13 Ways Coronavirus Will Change How Families Travel | Out & About with Kids

10 Wake Forest L. Rev. Online 124

Betsy J. Grey*

I. Introduction

Business owners and politicians have raised the specter of a flood of civil lawsuits arising out of the pandemic.[1]  Most of these suits will likely be commercial in nature, and very few personal injury lawsuits have been filed against businesses since the pandemic began in the United States.[2]  Even so, calls have come for immunity shields for industries that could potentially face personal injury lawsuits.[3]  But are those requests for immunity well-founded?  Strong hurdles to bringing personal injury suits already exist to discourage plaintiffs’ lawyers from suing.[4]  The most significant roadblock is causal proof, which demands that plaintiffs prove both that the source of their infection was viral exposure at a defendant’s business and that the exposure was due to the defendant’s negligence.

In Covid-19 exposure cases, meeting the burden of proof on the element of causation will be insurmountable in most cases given the highly contagious nature of the virus, the multiple sources of exposure plaintiffs may experience, and the developing state of the art on effective mitigation measures to prevent viral spread.  This Article explores these issues, examining the difficulty of causal proof in different business environments and comparing causal proof submitted in other tort cases involving clusters of injury, such as toxic exposure and food poisoning cases.  It concludes by examining whether federal legislation enacting an alternative compensation scheme for claims brought by essential workers against businesses, with lower causal proof requirements, is a better way to address the problem of causal proof, at least for those workers.

Part II reviews the state of knowledge on how the virus is transmitted.  Science continues to increase our knowledge on viral spread, but it is clear that significant spread comes from airborne particles, both smaller (aerosols) and larger (droplets).[5]  It can also spread through a variety of surfaces, known as fomites, which may retain the virus for several days.[6]  The virus spreads more easily indoors than outdoors.[7]  Confined spaces seem to pose the highest risk.[8]  Length of exposure is also a significant factor for contracting the virus.[9]  Some spreaders are asymptomatic and expose others unknowingly.

In Covid-19 personal injury suits against businesses, plaintiffs would need to prove that they contracted the illness in a given setting and the contraction was due to the defendant’s negligent failure to implement appropriate mitigation measures.[10]  Part III briefly overviews the primary mitigation measures that businesses currently use to reduce exposure to the virus.  Many of these measures are based on federal and state governments’ guidelines to businesses.[11]  These mitigation measures include ensuring social distancing, mandating mask usage, conducting symptom screening, upgrading ventilation systems, limiting numbers of patrons and employees on premises, undertaking deep cleaning measures, and providing hand-sanitizing dispensers.[12]

Part IV explores different types of business premises in which negligent exposure lawsuits can arise, and the challenges for proving causation in those settings.  The strength of causal proof is a sliding scale, depending on factors such as the nature of the environment and the length of exposure.  Causal proof will be stronger in contained environments with sustained close contact, like cruise ships and nursing homes, and weaker in highly public settings with short-term usage, like grocery stores.  Contained environments also differ because some environments are completely contained, like prisons, while others are contained for periods of time, like meatpacking plants.

Part V examines other challenging exposure cases, like toxic torts and foodborne illnesses, to see how plaintiffs meet their burden on causal proof in those settings. These settings often involve identifying outbreaks and clusters of illness and applying probabilistic proof to show causation for specific individuals.  Although important differences exist between those cases and the Covid-19 cases, they offer a starting point for approaching some of the complicated causal proof for Covid-19 cases.

Finally, Part VI explores the possibility of creating a federal alternative compensation fund for essential, frontline workers.  Like other compensation funds, it would lower the burden on causal proof and create presumptions of exposure.  The strong public policy reasons to support essential workers argue in favor of creating the causal presumptions and making it easier to receive compensation.  One approach could include creating the equivalent of a federal workers’ compensation program for essential workers, applying presumptions that the virus was contracted in the course of employment.  A workers’ compensation-like framework will help ensure that these essential workers are not left without recourse or compensation for their injuries.

II. Covid-19 Transmission

Covid-19 is highly contagious.  It is a type of coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV (“SARS”) and MERS-CoV (“MERS”)[13] and can spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or breathes, producing respiratory droplets and aerosols.[14]  Bigger viral particles, called droplets, fall to the ground or nearby surfaces.[15]  Smaller viral particles evaporate in the form of aerosols, and can linger in the air.[16]  Experts estimate droplets and aerosols from a sneeze can travel up to six meters.[17]  Droplets from an exhale or cough can travel between one and three meters respectively.[18]  Aerosols, however, can potentially travel farther depending on the airflow pattern.[19]  Covid-19 only remains viable in aerosols for three hours, but in the form of droplets, it can infect others for up to eighty-four hours.[20]  Thus, while there is controversy among experts regarding the role of aerosols in spreading Covid-19, experts believe that the larger droplets predominantly spread the virus.[21]

Although Covid-19 can potentially spread through a variety of surfaces, experts believe fomites such as door and drawer handles, elevator buttons, and faucets are predominant carriers.[22]  This potential is likely because Covid-19 can remain viable on plastic and stainless steel for up to seventy-two hours.[23]  Other surfaces, such as cardboard, food, and water, however, have significantly lower viability spans, and thus are less likely to carry the virus.[24]

Coronaviruses are more likely to spread indoors.  While there are still limited data on the effects of different environments on Covid-19 viability, studies show that SARS retains its viability best in temperatures ranging from 71 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, and relative humidity of 40 to 50 percent, which is typical of air-conditioned environments.[25]  However, the virus tends to lose viability at temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity above 95 percent.[26]  Given Covid-19’s similarities to SARS, this is likely the case for Covid-19 as well.[27]  Notably, in a preprint Chinese study of 318 coronavirus outbreaks, all but one occurred indoors.[28]

Experts warn that even outdoor environments will not prevent infection among groups of people in close contact—the largest risk factor for spreading Covid-19.[29]  The worst clusters of coronavirus in the U.S. have been tied to spaces with many people in close proximity  at the same time.[30]  The length of exposure is also a critical factor—sustained interactions carry a larger risk of infection than limited interactions.[31]  Thus, the more people one interacts with, and the longer that interaction, the greater the risk of contracting Covid-19.[32]

Although there is a risk of contracting Covid-19 at nearly any location, confined spaces pose an elevated risk.[33]  Some examples of high-risk confined spaces include flights, car rides, public transportation, homeless shelters, and healthcare centers.[34]  One U.S. study analyzed Covid-19 infection potential in airplanes, cars, and healthcare centers.[35]  In airplanes, the study reported that an infected person without a mask can infect between five to ten people through one cough.[36]  This number decreases to approximately three people if the infected person wears a mask.[37]  In a car, an infected person can potentially infect every person within the car through a cough, whether or not masks are worn.[38]  While opening car windows and travelling at higher speeds slightly reduces the risk of transmission, Covid-19 droplets and aerosols can still infect every person in the car.[39]  In healthcare centers (or any other indoor environment where people gather in clusters), an infected person’s cough can spread Covid-19 droplets up to one meter.[40]  Thus, the infection risk from droplets is limited to those in close contact with the infected person, or who touch an infected fomite.[41]  However, Covid-19 aerosols from the cough may follow the airflow stream of the air conditioning and potentially infect others several meters away.[42]  While improved airflow and masks can decrease the risk of long-range transmission, some risk of infection remains.[43]

Once infected, the average person will show symptoms in five to six days.[44]  However, it is possible to show symptoms up to fourteen days after exposure.[45]  In a study of infected persons in the Hubei province of China, one of the original hotspots of the virus, 97.5 percent of people exhibited symptoms by 11.5 days.[46]  Given that the time it takes a person to develop symptoms varies, it may be difficult to determine which point of exposure caused the infection.  Equally challenging to tracing the source of infection is that some spreaders never develop symptoms at all.[47]

Our developing knowledge on viral spread and infection demonstrates how difficult it will be to prove that an individual contracted the virus at a specific exposure point.

III. Mitigation Measures for Businesses

For causal proof, plaintiffs must prove not only that the exposure to the virus occurred in the defendant’s premises; they must also prove that defendant’s failure to take appropriate mitigation measures—or a breach of its duty of due care—caused the contraction of the virus.  In other words, plaintiff must show that defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff to contract the virus.  Most of the mitigation measures implemented by businesses originate from guidelines issued by the federal and state governments, but businesses are free to go beyond these measures in the interest of safety and the changing state of the art.  Accordingly, an important dynamic in addressing the standard of care is what mitigation efforts others in the industry have implemented.[48]  Custom in the industry will be a significant factor—if many others in the same industry have taken preventative steps that the defendant has not taken, this may suggest negligence.[49]  The effectiveness of mitigation measures undoubtedly will be disputed by experts,[50] especially given the changing state of science and the lack of peer reviewed studies and literature in the area.

