“Every Fiber” Is Not a Substantial Causing Factor in Asbestos-related Diseases

/ 18.Jul, 2012
In the case of Betz v. Pneumo Abex LLC,  the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that plaintiffs cannot rely on the theory that every fiber of inhaled asbestos was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s asbestos-related disease.  This decision overturns previous Superior Court decisions (Tragarz v. Keene Corp., Howard v. A.W. Chesterton Co. and Estate of Hicks), thus forcing plaintiffs to prove that each product, on its own, was a substantial factor in bringing about the disease.  Pennsylvania law requires that in order to provide a sufficient basis for liability, an exposure to a defendant’s product must be a substantial contributing factor in causing the disease. At trial, the plaintiffs relied on expert opinions asserting the “every fiber” theory: that every exposure to asbestos, regardless of time and level, substantially contributed to the development of the asbestos-related disease, as the basis for their case.  This expert testimony was challenged by the defendants, who claimed that the “every fiber” theory was the result of a new scientific technique and was not generally accepted in the scientific community.  Subsequently, a Frye hearing was held to evaluate the credibility of the expert testimony.  In sustaining the challenge, the judge determined that the expert’s methodology failed to support that the disease was a result of workplace exposure to asbestos and not to another source. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the use of a Frye hearing along with the judge’s determination.  The Court found further error in the expert’s testimony by concluding that when an expert does not clearly articulate his methodology or when he draws conclusions outside of the scope of his scientific field, it is appropriate to scrutinize his findings under a Frye hearing.  In this instance, the expert was a pathologist who would typically focus on diagnosing through empirical review, not on attributing specific causation.  The Supreme Court additionally found that the expert’s “every fiber” opinion was inconsistent with substantial cause principles of Pennsylvania law, which requires that exposure to a defendant’s product be a substantial contributing factor in causing the disease and not one minor factor amongst many others. – Mohamed N. Bakry, Esquire and Shilpa Kadoo (legal intern)