• Successful Trial Tactics in Toxic Tort Cases
  • October 5, 2012 | Authors: Brendan J. Gaughan; David M. Governo
  • Law Firm: Governo Law Firm LLC - Boston Office
  • I. Introduction

    Our law firm recently defended an asbestos case for one of our corporate clients. The plaintiff in that case delivered building supplies to hundreds of commercial worksites in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He claimed that he contracted mesothelioma via asbestos exposure when he delivered supplies to job sites. More specifically, the plaintiff alleged that he was repeatedly exposed to joint compound, which contained asbestos, while walking through the job sites. This article discusses some of the trial strategies we used to successfully defend this toxic tort claim.

     

    II .Personalizing the Corporate Client

     

    A. The Corporate Witness

    Toxic tort claims, including asbestos litigation, present unique challenges for defense attorneys because the clients are almost exclusively corporate entities. [1] Juries can be biased against corporations because they perceive the corporations as faceless entities, motivated only by greed for increased profits. Plaintiffs’ attorneys encourage this perception by portraying corporate defendants as being unconcerned about the safety of their products. [2] In asbestos litigation, plaintiffs’ attorneys usually allege that the defendant-corporations failed to warn the plaintiff that asbestos is hazardous because the company wanted to save costs and maximize profits. [3] The plaintiff’s portrayal of the defendant-corporation as callous and greedy impacts the jurors’ ability to objectively assess the corporate defendant’s liability, in light of the particular facts of the case. [4]

    One way to minimize this juror bias against the defendant-corporation is to emphasize throughout the trial that corporations are comprised of hard-working individuals who may be impacted by the outcome of a trial. Humanizing corporations is best done with employee testimony. Our firm used employee witness testimony as a trial tactic to gain juror sympathy for our corporate client during our recent asbestos trial. There, our corporate witness testified about his personal background and his role in the company. In addition, he discussed his relationship with the company founder, and he explained how the company flourished from humble beginnings. Suddenly, the company became more personable to the jury. We also offered testimony that described the defendant as a small, struggling, local company, not the large, multi-national conglomerate that jurors tend to dislike. Our evidence showed the jury that the defendant’s sales were generally limited to local companies, such as small hardware stores that sold their products to individuals in the community. We made it clear through testimony that the product in question was ancillary to our client’s main line business and was sold and distributed on a limited scale. The low sales figures also helped to establish that the defendant was a minor player in the market not deserving of punishment. Additionally, the asbestos product’s low sales figures allowed the jury to doubt the plaintiff’s claim that he was exposed to asbestos during deliveries to the defendant’s worksites.

     

    B. Trial Exhibits: Low Tech or High Tech?

    The decision of whether to use high-tech or low-tech trial exhibits depends on trial strategy. Using sophisticated technological tools when presenting trial exhibits may reinforce the jury’s image of your client as a monolithic corporate entity with unlimited resources being defended by slick trial attorneys against the “small guy” plaintiff. Similarly, using low-technology exhibits can reinforce the jurors’ perception that the defendant is a small company with modest resources, which would make it more connected to the community. In our asbestos case, we deliberately chose not to use high-tech trial exhibits during the trial, and instead opted for simple poster boards and flip charts. On the other hand, our co-defendants employed PowerPoint presentations in their opening statements; additionally, the plaintiff’s attorneys flew in several individuals for technical support to help run Trial Director, a specialized software. We believe that the plaintiff’s decision to use this more expensive technology contributed to the plaintiff’s loss because his lawyer appeared more resourced and savvy, using his prowess against a small company, which was just trying to squeak by in the market and was doing the same at trial with low-cost exhibits. Importantly, a party must consider whether using less technologically sophisticated trial exhibits complements the overall trial strategy. Indeed, technically sophisticated exhibits can make highly complex facts much easier for the jury to digest. Nevertheless, simple, low-tech exhibits can be an integral part of a trial strategy that strives to show the client does not have a lot of resources.

