For over 40 years, the courts have been filled with personal injury claims arising out of exposure to asbestos. Those cases continue to be litigated, and in Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc. v. Knight, Case No. S15G1278 (decided July 5, 2016), the Georgia Supreme Court added another chapter to that saga. The Court considered whether certain expert testimony was sufficient to establish a plaintiff’s claim that he had contracted mesothelioma as a result of asbestos exposure.
For a number of years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Knight had worked at the Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc. facility in Waycross, Georgia as an independent contractor. Much later, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Mr. Knight and his wife sued Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc. and several other parties. Scapa filed an appeal from a verdict entered against it. The Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict, but the Georgia Supreme Court reversed.
In the Supreme Court, the focus of the case was on the expert testimony offered in support of Mr. Knight’s case. Mr. Knight’s expert pathologist had testified that exposure to asbestos at the Scapa facility had been the cause of Mr. Knight’s mesothelioma, “regardless of the precise extent of the exposure.” Opinion, p. 3. He testified that the exposure to asbestos at any level above a background level would have had a cumulative effect and been the cause of the mesothelioma.
Although Scapa had challenged the pathologist’s testimony as “junk science,” the Court decided the case on more narrow grounds. Under the prevailing standard for expert testimony, an expert’s opinion must be helpful to the jury. More precisely, the testimony must address or “fit” the issue the jury must decide. The Georgia Supreme Court had previously held that to recover on a claim that asbestos exposure caused mesothelioma, a plaintiff must show that the asbestos exposure made a “meaningful” contribution to the mesothelioma and not a “de minimis” contribution. Opinion, p. 9. The Court concluded that by opining that any asbestos exposure above background caused Mr. Knight’s mesothelioma, the expert’s testimony had allowed the jury to conclude that a de minimis asbestos exposure was a sufficient basis for liability.
The Court went out of its way to note that it was not rejecting the idea that expert testimony on the effect of cumulative asbestos exposure could be relevant. Opinion, p. 11. Instead, such testimony would need to be qualified with the requirement that liability could exist only if the jury found more than de minimis exposure to asbestos.
The Opinion is available at https://gasupreme.us/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/s15g1278.pdf