In general, businesses have a duty to promote the health of employees and patrons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has issued general guidelines for businesses to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace.[51]  Under these guidelines, businesses, first and foremost, should encourage those employees who are sick, have tested positive for Covid-19, or have recently come in close contact with a person who tested positive to stay home.[52]  These guidelines direct businesses to conduct symptom checks for all employees, sending home those who do not pass.[53]  If an employee tests positive for Covid-19, business owners should instruct them, as well as any potentially exposed employees, to stay home for fourteen days, telework if possible, and self-monitor for symptoms.[54]  All areas used by the sick person should be closed off and disinfected after twenty-four hours.[55] The guidelines also encourage employers to promote workplace behaviors that reduce the spread of Covid-19.[56]

Businesses should implement practices to minimize close contact.[57]  As noted, the more people with whom one interacts, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of Covid-19 spread.[58]  Accordingly, the CDC recommends teleworking and non-contact services when possible.[59]  In addition, businesses should modify the layout and procedures of their stores to ensure social distancing,[60] such as moving tables or barstools in restaurants,[61] spreading out gym equipment,[62] and establishing a clear path of travel for customers.[63]  In spaces where it is hard to physically distance, businesses should install physical barriers and require employees to wear cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of infection.[64]  The CDC recommends closing communal spaces, staggering employee shifts, and limiting the number of people allowed in the establishment.[65]  Businesses should also post signs and messages in highly visible locations to remind employees and customers to socially distance.[66]

The guidelines recommend other strategies to maintain a healthy business environment, including regular cleaning of all surfaces,[67] increasing ventilation rates and controlling the temperature and humidity of their building,[68] and opening windows and doors to improve air circulation.[69]  Because Covid-19 likely thrives best in low humidity, maintaining humidity levels of 40 to 60 percent may help prevent its spread.[70]  Additional guidelines for restaurants include avoiding self-serve food and drink stations, and prioritizing outdoor seating. [71]

Under these guidelines, businesses should implement flexible leave policies that do not punish employees for taking time off when they are sick.[72]  They should also offer high-risk employees, such as older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, alternative opportunities that limit their exposure risk.[73]

Importantly, the guidelines encourage businesses to follow all state and local Covid-19 regulations.[74]  Some examples of common regulations include mask mandates, travel restrictions, mass gathering restrictions, and mandatory business closures.[75]  Requirements may differ by state and industry; however, most regulations model the CDC guidance described above.[76] Currently, forty-one states require masks in public.[77]  Most states have restricted mass gatherings in some capacity and restricted travel from certain hotspots.[78]

IV. A Sliding Scale of Causal Proof Factors

As the number of Covid-19 cases in the United States continues to rise, so does the potential for Covid-19 related personal injury lawsuits against businesses and employers.  Employees, patrons, and patients could bring lawsuits against employers, businesses, and healthcare centers seeking compensation for personal injury damages resulting from their Covid-19 infection.  Some of these lawsuits will be shielded by workers’ compensation and other strong immunities.[79]  Even if they get beyond these shields, plaintiffs must prove that they more likely than not contracted the virus on the defendant’s premises due to the defendant’s negligence.  Because the virus is highly contagious and can be contracted anywhere, proving causation in these cases will be extremely difficult.  The strength of causal proof will reflect a sliding scale of factors like settings, mitigation efforts, and length of exposure.

Some settings will lend themselves to stronger causal proof than others.  Given our knowledge about exposure, asymptomatic spreaders, and incubation periods, showing a temporal relationship between visiting the premises and the onset of the virus alone will not suffice.  The best-case scenario for proving causation would likely involve an outbreak in a contained environment, like a cruise ship or nursing home.[80]  Studies have shown that the likelihood of contracting Covid-19 in a confined space is higher than the likelihood of contracting it in other environments.[81]  Moreover, a cluster of cases on the same cruise or nursing home will help prove that the outbreak is the most likely cause of the plaintiff contracting the disease.  While an outbreak is not a requirement, it will bolster causal proof.[82]

In a recent district court case, plaintiffs sought damages for personal injury, including one death, from Covid-19, which they allegedly contracted while on a cruise due to the ship’s negligence in handling an outbreak of the virus.[83]  The court dismissed the complaint, holding that although plaintiffs’ allegations of an outbreak on the ship and the defendant’s failure to quarantine or notify any of the passengers of the outbreak were sufficient to allege exposure, they had not sufficiently pled that they had contracted the virus from the exposure.[84]  Significantly, though, the court granted plaintiffs leave to amend the complaint, to give them the opportunity to allege the amount of time between the exposure and the date the plaintiffs started experiencing Covid-19 symptoms or received a positive test.[85]  The court explained that this timing regarding the incubation period is “a key fact necessary to render the causation allegations plausible, not merely possible.”[86]  This suggests that allegations of an outbreak, negligent handling of the outbreak, extended exposure, and a temporal relationship between exposure and contract may be enough to get to a jury on causation.

Alternative causes will always be an area of dispute. While the plaintiff has to rule in the cause by a preponderance of the evidence and does not need to rule out alternative causes in her case in chief, the issue will inevitably arise.[87]  Through investigation and discovery, defendants will attempt to develop potential sources of alternative exposures.  Plaintiffs who have been taking public transportation, failing to wear a facemask, joining large gatherings, or not maintaining social distancing will have a harder time proving that they contracted the virus on the business premises.  Alternative causes are harder to suggest in a nursing home where the plaintiff will likely have no other exposures other than the home itself, since most residents do not leave the building and outside visitors were curtailed very quickly after the pandemic started in March.  A plaintiff who allegedly contracts Covid-19 on a cruise ship will also have fewer alternative scenarios to explain. Although proving the plaintiff contracted the virus on the cruise ship, and not one of the stops along the way, will still be at issue, a cluster of cases onboard, and a contained environment strengthens the causal proof.

Other potentially stronger causal cases include buildings where people gather in clusters for prolonged periods of time, such as homeless shelters, factories, or certain workplaces.  These settings will not provide as strong a causal link as those that involve a nursing home or a cruise ship, since people who frequent those settings will be more mobile.  Plaintiffs will likely need to present additional evidence, such as a Covid-19 outbreak in the facility, to strengthen their causal proof.  Workplaces, like meatpacking plants, which cannot accommodate certain mitigation efforts such as social distancing may also prove to be stronger causal cases.

It will be especially difficult for plaintiffs to prove they contracted Covid-19 in uncontained environments, such as grocery stores, restaurants, gyms, and retail stores.  Given that asymptomatic individuals spread many infections, it may be very difficult to identify precisely when the infection was contracted.  Even if plaintiffs can prove they were socially isolated when they contracted the virus or that an outbreak occurred at that particular location, that proof may be insufficient.  Defendants will challenge the plaintiff on other likely places of exposure, such as their home, car, or from any other person outside of the establishment.[88]  Alternatively, the plaintiff could attempt to prove that the business was the epicenter of an outbreak.  Contact tracing may reveal that a group of people visited a particular location within the same time period and later contracted Covid-19.  But as Covid-19 cases in the United States continue to strain the healthcare system, state health departments struggle (or do not even try) to conduct effective contact tracing.[89]  Thus, this option may not be viable.

Potentially, plaintiffs may also try to trace their Covid-19 case to a particular contact through DNA sequencing.[90]  Scientists have used DNA sequencing to track the geographic spread of Covid-19.[91]  This may allow identification of a particular strain of the virus on the business premises.  This science is still developing, and it is unclear whether it can work with sufficient specificity to track a case to a single contact.

V. Causal Proof in Other Settings

Two other types of tort claims that often involve clusters of illnesses may provide useful precedent in proving causation in the Covid-19 context: food poisoning cases and toxic exposure cases.  Both settings rely on circumstantial evidence and statistical proof to strengthen causal claims.

A.     Food Poisoning

Food poisoning may have numerous potential sources of infection, which makes causal proof challenging.  Because food poisoning spreads through contaminated foods,[92] a plaintiff may be exposed to multiple potential sources in every meal.  Some kinds of food poisoning can take several days or even weeks to present.[93]  In addition to creating uncertainty as to where an infection was contracted, this delay also minimizes a plaintiff’s ability to gather physical evidence because contaminated food may have been thrown away or unsanitary surfaces may have been sanitized.  These challenges may explain the low rates of success food poisoning plaintiffs have had in suits.[94]

The success of a food poisoning claim is highly fact dependent.  The cases where food poisoning plaintiffs have had the greatest success involve a large number of people developing the same symptoms and a quick investigation linking the contaminant in the plaintiff’s food to the contaminant found on the defendant’s premises.[95]  Some bacteria that cause food poisoning have a unique “DNA fingerprint,” which have been used to track outbreaks and identify the source.[96]  Even without scientific evidence directly linking the bacteria to the defendant, plaintiffs have successfully used circumstantial evidence to establish causation.[97]  Food poisoning plaintiffs have relied on outbreaks and clusters to bolster their causal proof.  For example, courts have considered whether others who consumed the food became ill and the time frame of the illness in relation to the consumption.[98]  Although generally plaintiffs have not been required to rule out every conceivable source of causation,[99] courts have required them to do more than demonstrate they developed food poisoning shortly after eating the defendant’s food.[100]

The food poisoning cases indicate some of the challenges Covid-19 plaintiffs will face.  As discussed earlier, Covid-19 plaintiffs likely face even more sources of infection because the virus can be spread through contact with an infected (and potentially asymptomatic) person or from infected surfaces.[101]  Delays in the emergence of symptoms further increase the potential sources of infection.[102]

Although food poisoning and Covid-19 infections have substantial overlap, proving causation in a Covid-19 case may present additional challenges.  While a food poisoning outbreak likely originates from a single (often static) source, the Covid-19 outbreak is so widespread that the potential sources are arguably any of the millions of infected individuals.[103]  Importantly, food poisoning is not contagious, unlike the Covid-19 virus, which accounts for the continued increase in potential sources of the virus.  In a food poisoning case, a plaintiff can use other people, such as family members, to demonstrate that they all became sick after eating at a restaurant.  In a Covid-19 case, even if a family develops the disease after visiting a defendant’s premises together, the defendant may still be able to argue that one person contracted the disease somewhere else and spread it to the rest of the family.  In limited circumstances, however, a Covid-19 plaintiff may actually have fewer potential sources of illness than the alleged food poisoning victim.  For example, a plaintiff who quarantined or remained in a confined location will likely be able to demonstrate few alternative sources of exposure, whereas food poisoning plaintiffs are unlikely to have abstained from eating (i.e., other sources of exposure) during the potential exposure period.  Even so, this may not remove the challenge of proving that it was the defendant’s negligence that caused the plaintiff’s harm.

