No. 319199 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 2, 2015).

Plaintiff lived in close proximity to the Kalamazoo River, which was affected by a spill from an oil pipeline in July 2010.  Plaintiff alleged that following exposure to toxic fumes from the oil spill, he experienced severe migraines, coughing and vomiting before suffering a ruptured gastric artery and being admitted to the hospital in August 2010. Plaintiff’s medical expert, basing his opinion on review of only the Plaintiff’s hospital records and no direct examination of the Plaintiff, testified that the fumes from the spill caused the headaches, coughing, and vomiting, and that violent coughing and vomiting led to the rupture of the artery.  The trial court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the Plaintiff regarding Defendant’s negligent operation of the oil pipeline.  However, the court granted partial summary judgment in favor of Defendant because Plaintiff had not shown a sufficient causal link between the spill and ruptured artery.

Reviewing whether the Defendant’s negligence was the proximate cause of the Plaintiff’s ruptured artery, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment to the Defendant, holding that direct expert testimony is not required to prove causation in a toxic tort case. Plaintiffs can prove their case through circumstantial evidence and reasonable inferences.  The Court held that there was a strong enough connection to infer that the fumes caused the ruptured artery, noting that the Plaintiff’s symptoms arose immediately after the oil spill. The Court concedes that there are other plausible explanations for the injury, but that this only lends weight to the idea that there are genuine issues of material fact that a jury must resolve, and thus summary judgment is inappropriate.