Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal in Robert J. O’Donnell and Sandra O’Donnell v. W.F. Taylor Co., Inc., et al., recently upheld a Palm County Circuit Court’s final judgment granting five defendants’ companion motion for summary judgment on causation. The Fourth DCA found the lawsuit didn’t meet the state’s causation standard.
Plaintiffs Robert and Sandra O’Donnell sued a group of manufacturing, distributing and retail companies over alleged exposure to cancer causing chemicals in their products arising from 40 years spent installing carpets and flooring, using adhesive products and removing agents that contained benzene, a commonly used chemical and known carcinogen. Plaintiffs alleged Mr. O’Donnell contracted a blood and bone marrow disease as a result of his exposure arising from his work.
Tides shifted in favor of defendants when the plaintiffs’ own experts couldn’t confirm that each product had contributed to Robert O’Donnell’s exposure enough over his lifetime to have caused his disease. Defendants argued O’Donnell would have developed the disease without their products, meaning his argument wouldn’t hold under a ”but for” causation standard. The plaintiffs argued his exposure didn’t have to be the only factor of causation and was still a legally substantial contributor to the development of Plaintiff’s disease.
In reviewing the decision, the appellate panel unanimously found Palm Beach Circuit Judge James Nutt was right to grant summary judgment for the defense, because the husband’s benzene exposure constituted a “small fraction” of his lifetime exposure—not enough to establish causation.
The decision is a huge win for product manufacturers, distributors and retailers and could have a lasting effect in product liability litigation. It further supports defendants’ arguments that a manufacturer is only responsible for injury cause by its own product. It rejects the cumulative-exposure theory that would hold a defendant liable for minimal exposure that independently is insufficient to cause the disease at issue. Under the cumulative-exposure theory, a plaintiff only had to prove that a product was a “substantial contributing cause” of an illness or injury even if the product by itself was incapable of causing the harm.
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Author: Hanson Horn, New York City and Fort Lauderdale offices