A Sixth Circuit case, Moeller v. Garlock Sealing Technologies, LLC, 2011 U.S.App.Lexis 19987 (6th Cir. Sept. 28, 2011), is the most recent in a series of judicial decisions that have rejected the opinions of plaintiffs’ experts in asbestos cases who espouse the “any exposure” or “any fiber” or “single fiber” theory of causation.  Pursuant to this specious line of reasoning, asbestos disease is a cumulative dose response process. Each and every exposure to asbestos during a person’s lifetime, no matter how small or trivial – even a single fiber – substantially contributes to the disease, whether it be asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma. Using this theory of causation, plaintiffs have initiated a wave of new lawsuits against defendants far removed from the production of asbestos containing products.  As defense practitioners are well aware, successfully challenging weak causation expert opinions is key to winning any toxic exposure case, whether it involves asbestos or some other substance.

In a “must read” column in the New York Law Journal, dated October 19, 2011 titled "Courts Shoot Down Asbestos Causation Theory", Michael Hoenig, whose law firm defends asbestos case litigation, describes how plaintiff experts are promoting the “any fiber” or “any exposure” theory in courtrooms across the country and how a series of notable judicial decisions have begun to reject these theories as the underlying scientific methodology is subjected to scrutiny. In a recent amicus curiae brief filed by eleven distinguished scientists in a Pennsylvania asbestos case, none of whom received funding from or testified as experts for any of the parties in the case, the scientists attacked the methodological errors of the “any exposure” expert for:  (1) failing to consider the dose level of exposure and minimum threshold of asbestos fiber levels; (2) failing to consider the physical chemical and toxicological differences between various types of asbestos; (3) failing to distinguish between general causation and specific causation (and not even establishing general causation for chrysotile asbestos); (4) for suggesting that “every exposure” and “cumulative risk” theories are generally accepted when they are not; and (5) ignoring the large body of toxicological studies demonstrating that chrysotile asbestos is not potent as a cancer-causing agent. 

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court observed in Gregg v. V-J Auto Parts Co., 943 A.2d, 216, 223 (Pa. Sup. Ct. 2007), that although it was “common for plaintiffs to submit expert affidavits attesting that any exposure to asbestos, no matter how minimal, is a substantial contributing factor in asbestos disease,” such opinions are not “not couched within accepted scientific methodology.”  The court called the “willingness on the part of some experts” to offer such opinions “one of the difficulties” courts face in the mass tort cases.

As the plaintiff bar continues to look further and further afield in its “endless search for a solvent bystander,” as one well-known plaintiff’s lawyer described the litigation, successful challenges under Daubert and Frye should only increase.  The author thanks Mr. Hoenig for his thoughtful treatment of this important topic.

From a risk management perspective, peripheral toxic tort defendants often decline to mount  Daubert challenges due to the cost and time involved and the uncertainty of the result, particularly when the plaintiff presents them with seemingly  reasonable settlement demands.  As a result, hundreds of peripheral defendants continue to be named in these cases and often pay their "penny in tribute" just to get out of the case.  Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, judges responsible for large asbestos dockets are unwilling to give appropriate consideration to motions by "shade tree" defendants who might otherwise challenge plaintiffs' experts'  theories of causation.  Cynically, these judges know that the cases will most likely settle out if this type of motion is given short shrift.  There is little incentive for a peripheral defendant to risk an adverse  judgment at trial merely to earn the right to bring an appeal, no matter how strong the grounds may be.  Hopefully, cases like Moeller will have a trickle down effect and motivate the trial judges responsible for the asbestos dockets to re-think their approach.