How much exposure to a hazardous substance gives you the right to sue the manufacturer? Now that scientific analysis of genes and atoms is so widespread, are manufacturers obligated to warn of infinitesimal risks? If not, where do you draw the line? How much exposure is enough to require a company to take action to warn everyone who might be exposed?
State courts around the country are now answering these questions. Earlier this month, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that proving that a substance caused an injury requires reliable expert testimony, and not an expert who simply concludes that any exposure to asbestos at work–regardless of the extent of the exposure–was a cause of the worker’s mesothelioma. The expert’s testimony must be based on sufficient facts or data, using reliable scientific principles and methods. The Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action argued for this result in an amicus brief filed with the court.
Courts in at least eight other states have recently ruled likewise, concluding that the theory that any exposure to a hazard causes an injury is not a scientifically proven proposition that is accepted in epidemiology, pulmonology or other medical fields. Nevertheless, it is still possible for plaintiffs with sufficient evidence of “frequency, regularity and proximity” of exposure to make a case.
Scientific discovery is therefore the keystone for future litigation. Manufacturers will need to keep up with the latest scientific findings relating to their products. Courts will need to assess whether a product is hazardous enough to actually cause harm, taking into account the latest information about dosage and response. It is critical that courts be gatekeepers who allow only valid scientific principles and sufficient evidence of exposure. Less demanding standards would essentially result in absolute liability for any company that makes hazardous materials if those products cross the path of the client of an aggressive trial lawyer. The Georgia court’s decision upholding strict evidentiary standards will help manufacturers focus on what they do best: improving products and creating jobs.