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Exclusion of Dr. Staggs’ Specific Causation Opinion Entitles Automotive Defendant to Summary Judgment

Court: United States District Court for the District of Utah

This case arises out of decedent John C. Riegler’s diagnosis of mesothelioma, which plaintiff alleges stems from decedent’s work at a service station, including the performance of brake services. Plaintiff alleges defendants’ automotive-friction products exposed decedent to asbestos and caused his mesothelioma. Before the court are three motions to exclude expert testimony and one motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff designated industrial hygienist William M. Ewing as an expert in this matter. In his expert report, Ewing cited studies calculating the range of asbestos a person is exposed to when performing different brake tasks. When deposed, Ewing confirmed that his review was limited to assessing “what [Decedent’s] exposures are to asbestos, not necessarily which brands.” In other words, he did not “try and break out how much exposure [Decedent] had from working on a Ford vehicle versus a GM product or a Chrysler.”

Plaintiff also designated Dr. Brent C. Staggs, a physician and board-certified pathologist, as an expert to offer a causation opinion. Staggs prepared an expert report detailing his views on the cause of the decedent’s mesothelioma. In his expert report, Staggs stated he was asked to give his opinion on whether the decedent’s “disease was caused by exposure to asbestos.” Staggs diagnosed the decedent with “primary pleural malignant mesothelioma, epithelioid type.” Staggs did not assess how much asbestos the decedent was exposed to from products manufactured by each individual defendant. 

Three defendants – Ford, Eaton, and Navistar – moved to exclude certain expert testimony. Ford moves to exclude Staggs’ opinion that the decedent’s alleged exposure to asbestos from Ford’s automotive friction products was a substantial factor in causing his mesothelioma. Eaton and Navistar moved to exclude both Staggs’s and Ewing’s opinions. Ford also moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff cannot establish that the decedent was exposed to a harmful level of Ford’s friction products. Plaintiff opposes these motions.

The court first considered the motions to exclude expert testimony and analyzed the applicable legal standards under Rule 702 of the Federal Rule of Evidence. Defendants Eaton and Navistar contend that Ewing’s opinion is inadmissible under Rules 403 and 702. They do not challenge his qualifications or methods, but rather argue that his opinion is inadmissible because he “did not attempt to establish specific causation.” The court found that as Rule 702 requires only that the opinion is helpful to understanding the evidence or determining “a fact in issue,” Ewing’s opinion satisfies that requirement. Eaton and Navistar also contend that Ewing’s opinion is inadmissible because he does not “have the data to support the ‘cumulative exposure’ theory.” However, the court found that Ewing never purported to apply that theory, and so it is immaterial that Ewing’s opinion cannot support a theory he does not use.

Turning to Rule 403, Eaton and Navistar argue Ewing’s opinion is inadmissible under Rule 403.119, which permits courts to “exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” Eaton contends Ewing’s testimony is prejudicial because if Staggs’ opinion is excluded, the jury would assume causation and allocate fault based on Ewing’s testimony, even though Ewing did not assess which defendants were responsible for which exposures. However, Ewing testified that he will not provide defendant-specific opinions and “medical causation” opinions, and the defendants would be able to cross-examine Ewing about the limitations of his opinion. For that reason, the court was not persuaded that the probative value of Ewing’s testimony is substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice and declined to exclude his testimony under Rule 403.

Ford, Eaton, and Navistar also moved to exclude Staggs’s opinion under Rule 702.125. At issue are two of Staggs’s opinions: (1) the general causation opinion that asbestos-containing automotive friction products can cause mesothelioma, and (2) the specific causation opinion that each defendants’ products were individually a cause of the decedent’s mesothelioma.

Ford argues that Staggs’s opinion that there is a link between asbestos-containing automotive friction products and mesothelioma is flawed because chrysotile asbestos, the form of asbestos used in automotive friction products, “is physically and chemically distinct from the other forms of asbestos involved in many of the studies employed by the plaintiffs’ experts.” Ford cited studies indicating the chrysotile in brake linings is not harmful. Staggs, however, cited studies indicating a connection between automotive friction products and mesothelioma. Ford contends that Staggs’s cited studies are unreliable because they are case studies and not epidemiological studies. However, Rule 702 does not impose such strict guidelines. Rather, a Rule 702 inquiry should be flexible and focused on assessing the relevance and reliability of evidence, not whether the evidence is the most correct. The court concluded that Staggs’ opinion about the causal relationship between asbestos-containing automotive frictions products and mesothelioma is sufficiently reliable to be admissible. 

