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October 22, 2020

NYS Appellate Court Confirms Low Threshold for Specific Causation Evidence in Toxic Tort Cases

The Parker v. Mobil Oil case, decided by New York’s Court of Appeals in 2006, continues to have a substantial effect on toxic tort claims across the state. On October 9, 2020, relying on a liberal interpretation of Parker, the Fourth Department rejected a defendant’s post-trial motion to set aside the verdict in Stock v. Air & Liquid Systems Corp. In doing so, the court upheld a jury award of damages to the plaintiff despite a lack of specificity in the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony regarding the level of asbestos exposure the plaintiff’s deceased husband experienced.

Parker set the standard for causation evidence in toxic tort claims, specifically that a plaintiff must demonstrate exposure to a toxin that is capable of causing a particular illness (general causation) and sufficient levels of exposure to the toxin to cause the illness (specific causation). This standard has been interpreted in a myriad of ways by different New York courts, some of which seem directly counter to one another. The Stock case is the latest appellate decision to follow Matter of NYC Asbestos Litigation (Juni), a 2018 Court of Appeals case, which affirmed a trial court order setting aside a jury verdict because the plaintiff’s experts failed to show sufficient levels of exposure to respirable asbestos from the products at issue. The Court of Appeals provided no direction on what is sufficient to constitute specific causation, thus leaving it to the lower appellate courts to provide further guidance.

In Stock, the plaintiff commenced an action seeking damages for injuries sustained by the decedent as a result of his exposure to asbestos. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, and the defendant’s motion to set aside the verdict was denied by the trial court.

On appeal, the Fourth Department held the plaintiff’s evidence was legally sufficient to establish that asbestos in the defendant’s products was a substantial factor in causing or contributing to the decedent's injuries. Finding that the evidence presented could lead rational persons to the conclusion reached by the jury, the court held that "it is not always necessary for a plaintiff to quantify exposure levels precisely or use the dose-response relationship.” Here, there was evidence that, while performing work involving component parts of the defendant's products, i.e., gaskets and packing, the decedent was exposed to visible asbestos-containing dust on a “routine basis.”

Based on testimony as to the nature and extent of the decedent’s alleged exposure, the plaintiff’s expert opined that, based in part on her review of studies of workers involved in tasks similar to those performed by the decedent, his exposure to such visible dust was a substantial contributing factor to the development of his mesothelioma. The Fourth Department, citing Parker, found this was sufficient, without specific quantification of the decedent’s exposure to the defendant’s product, to meet the standard set forth in Parker. The Fourth Department rejected the defendant's contention that the Court of Appeals' decision in Juni compelled a different result or that the trial court misapplied the applicable law. Thus, the defendant was not entitled to a new trial.

The Fourth Department’s low threshold for specific causation requirements will likely have an impact on both motion practice and the presentation of evidence at trial. Defendants will need to aggressively develop their own scientific, exposure, and epidemiological defenses to support causation arguments, both for dispositive motion practice and the presentation of trial evidence.

If you have any questions regarding the content of this alert, please contact Jen Leonardi, partner, at jleonardi@barclaydamon.com, or another member of the firm’s Mass & Toxic Torts or Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Areas.

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