B.     Toxic Torts and Statistical Proof

In toxic tort, medical device, and drug cases, courts typically divide the causal inquiry into two questions: (1) general causation (whether the chemical, device or drug is capable of causing the injury); and (2) specific causation (whether the agent caused the injury to the individual plaintiff).[104]  Although proof for both of those inquiries may be based on probabilities,[105] courts generally are more likely to allow probabilistic evidence through epidemiological studies to prove general causation but may not accept it to prove specific causation.[106]

With Covid-19 exposure cases, plaintiffs often will only be able to show that the defendant’s failure to take appropriate mitigation measures increased the likelihood that they were exposed to the virus (general causation) but not that the defendant’s negligence specifically caused them to contract the virus (specific causation).  As discussed earlier, outside of a completely contained environment for a prolonged period, like a nursing home or cruise ship, the probability of a particular exposure and contraction will be lower.  Plaintiffs will have difficulty showing that, absent the defendant’s conduct, they would not have contracted the virus when they did, which would fail to meet the traditional “but for” test for actual causation.[107]  As science improves, through greater knowledge of Covid-19 and personalized medicine and advances in genetics, scientists may be able to designate which plaintiffs contracted the virus due to defendant’s activities, and which suffered injury due to other exposures.  Science may one day permit us to distinguish where and when a plaintiff contracted the virus, but it is not yet at that point, and the best available evidence may be using probabilities and statistics to determine exposure in Covid-19 cases.[108]  Much of the causal proof may rely on clusters of cases in a given environment, but in any specific case, an alternative cause may have been responsible for the plaintiff’s injury.

Since specific causation is inherently individual, defendants in Covid-19 cases will likely be successful in defeating claims of causation on a one-on-one basis.   Courts and scholars have struggled with how to address situations in which some group of plaintiffs very likely have been injured by a defendant’s activity but cannot prove which individuals were harmed because of lack of specific causal proof.  These population exposure cases often occur in mass torts such as toxic tort, medical device, and drug exposure cases.[109]  Professor Levmore calls this problem “recurring misses,” which result in a defendant escaping liability even when it has clearly caused injury to someone.[110]  Scholars have proposed “proportional liability” based on the probability of causation to address this problem.[111]  This solution would adjust damages to the probability of causation, so that plaintiffs who can prove that there is, say, a 40 percent likelihood of injury due to the defendant’s activity should receive 40 percent of their damages from that defendant.[112]  Other scholars reject this approach as allowing courts to impose liability without enough proof of responsibility. [113]

Courts have adopted this proportional liability approach in limited toxic tort cases, such as imposing market share liability.[114]  Moreover, mass tort class actions settlements often appear to apply probabilistic causation in the settlement terms.[115]  As Professor Lahav observes, “[a]s a practical matter, . . . mass torts are routinely resolved collectively through global settlements that provide more or less proportional recovery to plaintiffs.”[116]  In other words, to address large scale injury from tortious behavior, litigants and courts may be adjusting traditional causal proof standards and turning to probabilities to achieve resolution of mass torts.  If we view an extensive viral outbreak that is linked to a large-scale event sponsored without adequate mitigation measures—say a motorcycle rally or a campaign rally—as a mass tort, it may make sense to resolve causal proof problems through proportional recovery methods.

Courts sometimes lower traditional causal proof standards for policy reasons.  Asbestos provides an interesting example.[117]  Following prolonged exposure, asbestos-related diseases can take twenty to fifty years to develop.[118]  Thus, it can be difficult to determine which asbestos exposure, if any, caused the disease, even though the defendant’s activities increased the likelihood of injury from asbestos exposure to a worker.[119]  As a result, some states have lowered the causation standard for asbestos cases.[120]  Without the lower causation standard, it would be nearly impossible for plaintiffs to recover.[121]

In asbestos cases, courts typically adopt one of two alternative causation standards to address the problem of causal uncertainty: the “substantial factor” test or the “frequency, regularity, proximity” test.[122]  Under the substantial factor test, plaintiffs can prove causation by demonstrating that, to a reasonable medical probability, their exposure was a substantial factor in contributing to the aggregate dose of asbestos that led to the plaintiff’s disease.[123]  The “frequency, regularity, proximity” test requires plaintiffs to identify a specific product as the probable cause of their injuries.[124]  The substantial factor test, which courts apply when multiple defendants are responsible for an injury,[125] is less useful in the Covid-19 context since the virus is contracted through a single exposure.  The “frequency, regularity, proximity” test, which requires plaintiffs to identify a specific product as the probable cause of their injuries, may be more useful. [126]  Under the test, the plaintiff must have worked in close proximity to the product “on a regular basis over some extended period of time.”[127]

Under the “frequency, regularity, proximity” test, Covid-19 plaintiffs could attempt to show causation by presenting evidence of the length of time spent at the defendant’s place of employment or business, their proximity to others, and the property’s environment, along with evidence of cluster outbreaks on the same property.  Applying the test would help overcome the almost insurmountable hurdle presented by the “but for” test in this context by allowing consideration of the probability of exposure to show specific causation.

In recent literature, scholars continue to argue that causal proof, in certain circumstances, should be attributed probabilistically[128] and on a collective basis.[129]  Professor Campos challenges the need to prove individual causation in a mass production case, often a roadblock to class action certification, to ensure a greater impact on unlawful behavior.[130]  As he states, after a finding of total liability, “one could relax specific causation requirements completely and simply choose a simple, rational way to distribute funds.”[131]

 Professor Lahav argues that in an important subset of cases, where a binary determination of cause is virtually impossible but certain behavior has a tendency to cause harm, the causal question should be untied from a strictly scientific question of fact (the “but-for” inquiry), and introduce a normative element.[132]  In these limited circumstances, she would apply a more value-laden test: “Should there be liability for this conduct?”[133]  According to her, where courts must rely on probabilistic evidence for both general and specific causation, and repeated behavior has an increased likelihood of causing injury in the future, the causal inquiry should be influenced by the policy outcome the decision maker finds would be more beneficial to society and not just physical law.[134]

Applying Lahav’s and Campos’s approaches to the causal difficulty imposed by Covid-19 personal injury cases may make sense.  Businesses face tremendous financial pressure to cut corners in safety measures in maintaining their workplaces and businesses during the pandemic, and those businesses may not be appropriately weighing the public health costs of their actions.  This risk is compounded by the likelihood that businesses can defeat tort claims based on the failure of causal proof.  Assuming that negligent behaviors by businesses and employers increase the likelihood of contraction of the virus, but that it is virtually impossible to prove with regard to individual cases, it is arguable that courts should be influenced by normative choices in determining liability.  If hotspots, superspreader events, and clusters arise on certain premises, policy reasons may argue in favor of using statistical proof for both general and specific causation.  This view of causation will have a greater impact on a potential defendant’s conduct and will create incentives to take appropriate safety measures to protect workers and consumers from contracting the virus.

 Introducing normative considerations into the element of causation may also argue in favor of legislatively creating a special compensation fund with lowered causal proof requirements.  Such a scheme may be particularly warranted for selected victims, like essential workers, as discussed below.

