Asbestos defendants notched a victory when the Supreme Court of Ohio rejected the “cumulative exposure” asbestos causation theory. This theory, also known by several other names (including the “each and every fiber theory”), postulates that each exposure or asbestos fiber above background asbestos exposure is a substantial factor in causing disease. This case brings Ohio in line with several federal and state courts in rejecting this plaintiffs’ theory.
In Schwartz v. Honeywell International, Inc., decedent’s father was exposed to asbestos both in the course of his employment as an electrician and while installing Bendix brakes on family cars five to ten times. Plaintiff alleges that it was decedent’s contact with her father’s asbestos-laden clothing that caused decedent’s mesothelioma and subsequent death.
At trial, plaintiffs’ pathology expert, Dr. Carlos Bedrossian, testified 1) that there is no known threshold at which mesothelioma “will not occur” and 2) decedent’s take home exposure both from her father’s occupational exposure and his work with brakes contributed to her “total cumulative dose.” It was her cumulative exposure, the expert opined, that caused her mesothelioma. Honeywell International Inc. (the successor-in-interest to Bendix) moved for a directed verdict twice “arguing that Schwartz had failed to demonstrate that [decedent’s] exposure to asbestos from Bendix brakes was a substantial factor in causing her disease,” but both motions were denied. Instead, the jury found defendant Honeywell 5% liable for decedent’s injuries and awarded plaintiff just over $1 million.
On appeal, defendant argued that plaintiff did not present sufficient evidence that decedent’s exposure to Bendix brakes was a substantial factor in causing her mesothelioma. The appeals court disagreed, found the expert’s testimony to be “based on reliable scientific evidence,” and affirmed the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motions.
Thus, defendant appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio on a single discrete issue: “whether the ‘substantial factor’ requirement may be met through a ‘cumulative exposure theory.’” Schwartz ruled that it may not. The decision was based on an Ohio statute incorporating requirements found in many other jurisdictions: that in an asbestos case with multiple defendants, plaintiff must prove that the conduct of a particular defendant was a substantial factor in causing the injury, and the trier of fact must consider the “manner . . . proximity . . . [and] frequency and length” of plaintiff’s exposure to that particular defendant’s asbestos-containing product. (R.C. 2307.96.)
The court explained that the cumulative exposure theory “examines defendants in the aggregate” and does not consider each individual defendant’s contribution to the overall exposure. “It is impossible to reconcile a statutory scheme that requires an individualized finding of substantial causation for each defendant with a theory that says every defendant that contributed to the overall exposure is a substantial cause.” Moreover, the cumulative exposure theory does not consider dose or reflect consideration of the manner, proximity, length, or duration of exposure, which the statute delineates must be considered by the trier of fact in this instance. The court noted that plaintiff’s theory is flawed because Dr. Bedrossian arbitrarily elected only to include exposures above background in deeming which exposures were causative in this case. “In a theory that starts with the premise that the total cumulative dose causes the disease, there is no rational reason to exclude even minimal exposures, because they also contribute to the cumulative dose.”
Next, the court determined that exposure to asbestos from Bendix brakes was not a substantial factor in causing decedent’s mesothelioma because plaintiff did not meet his burden of proof. Notably, decedent’s father worked on Bendix brakes only 5 to 10 times while decedent lived at home, compared with occupational exposure over 33 years. The court concluded that “[t]hese regular exposures that [decedent] received as a result of her father’s years of working as an electrician with products containing asbestos contrasts strongly with the limited and irregular exposures that [decedent] might have had a result of her father’s occasional brake jobs.” Further, plaintiff did not provide sufficient evidence regarding the manner, proximity, frequency, and length of decedent’s exposure.
The Schwartz decision is a victory for defendants by rejecting the cumulative exposure theory as insufficient. This brings Ohio in line with several other jurisdictions, including the Sixth Circuit, the Ninth Circuit, Georgia, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Notably, California state courts have allowed similar “every exposure” theories to go before the jury (see here and here). As plaintiffs suffer setbacks while attempting to advance this theory, they will transform this into other theories that defendants must be ready to tackle.