Law School 101: To bring a successful tort lawsuit, you have to prove injury and causation. Whether it be a First Amendment case or a mesothelioma injury, a plaintiff must plead facts alleging injury and causation in order for a court to hear the case. Proving causation can be a challenge in many personal injury cases but is particularly a challenge in mesothelioma and other toxic tort cases.
Everyone with a television has heard of mesothelioma lawsuits. You see these crazy “now I can buy a baseball team” verdicts and assume it is shooting fish in a barrel. Simply having cancer and thinking it was caused by asbestos – even knowing your mesothelioma was caused by asbestos – will not stand up in court. We learned this in Maryland the hard way last week when a $15 million verdict was reversed by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. [Update: the Maryland high court reinstated this verdict against Ford Motor.] A North Carolina case decided a few weeks ago had a decidedly happier ending.
In Miller v. 3M the defendants attempted to have the plaintiff’s mesothelioma asbestos lawsuit dismissed based on the plaintiff’s inability to plead facts necessary to find injury and causation.
The injured plaintiff had filed suit against numerous companies alleging that the plaintiff developed mesothelioma after he was exposed to asbestos. The complaint states that the defendant companies manufactured and supplied products or equipment containing asbestos that were used by plaintiff’s employers. Because of these products, the plaintiff suffered occupational exposure to asbestos that eventually developed into mesothelioma.
The plaintiff died in November, but his wife continued the litigation.
Plaintiff’s lawsuit alleges negligence, breach of implied warranty, willful and wanton conduct, failure to warn, fraud, and loss of consortium. The various defendants responded with a motion to dismiss under rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The defendants challenged the sufficiency of the plaintiff’s theory of occupational exposure and cancer development. Under FRCP Rule 8(a) a plaintiff must plead the necessary facts and grounds that will support the court granting his requested relief. In this case, that means that plaintiff must show the basic facts of the manufacturing, sale, and distribution of the asbestos products and employment that could have led to occupational exposure. He does not have to show excessive detail or actually prove his case but merely present sufficient evidence demonstrating why the court can hear the case.
The sufficiency rules are set up this way because, at the outset of a lawsuit, it is very likely that a plaintiff does not have access to all the information about his case. The court system does not want this to hinder the ability to bring meritorious lawsuits.
Defendants particularly challenged the plaintiff’s false representation/fraud claims. These claims must meet specific pleading standards due to the nature of a legal fraud claim. Fraud pleadings require details including the time, place, nature of the false representations, the identity of the person making the fraudulent statements, and what was obtained in making those statements.
The court denied the motions to dismiss based on the details given in the plaintiff’s complaint. Attached to the complaint was information about the plaintiff’s work experience, occupations, employers, and worksite locations. To the issue of sufficient fraud pleadings, the plaintiff provided details of particular fraudulent acts meant to conceal the dangers of asbestos exposure.
While this first ruling is a win for the plaintiff, it does not guarantee another victory at trial. But it was a “win or go home” motion for the plaintiff and her lawsuit continues. I like her chances – as I do any asbestos plaintiff – if she gets to trial. They key is getting there.
You can find the opinion in Miller v. 3M on Justia’s website here.