     

    III .Warnings: Then v. Now

    To succeed on a negligence claim in asbestos litigation, plaintiffs often must prove that the defendant failed to warn the plaintiff. [5] Typically, a plaintiff alleges that the defendant’s failure to warn the plaintiff about the dangers of asbestos reasonably and foreseeably contributed to the plaintiff’s exposure and resulting harm. [6] Therefore, defendants in the asbestos litigation must develop defenses against the plaintiff’s failure to warn allegations to prevail in the negligence action. Illustrating the cultural and social context in which the alleged exposure occurred is crucial for the jury to understand what would have been considered reasonable beliefs and precautions at the time of the asbestos exposure. For example, it is widely known that asbestos warnings were not commonly used in any industry before the 1970s. [7] Defendants should emphasize that using such warnings was simply not a part of the culture that existed in the industrial and manufacturing sectors, or anywhere else during that period. A warnings expert is helpful to prove that most products, including inherently dangerous products, did not contain warnings in the 1960s and 1970s.

    In our asbestos case, the plaintiff alleged that he had been exposed to asbestos before and during the 1970s, the period before widespread use of warnings on products. This fact certainly helped us obtain a favorable verdict. Additionally, an expert can help prove that the plaintiff’s employer had the principal duty to warn the plaintiff about the inherent dangers that plaintiff’s work environment posed. Indeed, it is the employer’s duty to provide a safe work environment, not the employer’s business cohorts. [8] This allocation of duty makes sense, since the employer is in the best position to warn the plaintiff of the potentially hazardous products used on the job. The plaintiff would be much more likely to take note of communications from the employer rather than a posted warning on the wall of the work site. It is conceivable that the plaintiff would not even notice such a warning. This point is particularly powerful when defending cases where the plaintiff is exposed to asbestos indirectly, as in our case.

    With the recent proliferation of warnings, they are becoming largely ignored. [9] Excessive warnings, even on products that are not dangerous, lead to information overload and dilute the impact of truly important warnings. The defense can illustrate this point by eliciting testimony that plaintiffs and co-workers tend to disregard warning labels placed on other products, such as cigarette packages. For instance, we recently deposed a plaintiff who testified that he never saw a warning of any kind on anything at his nuclear power worksite. You can then argue to the jury that if plaintiff routinely ignored other warnings, posting a warning at defendant’s worksite would not likely have had any impact on plaintiff’s behavior.

     

    IV .Causation

     

    A. Bucket Theory

    One of the most substantial departures from traditional tort law is the “bucket theory” of causation, sometimes referred to as the “any exposure” or “one-fiber” theory. Under traditional tort law, asbestos plaintiffs are required to show that each defendant’s product was a substantial contributing factor in the cause of plaintiff’s disease. Such a showing requires not only proof of exposure to the defendant’s product, but exposure sufficient to actually cause disease.

    On the other hand, to prevail in an asbestos case, the plaintiff must prove only that the exposure to defendant’s asbestos contributed to the plaintiff’s harm. [10] The plaintiff’s expert will likely testify that because asbestos is a cumulative, dose-response disease, each exposure to asbestos during a person’s lifetime, no matter how small or apparently inconsequential, substantially contributes to one of the possible resulting diseases: asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma.

    Judges do not often require a prima facie showing of a particular amount of asbestos exposure; instead, they frequently allow plaintiffs’ experts to opine that any occupational exposure to asbestos fibers is sufficient for a jury to find the defendant negligent. [11] As a result, plaintiffs’ experts regularly testify that every exposure a plaintiff received from any occupational work is a substantial factor in causing disease.

    At trial, plaintiffs’ experts often illustrate this point by performing a demonstration in front of the jury. The demonstration consists of pouring water, drop by drop, into a bucket, until the bucket overflows. [12] Then, the expert claims that the drops of water represent the asbestos fibers inhaled by the plaintiff over the plaintiff’s lifetime. The theory underlying the demonstration is that at some point one drop, any drop, caused the bucket to overflow. Because each drop of water contributed to the bucket eventually overflowing, the plaintiffs’ experts contend that each exposure to asbestos is a substantial contributing cause of the plaintiff’s asbestos-induced disease.

