Expert Causation Testimony Required in Toxic Tort Case

Willie and Betty Statom sued Seymour Electrical and Air Conditioning Service, Inc. for negligence alleging that they were injured by carbon monoxide poisoning from a gas furnace that was improperly installed and repaired. Seymour installed a new furnace in the Statoms’ home in May of 2007 and during a service call in July 2008, Seymour failed to convert a replacement valve nozzle from its factory setting for natural gas to the setting for propane gas, which was being used by the Statoms. The failure to properly convert the nozzle led to incomplete combustion inside the furnace which resulted in soot and carbon monoxide.

After the initial installation of the furnace, but before the faulty replacement of the valve nozzle, the Statoms began experiencing a variety of medical problems, including headaches, nausea, burning throats, burning eyes, stomach pain, fatigue, and memory loss. Mrs. Statom was hospitalized for three days and missed at least a month of work. The Statoms moved out of their house for approximately six months while efforts were made to identify and correct any problems that might be causing their symptoms.

During the course of the investigation to determine potential environmental hazards, mold was discovered in the house and some consultants believe that it was the cause of the Statoms’ symptoms. A service technician with a different heating and air conditioning company discovered the replacement valve nozzle issue in November of 2008.

In December of 2008 the Statoms moved back into their house and their symptoms subsided. They then sued Seymour contending that their medical symptoms had been the result of carbon monoxide poisoning and sought damages for physical and emotional injury. Seymour moved for summary judgment, arguing among other things that there was no evidence of causation. The trial court denied the motion but the Court of Appeals felt otherwise.

Seymour was negligent in its installation of the furnace and its subsequent replacement of the valve nozzle. The issue was whether there was any competent evidence that Seymour’s negligence caused the Statoms’ medical symptoms. Although the Statoms sought medical attention for their symptoms, they failed to come forward with any evidence that a physician ever tested them for carbon monoxide poisoning or diagnosed them as having that condition. There was no expert medical testimony establishing a causal link between their medical symptoms and their alleged exposure to carbon monoxide. Rather, the Statoms simply argued that a jury could “infer” that the carbon monoxide from the furnace caused their medical symptoms because the dangers associated with its inhalation are well known.

According to the Court of Appeals, this “inference” was not enough. While expert testimony is unnecessary to establish causation in many negligence cases, some cases raise issues that can be resolved by a jury only with the assistance of experts with specialized medical knowledge. This is one of those cases as are many toxic tort cases. Medical evidence was especially necessary in this case because of the possibility of another cause for the Plaintiffs’ symptoms: mold.

In any toxic tort case plaintiffs will need to have medical testimony that the substance which they contend caused their injury did, in fact, do so. Remember also that the physician or expert providing that testimony must be qualified to do so and must have a proper foundation for his or her opinion.

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About the Author

Michael Rust graduated from Emory University in 1980 and Emory University School of Law in 1983 where he was Notes and Comments editor of the Emory Law Journal (Law Review). Since that time, he has maintained an active trial practice in the state of Georgia both in State and Federal Courts. Mr. Rust teaches litigation as part of Emory University School of Law’s annual Trial Practice Program. He has received AV rating from Martindale Hubble, the highest rating afforded to lawyers by their peers.