The three defendants further challenged Staggs’s opinion that their products caused the decedent’s mesothelioma. The court concluded Staggs’s opinion is inadmissible because it is not “based on sufficient facts or data” and because Staggs did not reliably apply the principles and methods to the facts of the case. Under Rule 702, an expert’s opinion must be based on sufficient facts or data, and expert testimony based on unsupported assumptions may be inadmissible. In this case, the court concludes there is too great an analytical gap between the existing facts and Staggs’s opinion. Staggs testified that he determines the significance of an exposure by assessing proximity, frequency, and regularity, and noted that he assumed the frequency and regularity of the decedent’s exposures were equal. However, this assumption is neither scientific nor supported by Decedent’s sworn testimony. Because decedent could not estimate the breakdown of his exposures, Staggs’ assumption that they were all equal has no evidentiary support.

Staggs attempted to justify his assumptions by explaining that he assumed the decedent would have mentioned if the exposures were not “roughly equal.” As the plaintiff’s counsel conceded, Staggs’s assumption is not “scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge.” For that reason, it is not sufficient to support Staggs’s opinion. The “analytical gap” between the existing facts and Staggs’s opinion is too great because Staggs relied on an assumption—made without evidentiary support—that the decedent was exposed to each defendant’s products equally. For that reason, Staggs’s opinion is unreliable under Rule 702.164 and must be excluded.

Further, Staggs did not reliably apply the principles he identified. Expert testimony must also be “the product of reliable principles and methods” and the expert must reliably apply the principles and methods to the facts of the case. Even assuming Staggs described “reliable principles and methods” underlying his opinion, the court concludes he did not reliably apply those principles and methods. Staggs testified that his method is to consider all exposures, no matter how small, as contributing to the cumulative exposure. He then uses “proximity and frequency and regularity . . . to determine which parts of the cause are significant or trivial.” However, it is unclear whether or how he applied those principles to the facts of this case. For example, the decedent stated he did brake replacements on 10 to 20 International Harvester trucks, but nowhere does Staggs take that number, assess the proximity, frequency, and regularity, and then explain why ten to twenty replacements is enough to be significant.

Plaintiff’s counsel asserts that Staggs reliably applied peer-reviewed scientific literature. However, Staggs did not explain those standards, how he applied them to each defendant, and how he reached his conclusion. It is insufficient to simply cite academic articles and principles and then state his own conclusion. Although Staggs cited methods that may be reliable, he did not adequately explain his application of those methods here. Because an expert’s ipse dixit is not sufficient under Rule 702, the court concluded that Staggs’s opinion is inadmissible for this additional reason.

Finally, the court considered Ford’s motion for summary judgment. Ford argues it is entitled to summary judgment because the plaintiff failed to make a sufficient showing of causation, an essential element of each of the claims. Because the court has excluded Staggs’s specific causation opinion, the question before the court is whether expert testimony is essential to proving causation in this case.

Utah courts generally require expert testimony to prove causation in all but the most obvious cases. However, expert testimony is not required if assessing causation is “within the common knowledge of the average layperson.” After reviewing this case, the court concluded that it is not an ‘obvious’ case. For example, the decedent was not diagnosed with his condition until decades after he was allegedly exposed to the defendants’ products. Further, as there are multiple defendants in this case, the jury would need to assess how much the decedent was exposed to each defendant’s products, if at all, and determine whether the exposures from each defendant were significant contributors to his illness. Simply put, this analysis is not “within the common knowledge of the average layperson.”

Plaintiff therefore requires expert opinion on causation to defeat Ford’s motion for summary judgment. As discussed above, this court excluded Staggs’s specific causation opinion. While the plaintiff argues that the plaintiff’s other expert, Ewing, can establish specific causation, Ewing did not offer an opinion on whether an individual defendant—such as Ford—manufactured products that were a substantial factor in the decedent’s development of mesothelioma. Rather, his opinion was limited to assessing the decedent’s asbestos exposure from specific tasks. Because the plaintiff does not have expert testimony to establish a causal connection between Ford’s products and decedent’s mesothelioma, Ford is entitled to summary judgment on all of the plaintiff’s claims.

Read the full decision here.