    In the opening statement during our client’s trial, we illustrated the absurdity of the plaintiff’s bucket theory. We explained to the jury that the plaintiff’s experts wanted them to believe that a “drop in the bucket” was substantial. Our explanation was easy for the jury to understand because it made logical sense: a drop cannot cause the asbestos-related disease. Ultimately, mitigating the bucket theory was an extremely effective tactic, and an integral reason the jury found that our client was not negligent. Addressing the bucket theory head on, in our opening statement, took the “bucket” analogy out of the case; the plaintiff’s attorney decided to abandon it after the opening statement.

    Using analogy, we undermined the bucket theory again later in the trial to ensure that the jury rejected it. We argued that the plaintiff’s bucket theory would be like saying that a lung cancer patient who smoked Marlboros for thirty years can hold Camel responsible because the patient smoked one Camel cigarette. Under the plaintiff’s bucket theory, we argued, the plaintiff’s experts would have the jury believe that the one Camel cigarette was a substantial cause of the plaintiff’s lung cancer.

     

    B. Deposing Plaintiff’s Experts

    A successful expert witness deposition includes all questions relevant to establishing sufficient evidence to support a motion to exclude. Although this reasoning appears obvious, it is often overlooked.

    Additionally, the examination should include questioning relating to the expert’s qualifications in the field of expertise, and the methodology and facts used to arrive at her or his conclusions. Proving causation in an asbestos case requires inquiry into the duration and level of asbestos exposure.

    As explained above, the bucket theory endorsed by plaintiffs’ experts is the vehicle by which plaintiffs’ experts elude consideration of proximity, duration and dose when rendering their opinions on causation. Consider the following excerpt from the deposition of a well respected pathologist who is routinely employed as a plaintiff expert in asbestos cases:

     

    Q. In cases where a person’s alleged exposure to asbestos-containing products was that of a bystander, in order for you to render an opinion on causation, would it be important for you to know the intensity of the exposure to those asbestos-containing products?

    A. Again, in terms of relativity, yes. In terms of causation overall, no.

    Q. So if I understand your answer, you wouldn’t necessarily need to know how close or far away a particular person was from an asbestos-containing product, all you would need to know was that the potential was there for that person to breathe asbestos fibers in; is that correct?

    A. In terms of the causation, that’s correct.

    Q. I want you to assume that [the plaintiff] had only been around [the defendant’s] joint compound on one occasion, assuming that to be true, would you be able to say to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that his mesothelioma was caused by his exposure to [the defendant’s] joint compound?

    A. If he was exposed on one occasion, that one occasion adding to all the other exposures would have, in total, contributed to the development of the tumor.

    Q. Are you aware of how many times [the plaintiff] may have been exposed to [the defendant’s] joint compound while it was being mixed by others?

    A. As I understood from your prior statement, it was once, but, in fact, I don’t know.

    Q. Are you aware of how many times [the plaintiff] may have been exposed to [the defendant’s] joint compound while it was being sanded by others?

    A. It would be the same answer.

    Q. Do you have any idea how close [the plaintiff] may have been to [the defendant’s] joint compound when it was being sanded by others?

    A. I don’t know.

    Q. Do you have any idea how close [the plaintiff] may have been to [the defendant’s] joint compound when it was being mixed by others?

    A. I don’t know.

    Q. On the occasions when [the plaintiff] alleged that he was around [the defendant’s] joint compound while it was being mixed by others, do you have any evidence of how long he was in close proximity  to that mixing?

    A. Since I already indicated that I don’t remember his statements about [the defendant’s] joint compound in the depositions, therefore, I don’t know the answer to your question.