VI. Creating an Alternative Compensation Fund for Essential Workers

The difficulty of proving specific causation may be the undoing of most Covid-19 personal injury lawsuits against businesses.  Driven by policy reasons in specific settings, legislatures have created alternative compensation systems that lower causal proof.  Examples include compensating victims of vaccine injury to encourage use of vaccines while protecting vaccine manufacturers from personal injury lawsuits,[135] compensating veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War,[136] or compensating  innocent victims, including clean-up workers, of the 9/11 attacks while protecting the airline industry from lawsuits.[137]  Some state workers’ compensation systems have lowered the causal proof standard for showing that the disease or injury to the worker from Covid-19 resulted from an activity within the scope of employment.[138]  These alternatives may serve as models for creating a federal compensation system and lowering causal proof for the essential, frontline workers who likely experienced increased exposure to the virus at their workplace. [139] 

A.     Federal Compensation Systems

Congress has formed at least three compensation systems that create a presumption of causation.[140]  All of the settings involved challenging causation issues.  In these schemes, causation is presumed when people develop specific injuries or illnesses after receiving certain vaccines, being exposed to Agent Orange, or being injured or killed in the 9/11 attacks or its aftermath.[141]

The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program[142] creates a no-fault compensation system for people injured by certain vaccines, especially childhood vaccines.[143] The program was created to encourage vaccinations and limit lawsuits that could hinder vaccine manufacturers or the supply of vaccines.[144]  Individuals filing a claim must demonstrate they were injured by the vaccine.[145]  Proving injury from a childhood vaccine can be quite difficult, but the Vaccine Injury Table[146] creates a presumption of causation for certain injuries.[147]  To receive the presumption, an injured party only needs to demonstrate that he or she received a covered vaccine and experienced an illness, disability, injury, or condition listed in the table within a specific time period.[148]  If an injury is not listed in the table, the injured party does not receive the presumption and must prove causation-in-fact.[149]

Federal legislation permits creation of a similar scheme for injuries from vaccines and other countermeasures used in a public health emergency.  The Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act (“PREP Act”) creates a compensation fund for individuals injured by countermeasures,[150] and the Secretary of Health and Human Services is authorized to create a list of injuries that will be presumed to be caused by a countermeasure.[151]  In the Covid-19 context, countermeasures includes vaccines.[152]  The policy behind creation of this fund is obvious: to encourage widespread use of vaccines and other countermeasures during a health emergency while protecting those who administer or create the countermeasures from liability.[153]

Veterans potentially exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War also received a presumption of causation to receive compensation for certain diseases.  Proving a causal link between exposure to the defoliant used during the war and subsequent delayed illness was extremely difficult, and the veterans of the controversial war were a sympathetic group of plaintiffs.[154]  The Agent Orange Act of 1991[155] created a list of “presumptive diseases.”[156] In order to receive the presumption, a veteran must have developed a presumptive disease and have served in specific regions during certain time periods.[157]

Victims of the 9/11 terror attacks received compensation under the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides compensation to people substantially injured or to the families of people killed as a result of the terrorist attacks.[158]  Although the Fund initially only covered those who were injured or killed in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it was extended to cover clean-up workers whose manifestations of injuries may have been delayed.[159]  To receive compensation, a claimant must demonstrate both a physical health condition and some exposure to the 9/11 crash site or clean-up efforts.[160]  There is a list of approved “WTC-related health conditions;”[161] however, the exposure must be determined to be “substantially likely to be a significant factor” in the health condition by a medical professional.[162]  This determination may be based on the length of exposure as well as the specifics of the exposure, such as actual involvement in clean-up efforts rather than only proximity.[163]  A claimant must have been present at a crash site, within a Victim Compensation Fund (“VCF”) NYC Exposure Zone, or near debris removal routes.[164]  Although it does not explicitly lower the burden of causation, the Fund’s list of qualifying health conditions and specific methods for determining exposure has a similar effect.

B.     State Compensation Systems

States have lowered causal proof requirements in compensation systems.  State workers’ compensation schemes generally require a worker to show that a disease or injury resulted from an activity within the course or scope of employment.[165]  This showing could be very difficult for Covid-19 victims because of the many alternative sources of exposure, as discussed above.   Some states, such as Alaska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, have enacted legislation creating a presumption of causation that first responders contracted Covid-19 in the course of their employment.[166]  In California, even non-essential workers receive the presumption. [167]

C.     A Compensation Scheme for Essential Workers

The strong public policy interest in protecting essential workers from injury during the pandemic, and the difficulty of proving specific causation, argue in favor of creating a federal compensation fund for essential workers with a lower causal standard.  Otherwise, given the barriers to proving causation (including under most state workers’ compensation schemes), few front line employees would be able to recover for their injuries from negligent defendants.  These victims are serving in critical positions for society but face prolonged periods of exposure in risky environments.  Similar to the 9/11 first responders, the symbolic nature of ensuring compensation for these victims is significant.  The risks borne by these workers should be perceived of as commonly shared risks, which would justify the use of a federal compensation system.  Modeled on state workers’ compensation programs, Congress could create a national program that creates a presumption of causation for essential workers who contract Covid-19, which would make them eligible for personal injury damages resulting from the virus. [168]

Compensation funds can ensure efficient dispensation of victim compensation.  Any time a legislature goes outside the tort system and creates an alternative compensation system, however, it comes at a cost.  In particular, it removes incentives provided by the tort system to engage in reasonably safe behavior.[169]  One concern is that providing compensation to essential workers would create a disincentive to individuals from refraining from risky behaviors outside of work, like attending large public events or failing to socially distance.  Although such behaviors will inevitably occur, on balance the arguments in favor of creating a compensation scheme for this limited group of workers who provide enormous benefit to society outweigh the risk of the workers engaging in risky behaviors outside of work.  The anecdotal evidence of essential workers taking extreme measures to protect their families suggest that the risks of this behavior are minimal.[170] 

Similarly, a federal compensation scheme may remove an incentive for businesses to take reasonable safety measures to protect their workers.[171]  Like state workers’ compensation systems, the Fund would protect essential businesses from liability for claims brought by their employees, a form of tort immunity.  Removing the specter of tort liability could create disincentives from prioritizing the implementation of sufficient safety measures, especially given the enormous financial pressures businesses face in the pandemic.  Theoretically, regulators like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) fill in the gap left by no-fault workers’ compensation schemes.[172]  Regulation of Covid-19 safety measures may need to be increased in this area to countermand the risk of unsafe business practices.[173]  Even without increased regulation, the strong societal pressures to take appropriate mitigation measures, as well as the obvious need to create a healthy atmosphere for workers, should counteract the potential for reduced safety measures.  Furthermore, the scheme would be limited in scope and only apply to workplaces of essential workers.  Although a few states have already created presumptions to achieve the same result through state workers compensation funds,[174] most have not.

VII. Conclusion

Causation will be a significant barrier to personal injury lawsuits on business premises.  There will likely be no direct evidence attributing contraction of Covid-19 to a specific source available in the near future.  Although plaintiffs may be able to prove general causation by alleging that defendants’ negligent implementation of mitigation measures increased the likelihood of exposure to the virus generally, specific causation will be much more challenging.  Alternative sources of exposure will always be an issue.  The highly contagious nature of the virus and the lengthy incubation period make proof especially difficult.  Plaintiffs’ conduct will play a central role in the causal proof.

This does not mean that the causal element must always be fatal to plaintiffs’ personal injury suits.  Causal proof will be stronger when the premises involve contained environments over a lengthy period.  Evidence of cluster “hot spots” will also strengthen the inference that the plaintiff contracted the virus on the premises.  Plaintiffs may look to other precedent, such as food poisoning and toxic tort cases, where cases of clusters and statistical proof have been used, to bolster causation.

Finally, we should consider alternative methods of compensation for certain victims.  In particular, essential frontline workers, serving in critical positions to promote social interests, but facing prolonged periods of exposure in risky environments, may warrant special protection.  A federal compensation scheme would more equitably absorb the risk of no compensatory recourse due to failure of causal proof for these workers.  Federal and state no-fault compensation schemes, which create presumptions of causation, offer models to create a special compensation fund for essential workers.

* Jack E. Brown Chair in Law, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. I thank Brie Alford and Samantha Orwoll for their excellent research assistance for this Article.

[1].     Jim Tankersley & Charlie Savage, Businesses Seek Sweeping Shield from Pandemic Liability Before They Reopen, N.Y. Times (June 12, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/28/business/businesses-coronavirus-liability.html (quoting Senator Mitch McConnell who stated that businesses will be “set up for an avalanche of lawsuits” if Congress doesn’t act).

[2]. See Covid-19 Case Tracking Research, Perkins Coie LLP 1 (September 2020), https://www.perkinscoie.com/images/content/2/3/v24/234690/Perkins-Coie-Client-Advantage-COVID-Case-Tracking-Research.pdf.  The largest number of suits filed this far have been against insurance companies for disputes over business interruption coverage.  Id.; see also COVID-19 Complaint Tracker, Hunton Andrews Kurth, https://www.huntonak.com/en/covid-19-tracker.html (last visited Oct. 30, 2020) (tracking relatively few tort claims).

[3].         See Betsy J. Grey & Samantha Orwoll, Tort Immunity in the Pandemic, 96 Ind. L. J. Supp. 66, 66–67 (2020), http://ilj.law.indiana.edu/articles/Grey_Tort-Immunity-in-the-Pandemic_10.23.pdf.

[4].   See id. at 3–4.

[5].       Renyi Zhang et al., Identifying Airborne Transmission as the Dominant Route for the Spread of COVID-19, 117 Proc. Nat’l Acad. Sci. U.S. 14857, 14857 (2020), https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/117/26/14857.full.pdf.

[6].   Mahesh Jayaweera et al., Transmission of COVID-19 Virus by Droplets and Aerosols: A Critical Review on the Unresolved Dichotomy, 188 Elsevier Env’t. Res. 1, 1 (2020).

[7].   Deciding to Go Out, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (Sept. 11, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/deciding-to-go-out.html.

[8].   Jayaweera et al., supra note 6, at 8.

[9].        Public Health Guidance for Community-Related Exposure, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (July 31, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/php/public-health-recommendations.html.

