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An Ohio appellate court affirmed a verdict favoring a man who asserted his Hodgkin’s lymphoma and asbestosis were the result of occupational exposure to asbestos while he worked at Ford Motor Co.
His employment spanned from 1973 to 1997. This is one of the first cases in which a patient’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma was recognized as attributable to asbestos exposure. Although there has been research to suggest whatever causal link asbestos exposure has to malignant lymphomas is generally weak, this case shows that it may still be possible to prove a connection in court on a case-by-case basis. Strong legal representation is key.
Ford insisted on appeal that the worker’s illness could not have been caused by exposure to asbestos, and therefore the trial court abused its discretion by admitting “unreliable” testimony from an “unscientific expert” witness in support of the plaintiff. The company further asserted the court made a mistake in denying its motion for a directed verdict, based on the plaintiff’s alleged failure to offer admissible evidence of proximate cause.
As our asbestos lawyers understand it, the case began with a claim for workers’ compensation benefits through the state’s industrial commission. The commission denied his request, and he therefore appealed to the district court.
The plaintiff held the greater burden in this case. While asbestosis is recognized as an occupational illness, specified by the state’s workers’ compensation system, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is not. The plaintiff had to show his condition qualified.
That meant he had to rely heavily on expert medical evidence and testimony. To prevail on his claim, he had to show both general and specific causation. That is, not only did asbestos cause his illness, but it was Ford’s asbestos specifically that caused his illness.
Ford was especially up in arms about testimony from a doctor who testified in dozens of cases of lymphomas connected to asbestos exposure, including two that involved specifically Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The doctor testified on the different kinds of cancers and the biological ways in which asbestos could theoretically cause them.
Problematic for Ford’s appeal was that it never challenged this testimony at trial. The first time it refuted it was on appeal. Procedurally, this means the company essentially forfeited the right to challenge it. In fact, the appellate panel noted, Ford’s own expert witness testified asbestos particles have the potential to migrate to other parts of the body and cause disease in places other than the lungs.
While the court agreed the plaintiff’s expert relied on studies generally deemed controversial, those opinions were not outside the degree of latitude granted to expert witnesses in presenting scientific studies. Furthermore, just because there were no asbestos particles found in the slides of the worker’s cancerous tumor doesn’t mean the expert witness testimony was not reliable. In fact, one would not expect to find asbestos in the tumor because it’s a new growth.
The appeals court also shot down the notion that evidence was insufficient to make a connection between the cancer and exposure to asbestos. Reasonable people, the court said, could have reached more than a single conclusion based on the evidence. The conclusion they reached in this instance was not improper.
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