    Q. And the same answer would apply to sanding?

    A. Yes.

     

    Despite the fact that the expert knew virtually nothing about the frequency, proximity or duration of the plaintiff’s alleged exposure to our client’s joint compound, he was allowed to opine that the exposure was a substantial contributing cause of his mesothelioma. The plaintiff admitted that he never personally worked with our client’s joint compound. The plaintiff’s only alleged exposure to our client’s product occurred when he walked through commercial jobsites where others were mixing and sanding the joint compound. The jury, by virtue of its “no causation” finding, disagreed with the plaintiff’s expert’s testimony.

    In a trend benefiting asbestos defendants, courts in multiple jurisdictions have begun to exclude or criticize the plaintiffs’ bucket theory of causation, either as unscientific under a Daubert/Frye analysis or as insufficient to support causation. On September 24, 2008, the Court of Common Pleas for the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania analyzed the proffered “bucket theory” causation testimony of Drs. Eugene Mark, Arthur Frank, Jonathan Gelfand and William Longo (all veterans in the asbestos litigation), and excluded their testimony because it was based on faulty science. [13]

    The presiding judge, Hon. Allan Tereshko, stated that the plaintiffs’ experts used no recognizable methodology to support their conclusions that “each and every breath of asbestos fiber is a substantial contributing factor to plaintiff’s disease.” [14]

    With respect to Dr. Mark, Judge Tereshko referred to his causation testimony as “a form of inductive logic,” which occurs when a specific observation is made into a generalized conclusion. [15] “This form of logic has been criticized as being an invalid method of concluding that an association exists between cause and effect.” [16] Judge Tereshko also noted that the general population is exposed to asbestos and that some people get a disease from that exposure and some do not. Thus, the judge concluded, “not all asbestos exposures cause disease.” [17]

    The rejection of these experts’ causation testimony, while a significant departure from past practice, reflects the sound application of standard causation rules to asbestos testimony. This trend should be of particular help to defendants in cases of slight asbestos exposure to the defendant’s product. The trend is even more helpful when the plaintiff was exposed to asbestos in much greater amounts from other manufacturers’ products.

     

    C. The Verdict Sheet: Did the Lack of a Warning Make a Difference?

    With asbestos litigation, as with other litigation, it is best to “begin at the end” when preparing defenses. This can be done by analyzing the specific questions the jury will be asked to decide. These questions can be found in the pattern jury instructions, which will be changed slightly based on your particular judge’s interpretation of the law. Take advantage of any opportunity to sway the judge’s interpretation of the pattern jury instructions to favor your client.

    At the close of evidence in our asbestos trial, we were successful in incorporating an additional causation question into the jury instructions. Prior to the change, the causation question read:

     

    5. Cause. Was asbestos contained in the defendant’s product when manufactured or sold by the defendant a substantial contributing cause of the plaintiff’s mesothelioma?

    A. Defendant A&under;&under;&under;

    B. Defendant B &under;&under;&under;

     

    Despite the judge’s unwillingness to include additional questions on the verdict sheet in previous trials, he agreed to incorporate, at our request, a second question on causation:

     

    5A. If you have a yes answer to questions [concerning negligence or breach of warranty], was a breach of warranty or negligence by the defendant a substantial contributing cause of [plaintiff’s]  illness?

    A. Defendant A&under;&under;&under;

    B. Defendant B &under;&under;&under;

     

    By incorporating the second question on causation, we were asking the jury to determine if our client’s negligence or breach of warranty resulted in the inhalation of additional asbestos fibers by the plaintiff and, if so, whether the quantity was sufficient to cause his mesothelioma. With the added question, the jury ultimately had to decide whether a warning would have made a difference in the amount of asbestos fibers inhaled by the plaintiff while delivering supplies to our client’s work site. The jury ultimately found that the plaintiff’s inhalation of asbestos fibers from our client’s product was not a substantial contributing cause of his mesothelioma.