[10].   Order Granting Joint Stipulation to File Second Amended Compl. and Granting in part Def’s Mot. to Dismiss at 8, Wortman v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., No. 2:20-CV-041690DSF-JC (C.D. Cal. Aug. 21, 2020) (No. 30).

[11].        See, e.g., Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers Responding to Coronavirus Disease 2019, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (May 6, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/guidance-business-response.html#:~:text=%2D%20Configure%20partitions%20as%20a,%2C%20pick%2Dup [hereinafter Interim Guidance].

[12].        See id.

[13].  Nicola Petrosillo et al., COVID-19, SARS and MERS: Are They Closely Related?, 26 Clinical Microbiology & Infection 729, 731–32 (2020).

[14].   Zhang et al., supra note 5, at 14,857.

[15]. Jayaweera et al., supra note 6, at 1.

[16]       Id.

[17].        Id. at 6.

[18].        Id.

[19].        Id. at 13–14.

[20].        Id. at 4.

[21].        Id. at 2.

[22].        Id. at 3.

[23].        Id. at 4.

[24].        William F. Marshall, Can COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Spread Through Food, Water, Surfaces and Pets?, Mayo Clinic (June 5, 2020), https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/expert-answers/can-coronavirus-spread-food-water/faq-20485479.

[25].        K.H. Chan et al., The Effects of Temperature and Relative Humidity on the Viability of the SARS Coronavirus, 2011 Advances Virology 1, 2 (2011).

[26].        Id. at 2–3.

[26].       Petrosillo et al., supra note 13, at 731–32.

[28].        Hua Qian et al., Indoor Transmission of SARS-CoV-2, medRxiv (forthcoming 2020) (preprint at 5) (on file with medRxiv and bioRxiv), https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.04.20053058v1.

[29].       Aylin Woodward, You’re Less Likely to Catch the Coronavirus Outdoors, But the Amount of Time You Spend Near Other People Matters Most, Bus. Insider (May 17, 2020, 9:02 AM), https://www.businessinsider.com/risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-outdoors-evidence-2020-5.

[30].        Id.

[31].        People with Certain Medical Conditions, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (Oct. 16, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html. Patients with a higher viral load, or dose, of the virus may suffer from more severe symptoms of Covid-19.  Elisabet Pujadas et al., SARS-CoV-2 Viral Load Predicts COVID-19 Mortality, 8 Correspondence e70, e70 (2020), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30354-4/fulltext

[32].        People with Certain Medical Conditions, supra note 31.

[33].        Jayaweera et al., supra note 6, at 8.

[34].        Id.

[35].        Id.

[36].        Id.

[37].        Id. at 9.

[38].        Id. at 12.

[39].        Id.

[40].        Id. at 13.

[41].        Id. at 13–14.

[42].        Id.

[43].        Id. at 14–15.

[44].        Stephen A. Lauer, et al., The Incubation Period of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) from Publicly Reported Confirmed Cases: Estimation and Application, Annals Internal Med. 1, 1, 3 (2020), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7081172/.

[45].        Id. at 4–5.

[46].        Id. at 3.

[47].        Seungjae Lee, et. al, Clinical Course and Molecular Viral Shedding Among Asymptomatic and Symptomatic Patients with SARS-CoV-2 Infection in a Community Treatment Center in the Republic of Korea, JAMA Internal Med. (Aug. 6, 2020), https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2769235.

[48].        Dan B. Dobbs, et al., Hornbook on Torts § 12.6 (2d ed. 2000).

[49].        Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liab. for Physical and Emotional Harm § 13 (Am. L. Inst. 2010).

[50].        See Danielle Conway-Jones, Factual Causation in Toxic Tort Litigation, 35 U. Rich. L. Rev. 875, 918 (2002) (“Because the issue of factual causation in toxic tort cases is complex, expert testimony is crucial, especially to those courts that rely heavily on the ontological approach.”).

[51].        Interim Guidance, supra note 11. For example, all businesses should designate a point of contact for Covid-related concerns. Id.

[52].        Id.

[53].        Id.

[54].        Id.

[55].        Id.

[56].        Id. Examples include teaching employees proper etiquette for coughing, sneezing, and handwashing, and providing tissues, no-touch trashcans, soap and water, and hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.  Id.  Restaurant and bar owners should monitor employee compliance with hand-washing protocol. Considerations for Restaurants and Bars, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (June 30, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/business-employers/bars-restaurants.html [hereinafter Considerations for Restaurants and Bars].

     [57].   Interim Guidance, supra note 11.

     [58].   Operating Schools During COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (May 19, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/schools.html.

     [59].   Considerations for Restaurants and Bars, supra note 56.

     [60].   Interim Guidance, supra note 11.

     [61].   Considerations for Restaurants and Bars, supra note 56.

     [62].   Personal and Social Activities, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (Sept. 11, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/personal-social-activities.html#gyms.

     [63].   Interim Guidance, supra note 11.

     [64].   Id.

     [65].   Id.

     [66].   Id.

     [67].   Id. Soap and water is sufficient for most surfaces; however, frequently touched surfaces, such as light switches, doorknobs, and handles, should be disinfected.  Reopening Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting Public Spaces, Workplaces, Businesses, Schools, and Homes, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (May 7, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/reopen-guidance.html [hereinafter Reopening Guidance]. Businesses should consult CDC guidelines to ensure they use the correct cleaner or disinfectant for the particular surface.  Id.  To reduce the cleaning burden, businesses may consider removing unnecessary items and replacing hard to clean surfaces, such as carpets and rugs.  Id.

     [68].   Businesses should run their ventilation 24/7 if possible, to increase ventilation rates. Interim Guidance, supra note 11. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and air-Conditioning Engineers (“ASHRAE”) recommends single-space high ventilation to reduce concentrations of infectious aerosols.  See Erica J. Stewart et al., ASHRAE Position on Infectious Aerosols, ASHRAE (Apr. 14, 2020), https://www.ashrae.org/file%20library/about/position%20documents/pd_infectiousaerosols_2020.pdf.

     [69].   Interim Guidance, supra note 11.

[70].        See Stewart et al., supra note 68.

[71].        Considerations for Restaurants and Bars, supra note 56.

[72].        Id.

[73].        Id.

[74].        Interim Guidance, supra note 11.

[75].        COVID-19 State and Local Policy Dashboard, Multistate, https://www.multistate.us/research/covid/public (last visited Oct. 30, 2020).

[76].        See id.

[77].        Id.

[78].        Id.

[79].        See Pa. Exec. Order No. 2020-05 (2020), https://www.governor.pa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/20200506-GOV-health-care-professionals-protection-order-COVID-19.pdf. Notably, this legislation only protects individuals and not the healthcare entities. See Grey & Orwoll, supra note 3, at 69–75.

[80].        See Benedict Carey & James Glanz, Aboard the Diamond Princess, a Case Study in Aerosol Transmission, N.Y. Times (July 30, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/health/diamond-princess-coronavirus-aerosol.html?referringSource=articleShare (discussing evidence that small, airborne droplets may play a large role in the transmission of Covid-19 and may have “accounted for about 60 percent of new infections over all” on a cruise ship).

[81].       Jayaweera et al., supra note 6, at 8.

[82].        See Foster v. AFC Enters., 896 So. 2d 293, 297 (La. Ct. App. 2005) (finding that evidence of a cluster of food poisoning cases was not necessary to prove causation).  But cf. Hairston v. Burger King Corp., 764 So. 2d 176, 178 (La. Ct. App. 2000) (noting that clusters of food poisoning cases help establish causation).

[83].        Order Granting Joint Stipulation to File Second Amended Compl. and Granting in part Def’s Mot. to Dismiss at 6–8, Wortman v. Princess Cruise Lines Ltd., No. 2:20-CV-041690DSF-JC (C.D. Cal. Aug. 21, 2020) (No. 30) (allegations of Covid-19 outbreak on cruise ship, without quarantining passengers, sufficiently allege plaintiffs were exposed to virus while onboard; complaint dismissed with leave to amend to allege amount of time between alleged exposure and experiencing symptoms or receiving positive test to allege causation). 

[84].        Id.

[85].        Id. at 7–8, 12.

[86].        Id. at 7.

[87].        See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liab. for Physical and Emotional Harm § 28, cmt. b (Am. L. Inst. 2010) (“The civil burden of proof merely requires a preponderance of the evidence, and the existence of other, plausible causal sets that cannot be ruled out does not, by itself, preclude the plaintiff from satisfying the burden of proof on causation.”).

[88].        Plaintiffs may have expressly or impliedly assumed the risk of contracting Covid-19 in a particular location.  Assumption of the risk may act as a complete bar to recovery.  Plaintiffs may have expressly assumed the risk if they signed a waiver releasing a business or organization from liability for contracting Covid-19 in their establishment.  Alternatively, a plaintiff who knowingly and voluntarily patronized a business that was not exercising appropriate precautions may have impliedly accepted the risk of contracting Covid-19.

[89].        Tracking Coronavirus Cases Proves Difficult Amid New Surge, Mod. Healthcare (June 29, 2020, 1:19 PM), https://www.modernhealthcare.com/technology/tracking-coronavirus-cases-proves-difficult-amid-new-surge.

