• New York Court of Appeals Sets Higher Bar For Proving Causation
  • May 4, 2015 | Author: Patrick S. Schoenburg
  • Law Firm: Wood, Smith, Henning & Berman LLP - Fresno Office
  • Cornell v. 360 West 51st Street Realty LLC.

    On March 27, 2014, in a key appellate decision on causation, the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a tenant’s personal injury claims against her landlord. The Court’s opinion was based upon an in depth review of the scientific literature regarding mold exposure and disease in humans.

    Plaintiff Brenda Cornell was a tenant in a New York City apartment for four years. She brought suit against her landlord and others involved with the management of the building in November 2004. Plaintiff’s complaint alleged that substandard conditions at the property resulted in excessive levels of dust, dirt, mold and debris in her first floor unit. Plaintiff claimed that this exposure resulted in dizziness, rashes, breathing problems and headaches, among other problems.

    In 2008, defendant landlord moved for summary judgment of plaintiff’s mold personal injury claims, arguing that plaintiff was unable to prove that mold caused the type of injuries alleged (i.e., general causation) or that the mold allegedly present in her apartment caused her specific injuries (i.e., specific causation). Defendant requested a Frye hearing to determine whether plaintiff’s theory of causation “enjoyed general scientific acceptance.” The motion was granted and plaintiff’s claims were dismissed.

    In bringing the motion in the trial court, defendant relied upon a clinical immunologist who assessed plaintiff’s physical and psychological problems and found that there was “no relationship between the medical problems experienced by the plaintiff and exposures to molds.” He cited medical literature that mold causes human disease, but only through specific mechanisms not present in the Cornell case (i.e., allergic reactions, direct fungal infection and ingestion of high levels of mycotoxins from spoiled or contaminated food where there is objective evidence of disease). The immunologist noted that molds are ubiquitous in the atmosphere and that the mold measured in the plaintiff’s apartment were at expected levels.

    On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the lower court’s order, and reinstated the complaint against the landlord. The appellate division held that the lower court “erred in finding that [Cornell’s] proof was not strong enough to constitute a causal relationship, or that the methodologies used to evaluate her condition failed to meet the Frye standard.” A further appeal to the New York Court of Appeals followed.

    The New York Court of Appeals began its analysis with Frye v. U.S. (1923), which holds that expert testimony must be based on opinions that have general acceptance in the relevant scientific community. The Court noted that the defendant landlord set forth a prima facie case that the plaintiff could not prove general causation because plaintiff did not allege injury due to one of the diseases proven to be caused by mold. The State high court noted that plaintiff’s reliance on government reports and public health initiatives and guidelines regarding mold in damp indoor environments were irrelevant since “standards promulgated by regulatory agencies as protective measures, are inadequate to demonstrate legal causation.”

    The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s claim of specific causation. It found that the plaintiff’s expert did not identify a specific disease-causing agent, other than to describe it vaguely as “an unusual mixture of atypical microbial contaminants, nor did he quantify her level of exposure to the unusual mixture.” The state high court also ruled that the record before it did not support the plaintiff expert’s “differential diagnosis.” The court stated that many of the medical conditions plaintiff attributed to mold exposure are common in the general population and could be the result of multiple alternative causes.

    The decision concluded with a cautionary note, stating that its affirmation of the dismissal of the plaintiff’s mold personal injury claims “does not (and indeed cannot) stand for the proposition that a cause-and-effect relationship does not exist between exposure to indoor dampness and mold, and the kinds of injuries that Cornell alleged. Rather, Cornell simply did not demonstrate such a relationship on this record.”

    This decision brings to a conclusion a battle regarding the standards to be applied and the quantum of evidence required to prove causation in mold cases which played out in an influential State court. We expect this opinion to be cited in other jurisdictions when defendants ask that plaintiffs prove both general and specific causation or face the dismissal of their mold personal injury claims.