     

    V. Trying the Empty Chair - The True Source of Plaintiff’s Exposure

    Current asbestos litigation focuses on defendants who have almost no liability because more culpable defendant companies have all filed for bankruptcy or engaged in group settlements which prohibit more claims. [18] This narrow focus effectively distorts reality in a way that is often readily accepted by jurors. The jury can easily be fooled into believing that the remaining defendants at trial were the only entities who manufactured products to which the plaintiff was exposed. Defense attorneys must therefore alert the jury to the entire universe of other dangerous products that may have caused plaintiff’s health problems and that the defendant had nothing to do with.

    Additionally, it is a good idea to make sure that the verdict sheet lists all settled parties, non-settled parties, and non-parties, including bankrupt entities whose asbestos products may have also contributed to plaintiff’s disease. Listing all these other potentially culpable parties allows the jury to consider the paucity of your client’s liability, which will increase the likelihood of a defense verdict or a reduced plaintiff award.

    Indeed, ensuring that there are multiple potentially culpable defendants on the verdict form may be the most important trial strategy. However, in some jurisdictions, as in Massachusetts, bankrupt defendants and defendants who settle are not permitted to be included on the verdict forms. In these jurisdictions, it is important to make sure the judge will allow the defense to introduce evidence that plaintiff was exposed to multiple sources of asbestos, making, potentially, numerous defendants liable. This evidence reduces the risk that the jury will find that your client’s product was a substantial cause of plaintiff’s disease.

    In our asbestos case, although the plaintiff sued forty defendants, only three defendants remained when the trial began, and one of those defendants settled a week after the trial commenced. The plaintiff acknowledged during a deposition that he had been exposed to multiple products manufactured by now-bankrupt companies. At trial, we highlighted these additional exposures and intimated that plaintiff was entitled to compensation principally from the bankrupt entities. We illustrated this point by posing the following questions to the plaintiff:

     

    Q. You have also testified under oath that you were exposed to US Gypsum?

    Q. You didn’t sue US Gypsum in this case but you were exposed to their asbestos containing joint compound just as frequently as the others, correct?

    Q. Is there a reason you chose not to sue US Gypsum in this case?

    Q. Have you received any compensation from the US Gypsum Bankruptcy Trust in connection with your disease?

    Q. Do you intend to file a claim for compensation with the US Gypsum Bankruptcy Trust when this trial concludes?

     

    Through this line of questioning, plaintiff was forced to acknowledge that he was exposed to US Gypsum’s joint compound manufactured on multiple occasions. More importantly, we put the jury on notice that the plaintiff may be entitled to compensation from the US Gypsum Bankruptcy Trust after trial.

    We also pointed out that the plaintiff settled with other defendants, who had exposed the plaintiff to asbestos-containing products. This tactic explained to the jury that the plaintiff’s mesothelioma likely was caused by the settling defendants’ asbestos products. It also intimated that the plaintiff likely already received compensation from those defendants as part of the settlement agreement.

     

    Q. The first category of products I want to talk to you about is the electrical equipment.

    A. Yes.

    Q. Two of the electrical companies whose equipment you worked with hands on during your time as a truck driver were G.E. and Westinghouse. Is that right?

    A. They were amongst the companies I mentioned, yes.

    Q. And they were both defendants in this case?

    A. Yes.

    Q. No longer here today.

    A. Correct.

    Q. Some of the electrical equipment that you worked with personally was wire. Is that right?

    A. Yes.

    Q. And that wire contained asbestos. Is that right?

    A. Yes.

    Q. And you have previously stated under oath that you were exposed to GE asbestos containing products on a frequent and recurring basis?

    A. Yes.

     

    Additionally, we questioned the plaintiff in detail about all of his asbestos exposures, not just his exposure to products manufactured by the defendants at trial. By doing so, we were able to illustrate for the jury that exposure to our client’s joint compound was very small compared to the plaintiff’s other exposures to asbestos.

     

    VI. Conclusion

    One of the most significant lessons we learned from this recent asbestos trial was that it is crucial to use new trial techniques, even when the co-defendants are not employing a creative defense strategy. In asbestos litigation, it is especially easy to follow the same strategies laid out in prior asbestos cases; but had we not been creative in our asbestos case by debunking the bucket theory, testing the basis for the expert’s opinion, casting doubt on the effectiveness of a warning and pointing out that there are more culpable defendants, we may not have persuaded the jury that our client was not responsible for the plaintiff’s disease.