[90].        Claire Jarvis, How Genomic Epidemiology is Tracking the Spread of COVID-19 Locally and Globally, Chem. & Eng’g News (Apr. 23, 2020), https://cen.acs.org/biological-chemistry/genomics/genomic-epidemiology-tracking-spread-COVID/98/i17.

[91].        Id.

[92].        Abigail Shew, Are You Sure It Wasn’t Food Poisoning, U.S. Dep’t Agric. (May 7, 2019), https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/08/28/are-you-sure-it-wasnt-food-poisoning.

[93].        See, e.g., Listeria (Listeriosis), Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (June 17, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/listeria/symptoms.html; Salmonella and Food, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (July 9, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/communication/salmonella-food.html.

[94].        One study found that only one third of plaintiffs receive compensation in foodborne illness cases tried before a jury.  Jean C. Buzby et al., U.S. Food & Drug Admin., Product Liability and Microbial Foodborne Illness, Agricultural Economics Reports No. 799, 25 (2001), https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/41289/19022_aer799f.pdf?v=0.  The USDA has identified additional challenges facing food poisoning plaintiffs. Id. at 24.

[95].        Louis R. Frumer, Products Liability § 48.06 Medico-Legal Aspects of Food Poisoning (2020), LEXIS.

[96].        Pulsed-field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE), Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (Feb. 16, 2016), https://www.cdc.gov/pulsenet/pathogens/pfge.html.  Whether a similar tool will be developed for Covid-19 remains to be seen, although it would be unlikely to help those already infected.

[97].        See, e.g., Craten v. Foster Poultry Farms Inc., 305 F. Supp. 3d 1051, 1061 (D. Ariz. 2018) (finding “sufficient circumstantial evidence to permit a jury to reasonably infer that [the plaintiff] more likely than not contracted his infection from raw chicken associated with the outbreak”).

[98].        See, e.g., Patterson v. Kevon, LLC., 818 S.E.2d 575, 579 (Ga. 2018) (“[The plaintiff showed that a] large number of persons who ate the food prepared by [the defendant] became ill; that some of those who became ill did not consume leftovers or other food at the rehearsal dinner or wedding; and that most fell ill within the same time frame as the [plaintiffs].”); Lohse v. Coffey, 32 A.2d 258, 260 (D.C. 1943) (affirming a jury verdict when the plaintiff “proved that another person who consumed the same foods at the same time (though with a different beverage) also became ill”).

[99].        See, e.g., Greenup v. Roosevelt, 267 So. 3d 138, 142 (La. Ct. App. 2019) (“[Plaintiff] need not negate every conceivable cause.”); Gardyjan v. Tatone, 528 P.2d 1332, 1334 (Or. 1974) (“The fact that there was another possible cause of the plaintiff’s illness is not fatal to his case.”).

[100].      See, e.g., China Doll Restaurants, Inc. v. MacDonald, 180 A.2d 503, 505 (D.C. 1962) (holding that a plaintiff who became ill shortly after eating at a restaurant, but whose only causal evidence was her own testimony the food did not taste good, did not establish causation); Landry v. Joey’s Inc., 261 So. 3d 112, 118–20 (La. Ct. App. 2018) (finding an “absence of evidence presented demonstrating any positive causal connection” when the plaintiff had demonstrated that she developed food poisoning after allegedly eating one of the defendant’s sandwiches).

[101].      How COVID-19 Spreads, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention Control (Oct. 5, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html.

[102].      Current science indicates that Covid-19 symptoms may manifest between two and fourteen days after exposure.  Symptoms of Coronavirus, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (May 13, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html.

[103].      As of October 13, 2020, the CDC reported over 7.7 million cases of Covid-19. CDC COVID Data Tracker, Ctrs. for Disease Control & Prevention (Oct. 13, 2020), https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/cases-in-us.html.

[104].      Sergio J. Campos, The Commonality of Causation, 46 Ohio N. U. L. Rev. 229, 253 (2020); Alexandra D. Lahav, Chancy Causation in Tort 14 (May 15, 2020) (unpublished manuscript), https://ssrn.com/abstract=3633923.

[105].      Campos, supra note 104, at 253.

[106].      Lahav, supra note 104, at 17.

[107].      Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liab. for Physical & Emotional Harm § 26 (Am. L. Inst. 2010) (“Conduct is a factual cause of harm when the harm would not have occurred absent the conduct.”).

[108].      Even the causal link between an individual’s contraction of lung cancer and smoking remains probabilistic.  Lahav, supra note 104, at 9.

[109].      Id. at 14.

[110].      Saul Levmore, Probabilistic Recoveries, Restitution, and Recurring Wrongs, 19 J. Legal Stud. 691, 692 (1990).

[111].      David Rosenberg, The Causal Connection in Mass Exposure Cases: A “Public Law Vision” of the Tort System, 97 Harv. L. Rev. 851, 859 (1984).

[112].      Id. See generally Levmore, supra note 110, at 719; Steven Shavell, An Analysis of Causation and the Scope of Liability in the Law of Torts, 9 J. Legal Stud. 463 (1980) (discussing the role of probability in apportioning tort liability).

[113].      Michael Moore, Causation and Responsibility: An Essay in Law, Morals and Metaphysics 4–5 (2009); Jane Stapleton, Two Causal Fictions at the Heart of U.S. Asbestos Doctrine, 122 L.Q. Rev. 189, 192 (2006).

[114].      Courts developed market share liability under the cases brought against DES manufacturers.  DES, a drug administered during pregnancy, caused injury to the offspring after a long latency period.  The plaintiffs often were unable to identify which manufacturer’s drug their mother had ingested.  Courts developed the market share liability concept to address the causal proof problem, under which liability was assigned to a defendant based on its share of the DES market. See Sindell v. Abbott Labs., 607 P.2d 924, 937–38 (Cal. 1980); Hymowitz v. Eli Lilly & Co., 539 N.E.2d 1069, 1078 (N.Y. 1989). 

[115].      See In re NFL Players Concussion Injury Litig., 821 F.3d 410, 439, 448 (3d Cir. 2016) (approving class certification and settlement); Lahav, supra note 104, at 19–21.

[116].      Lahav, supra note 104, at 20.

[117].     Asbestos is a mineral often used in building materials, vehicle brakes and clutches, and tile.  Asbestos, U.S. Dep’t Labor (July 31, 2020), https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/.  Consistent exposure can lead to a myriad of diseases including lung cancer, asbestosis, colon cancer, and mesothelioma.  Id.  Factory workers, construction workers, and automotive mechanics are among those at risk given their constant exposure.  Id.

[118].      Karen Selby, Mesothelioma Statistics, Mesothelioma Ctr. (Aug. 19, 2020), https://www.asbestos.com/mesothelioma/statistics/.

[119].      William L. Anderson & Kieran Tuckley, How Much is Enough? A Judicial Roadmap to Low Dose Causation Testimony in Asbestos and Tort Litigation, 42 Am. J. Trial Advoc. 39, 48–49 (2018) (“There . . . appears to be no way at present to trace any specific fibers in the lung back to an actual source of exposure.”); Myra Paiewonksy Mulcahy, Note, Proving Causation in Toxic Torts Litigation, 11 Hofstra L. Rev. 1299, 1301–02 (1983).

[120].      See Holcomb v. Georgia Pac., LLC, 289 P.3d 188, 195–96 (Nev. 2012).

[121].      See Brian M. DiMasi, Comment, The Threshold Level of Proof of Asbestos Causation: The “Frequency, Regularity and Proximity Test” and a Modified Summers v. Tice Theory of Burden-Shifting, 24 Cap. U. L. Rev. 735, 738–41 (1995) (“The many types of asbestos products, the many possible places of exposure, the lack of direct evidence of particular product exposure, and the possibility of contributing factors have forced the courts to develop various standards of causation that are either separate from the two traditional tests or are variations of the same.”)

[122].      See Holcomb, 289 P.3d at 193–95.

[123].      Id. at 193–94.

[124].      Id. at 195.

[125].      Id. at 194.

[126].      Id. at 195.

[127].      Id.

[128].      Lahav, supra note 104, at 1, 14. 

[129].     Campos, supra note 104, at 234 (arguing that the relevant inquiry is whether the defendant’s conduct caused the population harm as a whole in unlawful “mass production” cases).

[130].      Id.

[131].      Id. at 264.  He noted that statistical proof supporting general causation was admitted to prove specific causation in the pesticide Roundup MDL. Id. at 259–60.

[132].      Lahav, supra note 104 (arguing that “the but-for test should be jettisoned” in tort cases where causation is based on probabilities).

[133].      Id. at 21.

[134].      Id. at 23.

[135].      U.S.C. §§ 300aa-14–34.

[136].      Agent Orange Act of 1991, 38 U.S.C.§ 101.

[137].      Victim Comp. Fund, September 11th Victim Compensation Fund 4 (2020), https://www.vcf.gov/sites/vcf/files/media/document/2020-03/VCF_Overview.pdf.

[138].      See Grey & Orwoll, supra note 3, at 77–78.