     

    David M. Governo is the founding partner at Governo Law Firm LLC in Boston, MA. For three decades, Mr. Governo has successfully defended companies in asbestos, lead, mold, benzene, indoor air quality, insurance coverage, toxic tort, and environmental claims. Mr. Governo has successfully tried a variety of complex cases. These include the first “toxic” mold case tried in Rhode Island, product liability, premises liability, insurance coverage, indoor air quality, as well as dozens of asbestos cases. Mr. Governo has chaired and spoken at national conferences for legal groups, scientific, medical organizations, and industry groups on asbestos, lead, mold, indoor air quality, insurance coverage, and other legal issues. Mr. Governo serves as the Chairman of the FDCC’s Toxic Tort and Environmental Law Section.

    Brendan J. Gaughan graduated from Boston College in 1996 and received his Juris Doctor from Suffolk University Law School in 2000. While at Suffolk University Law School, Mr. Gaughan served as the associate editor of the Suffolk Transnational Law Review. Since joining Governo Law Firm in 2007, his practice has involved general litigation, insurance coverage disputes, and toxic torts. He has successfully tried dozens of cases in the District and Superior Courts of Massachusetts. In 2008, he obtained a defense verdict for a national manufacturer of building materials after a three week jury trial in an asbestos personal injury case in Massachusetts.

    Julian Jordan received his Juris Doctor from Northeastern University School of Law and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 2006. He received his B.A. in Sociology and graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2001.

     

    1 Michele DeStefano Beardslee, Advocacy in the Court of Public Opinion, Installment One: Broadening the Role of Corporate Attorneys, 22 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 1259, 1262 n. 8 (2009); John A. Siliciano, Corporate Behavior and the Social Efficiency of Tort Law, 85 Mich. L. Rev. 1820, 1822 n.8 (1987).

    2 See Paul D. Carrington, Asbestos Lessons: The Unattended Consequences of Asbestos Litigation, 26 Rev. Litig. 584, 589 (2007).

    3 See id.

    4 Edward Luwenberg, Managing the Defense of Toxic Tort Claims, 84 A.L.I. Environ. Litig. 823 (1998).

    5 See, e.g., Amchem Prods. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 603 (2007); Merrill v. Leslie Controls, Inc., 101 Cal. Rptr. 3d 614, 622 (Ct. App. 2009).

    6 See, e.g., Amchem, 521 U.S. at 603; Merrill, 101 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 622.

    7 See Asbestos and Mesothelioma, http://www.pericardialmesothelioma.org/asbestos.php (last visited March 9, 2010).

    8 Alissa J. Strong, “But He Told Me It Was Safe!”: The Expanding Tort of Negligent Misrepresentation, 40 Univ. Mem. L. Rev. 105, 131 n.100 (2009).

    9 Wendy Rogers, Nina Lamson, & Gabriel K. Rosseau, Warning Research: An Integrative Perspective, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 102, 134 (Spring 2000), available at http://hfs.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/42/1/102.

    10 See, e.g., Amchem, 521 U.S. at 603; Merrill, 101 Cal. Rptr. 3d at 622.

    11 See, e.g., Acands v. Abate, 710 A.2d 944, 964 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1998).

    12 Mark A. Behrens & William L. Anderson, The “Any Exposure” Theory: An Unsound Basis for Asbestos Causation and Expert Testimony, 37 Sw. Univ. L. Rev. 479, 503 (2008).

    13 In Re: Asbestos Litigation, No. 001, 2008 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. LEXIS 229 (Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. Sept. 14, 2008).

    14 Id. at *92.

    15 Id. at *95.

    16 Id.

    17 Id. at *96.

    18 See Michelle J. White, Asbestos and the Future of Mass Torts, J. Econ. Persp. 183, 196-97 (Spring 2004).