[139].      See, e.g., Ariz. Exec. Order No. 2020-12 (Mar. 23, 2020), https://azgovernor.gov/executive-orders (deeming grocery stores, media, hardware stores, educational institutions, laundry services, restaurants, day care centers, hotels, and other businesses to be essential businesses); Vt. Exec. Order. No 01-20 add. 6 (Mar. 24, 2020), https://governor.vermont.gov/sites/scott/files/documents/ADDENDUM%206%20TO%20EXECUTIVE%20ORDER%2001-20.pdf (deeming businesses engaged in health care operations, law enforcement and public safety, critical infrastructure and manufacturing, retail services for human needs, fuel products, transportation, trash collection, agriculture, mail, banking, and other services as “critical to public health and safety”).

[140].      See infra notes 135–37 and accompanying text. 

[141].      See infra notes 135–37 and accompanying text.

[142].      42 U.S.C. §§ 300aa-14–34.

[143].      National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, Health Res. & Servs. Admin. (Jan. 2020), https://www.hrsa.gov/vaccine-compensation/index.html.

[144].      See id.

[145].      42 U.S.C. § 300aa-11(c).

[146].      42 U.S.C. § 300aa-14.

[147].      National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program: Revisions to the Vaccine Injury Table, 82 Fed. Reg. 6,294, 6,295 (Jan. 19, 2017) (to be codified at 42 C.F.R. 100).

[148].      Id.

[149].      Id.

[150].      42 U.S.C. § 247d-6e.  For claims for injuries that may be caused by coronavirus vaccines, compensation will be distributed under the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, which is part of the PREP Act.  Declaration Under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act for Medical Countermeasures Against COVID-19, 85 Fed. Reg. 15198 et seq. (March 17, 2020), amending 42 C.F.R. § 110.100.

[151].      42 U.S.C. § 247d-6e(b)(5).

[152].      In the context of Covid-19, countermeasures can include antivirals, drugs, biologics, diagnostics, devices, or vaccines.  Declaration Under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act for Medical Countermeasures Against COVID-19, 85 Fed. Reg. at 15,202.

[153].      See Kevin J. Hickey, Cong. Rsch. Serv., LSB10443, The PREP Act and COVID-19: Limiting Liability for Medical Countermeasures 1 (2020) (“[The PREP Act serves to] encourage the expeditious development and deployment of medical countermeasures during a public health emergency.”).

[154].      See Ralph Blumenthal, How Judge Helped Shape Agent Orange Pact, N.Y. Times (May 11, 1984), https://www.nytimes.com/1984/05/11/nyregion/how-judge-helped-shape-agent-orange-pact.html (describing the judge’s warnings “that the veterans’ case had big problems” but that “a Brooklyn jury [would] be sympathetic to the veterans”).

[155].      Agent Orange Act of 1991, 38 U.S.C.§ 101.

[156].      38 U.S.C. 1116(a)(2); see also Agent Orange Exposure and VA Disability Compensation, U.S. Dep’t. Veterans Affs. (Sept. 18, 2020), https://www.va.gov/disability/eligibility/hazardous-materials-exposure/agent-orange/related-diseases/.

[157].      38 U.S.C. 1116(a)(1). The VA states that the presumption applies to veterans who served in Vietnam between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 or in the Korean Demilitarized Zone between September 1, 1967 and August 31, 1971. Agent Orange Exposure and VA Disability Compensation, supra note 156.

[158].      Victim Comp. Fund, supra note 137, at 1, 4.

[159].      James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, Pub. L. No. 111-347, 124 Stat. 3623 (2011); Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act, Pub. L. No. 116-34, 133 Stat. 1040 (2019).

[160].      Victim Comp. Fund, supra note 137, at 7.

[161].      42 U.S.C. § 300mm-22(a).

[162].      Id.

[163].      Scott D. Szymendera, Cong. Rsch. Serv., R45969, The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) 3 (2019).

[164].      Victim Comp. Fund, supra note 137, at 7.

[165].      Jim Pocius, Workers Compensation and Course of Employment, Int’l Risk Mgmt. Inst., Inc. (Feb. 2001), https://www.irmi.com/articles/expert-commentary/workers-compensation-and-course-of-employment.

[166].      See S.B. 241, 31st Leg., 2d Reg. Sess. (Alaska 2020); H.F. 4537, 91st Leg., Reg. Sess. (Minn. 2020); Wis. Stat. § 102.03(6) (2020).

[167].      Cal. Exec. Order N-62-20 (May 6, 2020), https://www.gov.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/5.6.20-EO-N-62-20-text.pdf.  Governor Newsom’s executive order created a rebuttable presumption that an employee who tests positive for Covid-19 within fourteen days of working at the employee’s place of employment caught the disease in the course of employment.  This presumption is “disputable” and does not apply if the employee’s place of employment is his own residence.  Id.

[168].      See Jon L. Gelman, Lessons from Asbestos Litigation Apply to Covid Claims 1, 8 (Aug. 4, 2020) (unpublished manuscript), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3659568 (calling for creation of federal fund to indemnify employers and workers’ compensation insurance companies for Covid-19 claims to maintain solvency).

[169].      See Elizabeth Chambee Burch, Mass Tort Deals: Backroom Bargaining in Multidistrict Litigation 32 (2019) (The values that accompany civil litigation include “deterrence, compensation, information production, victim empowerment, public participation in democratic trials, and equity before the law.”).

[170].     Emma Grey Ellis, How Health Care Workers Avoid Bringing Covid-19 Home, WIRED (Apr. 4, 2020, 8:00 AM), https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-covid-19-health-care-workers-families/ (describing how some healthcare workers “have moved into hotel rooms or sleep in their cars,” work “24-hour shifts to reduce the number of times they move between the hospital and home,” or “sent their children and families to stay with friends or grandparents rather than risk exposing them to the virus”).

[171].      See generally Andrew F. Popper, In Defense of Deterrence, 75 Alb. L. Rev. 181 (2012) (discussing the role of deterrence in tort law and tort reform).

[172].      See Jason R. Bent, An Incentive-Based Approach to Regulating Workplace Chemicals, 73 Ohio St. L.J. 1389, 1394–95 (2012) (“[T]he current workers’ compensation and OSHA systems are inadequate to correct the market[’s] failure[]” to take proper precautions.).

[173].      Why is OSHA AWOL?, N.Y. Times (June 21, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/opinion/coronavirus-osha-work-safety.html (“[T]he federal agency meant to protect America’s workers continues to sit on the sidelines.”). 

[174].   See supra note 166. 

By Mary-Kathryn Hawes

As Walter Bender, Deputy Sheriff in Montgomery County, Ohio stated: “[O]pioids reach every part of society: blue collar, white collar, everybody. It’s nonstop. It’s every day. And it doesn’t seem like it’s getting any better.”[1] It is estimated that forty-six people die from opioid overdoses involving prescription opioids every day, with methadone, oxycodone, and hydrocodone being the most common drugs involved in these deaths.[2] It is further estimated that 4-6% of people who misuse prescription opioids switch to using heroin.[3] These few statistics[4] paint a dire picture: there is an opioid epidemic and we need help.

To that end, states, counties, and towns have filed lawsuits against big pharmaceutical companies, seeking to hold them responsible for the opioid epidemic and receive financial assistance to help pay for some of the astronomical costs inflicted by the scale of the opioid crisis.[5] One such case involved the State of Oklahoma suing major pharmaceutical companies (including Purdue, Teva, and Johnson & Johnson) under a public nuisance theory.[6] Purdue and Teva both settled prior to trial for $270 and $85 million, respectively.[7] However, Johnson & Johnson proceeded to trial, where they were handed a $572 million verdict on 26 August 2019 for deceptively marketing opioids and contributing to the opioid crisis.[8]

This verdict was splashed across television screens and newspapers when it was first rendered, with the underlying facts and findings of the case interestingly providing a bird’s eye view of how involved the pharmaceutical companies were in manufacturing this crisis. In seeking relief in state court, Oklahoma’s sole claim was that the pharmaceutical companies caused a public nuisance and the State sought abatement of that nuisance.[9] It was undisputed that in 2015, there were enough opioids prescribed in Oklahoma for each adult to have 110 pills.[10] Further, “[i]n 2017, 4.2% of babies born covered by SoonerCare [Oklahoma’s state Medicaid] were born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome . . . a group of conditions caused when a baby withdraws from certain drugs [that] it’s exposed to in the womb before birth.”[11] Oklahoma is a microcosm of the epidemic ravaging the United States.

In finding Johnson & Johnson caused a public nuisance, Judge Thad Balkman ruled that Johnson & Johnson “marketed, promoted and sold opioid drugs in Oklahoma” since the mid-1990s.[12] The judgment devotes a few pages to discussing Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiary companies. As part of a “pain management franchise,” Johnson & Johnson was owned two subsidiary companies, Tasmanian Alkaloids Limited and Noramco, Inc., from the 1990s through at least 2016.[13] Tasmanian Alkaloids, based in Tasmania (a province of Australia), “cultivated and processed opium poppy plants to manufacture narcotic raw materials” that were imported into the United States and processed by Noramco.[14] Anticipating demand for opioids, in 1994, Tasmanian Alkaloids developed a “high thebaine” opium poppy plant to “enable[] the growth of oxycodone.”[15] Noramco subsequently processed these raw materials into the active pharmaceutical ingredients used in opioids and supplied both Johnson & Johnson and other pharmaceutical companies with these active ingredients.[16] Johnson & Johnson maintained these subsidiaries to “ensure a reliable source of [narcotic] raw materials” and “security of supply.”[17]

Shrouded behind a positive public image as the maker of familiar products like Band-Aids and baby powder, Johnson & Johnson was, and still is, a major player in the opioid supply business. Judge Balkman found that Noramco was used by Johnson & Johnson to supply the top seven generic drug companies with active pharmaceutical ingredients used in opioid manufacturing.[18] Specifically, Noramco provided other manufacturers with “oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine, buprenorphine, hydromorphone, and naloxone.”[19] Eventually, Noramco “grew to become the No. 1 narcotic [active pharmaceutical ingredient] supplier of oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, and morphine in the United States.”[20]

The judgment then spends several pages detailing exactly how Johnson & Johnson “embarked on a major campaign in which they used branded and unbranded marketing to disseminate the messages that pain was being undertreated and there was a low risk of abuse and a low danger of prescribing opioids to treat chronic, non-malignant pain and overstating the efficacy of opioids.”[21] Specifically, Johnson & Johnson promoted that pain was undertreated in an effort to encourage providers to prescribe opioids as the solution.[22] The Court found that Johnson & Johnson utilized the term “pseudoaddiction” to “convince doctors that patients who exhibited signs of addiction . . . were not actually suffering from addiction, but from the undertreatment of pain; and the solution, according to Defendants’ marketing, was to prescribe the patient more opioids.”[23]

Further, in 2004, the FDA sent Johnson & Johnson a letter noting that a file card used to promote their product Duragesic (a skin patch containing fentanyl, a highly addictive opioid)  was false or misleading because the card suggested that “Duragesic has a lower potential for abuse compared to other opioid products” and could “encourage the unsafe use of the drug.”[24] In conjunction with these instances, Johnson & Johnson used “education from Defendants’ sales representatives, literature funded by Defendants in medical journals and publications, materials from professional societies/patient advocacy groups, continuing medical education funded by Defendants, unbranded marketing materials, and Defendants’ paid speakers” to influence doctors’ prescribing habits and encourage them to utilize opioids to treat pain.[25]

In finding that Johnson & Johnson committed a public nuisance, the Court relied on the statutory definition of a nuisance as “unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to perform a duty, which act or omission either: [f]irst, [a]nnoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others . . . .”[26] While some states require the use of property to commit a nuisance, Oklahoma has interpreted their public nuisance statute to exclude the use of property, and instead, only requires “unlawfully doing an act, or omitting to perform a duty.”[27] Alternatively, the Court found that if Oklahoma law does require the use of property in committing a nuisance, the State still satisfied its burden by demonstrating that “Defendants pervasively, systematically and substantially used real and personal property, private and public, as well as the public roads, buildings and land of the State of Oklahoma, to create this nuisance.”[28] Ultimately, the Court concluded that “Defendants’ false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns have caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome,” which are “unlawful acts which annoys, injures, or endangers [sic] the comfort, repose, health or safety of others.”[29]

The Court also found that there were no supervening or intervening causes that “supervened or superseded Defendants’ acts and omissions as a direct cause of the State’s injuries.”[30] Thus, the Court found that Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance that should be remedied by equitable abatement.[31] After detailing Oklahoma’s Abatement plan (described in the table below), the Court found that Oklahoma needed $572,102,028 to carry out the plan in its first year.[32] Even though several of Oklahoma’s witnesses testified that the abatement plan required at least 20 years to be effective, the Court found that the State did not provide sufficient evidence to establish the costs necessary for that timeframe, and thus, were not awarded damages past the first year.[33]

Table 1: Overview of Oklahoma’s Abatement Plan[34]

So, why does all of this matter? Not only is the Oklahoma case the first national civil litigation suit for the opioid epidemic that went to trial,[35] it seriously holds a major pharmaceutical company accountable for catalyzing the opioid epidemic. Johnson & Johnson, along with the other major pharmaceutical companies, aggressively marketed opioids as a low-risk solution to pain, when they were anything but. As Gary Mendell, founder and CEO of the advocacy group Shatterproof, stated: “Today’s monumental decision in Oklahoma is a critical step in setting a precedent for the largest public health crisis facing our country, bringing justice to the lives lost, and reversing the course of addiction crisis for future generations.”[36]


[1] James Nachtwey, The Opioid Diaries, Time, Mar. 5, 2018, at 1.

[2] Overdose Death Maps, Ctr. for Disease Control & Prevention (Aug. 13, 2019), https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing/overdose-death-maps.html.

[3] Opioid Overdose Crisis, Nat’l Inst. on Drug Abuse (Jan. 2019), https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis#seven.

[4] As with many subjects, statistics don’t tell the whole story. No one wants to be an addict and I would be remiss if I did not point readers to an article sharing individual quotes and perspectives on this crisis. See Nachtwey, supra note 1; see also Families Impacted By The Opioid Crisis Testified at Johnson & Johnson Trial, NPR (Aug. 28, 2019), https://www.npr.org/2019/08/28/754962728/families-impacted-by-the-opioid-crisis-testified-at-johnson-johnson-trial (“I wish that someday people would realize I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person with a bad disease.”).

[5] See, e.g., German Lopez, The Thousands of Lawsuits Against Opioid Companies, Explained, Vox (Sep. 11, 2019, 4:30 PM), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/6/7/15724054/opioid-epidemic-lawsuits-purdue-oxycontin.

[6] See generally Oklahoma ex rel. Hunter v. Purdue Pharma L.P., No. CJ-2017-816 (Okla. Dist. Ct. [Cleveland Cty.], Aug. 26, 2019), https://archive.org/download/balkmanopioidjudgment/Balkman-Opioid-Judgment.pdf.

[7] Jackie Fortier & Brian Mann, Johnson & Johnson Ordered to Pay Oklahoma $572 Million in Opioid Trial, NPR (Aug. 26, 2019, 4:19 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/08/26/754481268/judge-in-opioid-trial-rules-johnson-johnson-must-pay-oklahoma-572-million.

[8] Hunter, at *41–42.

[9] Id. at *2 (citing Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 50, § 1-44 (West 2017)).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at *4.

[13] Id. at *5.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at *7–8.

[16] Id. at *5–6.

[17] Id. at *7 (alteration in original) (quotations omitted).

[18] Id. at *8.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at *9.

[21] Id. at *9.

[22] Id. at *10. At the time, pain was sometimes referred to as the “fifth vital sign” in a push to have providers respond to patient complaints of pain. See Natalia E. Morone & Debra K. Weiner, Pain As the Fifth Vital Sign: Exposing the Vital Need for Pain Education, 35 Clinical Therapeutics 1728 (2013).

[23] Hunter, at *11.

[24] Id. at *4–5, 18.

[25] Id. at *9–10.

[26] Id. at *22. (citing Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 50, § 1 (West 2017))

[27] Id.; see also Paul L. Keenan, Note, Death by 1000 Lawsuits: The Public Litigation in Response to the Opioid Crisis Will Mirror the Global Tobacco Settlement of the 1990s, 52 New Eng. L. Rev. 69, 75-77 (2017) (detailing the various theories of liability that communities are using in their lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies).

[28] Hunter, at *24.

[29] Id. at *25–26 (quotations omitted).

[30] Id. at *29.

[31] Id. at *30.

[32] Id. at *41.

[33] Id. (emphasis added).

[34] Id. at *30–41.

[35] Jackie Fortier, Pain Meds As Public Nuisance? Oklahoma Tests a Legal Strategy For Opioid Addiction, NPR (July 16, 2019, 4:49 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/07/16/741960008/pain-meds-as-public-nuisance-oklahoma-tests-a-legal-strategy-for-opioid-addictio.

[36] Statement on Johnson & Johnson Oklahoma Trial Verdict, Shatterproof (Aug. 26, 2019), https://www.shatterproof.org/press/statement-johnson-johnson-oklahoma-trial-verdict.

by Paul Fangrow

Loss of chance is a hot topic in recent American medical malpractice law. In states where it is accepted, loss of chance is a cause of action in medical malpractice cases that asserts a physician’s negligence reduced a patient’s chance for a better outcome or increased their risk of future harm, when the patient’s existing chance is below 50%.[1] Oregon recently changed sides and accepted loss of chance in 2017.[2] Hawaii, one of the last states remaining where loss of chance had not been addressed, just heard oral argument in the Hawaii Supreme Court on Estate of Frey v. Mastroianni[3] involving loss of chance doctrine.[4] Today, nearly every state has either accepted or rejected the doctrine.[5] North Carolina is now one of only three states that have yet to finally rule on the admissibility of loss of chance claims,[6] but that may change very soon.

Parkes v. Hermann[7] is a North Carolina Court of Appeals case involving loss of chance doctrine with a petition for discretionary review pending before the North Carolina Supreme Court.[8] A patient under the care of Defendant doctor died from a stroke that was misdiagnosed.[9] Proper protocol for a stroke is to administer a type of drug within three hours, which Defendant doctor did not do.[10] Issuing the drug within three hours of a stroke results in a 40% chance of a better outcome.[11] Under current North Carolina law, a patient must have a greater than 50% chance of a better outcome to prove that Defendant doctor more likely than not caused the patient’s injury.[12] The North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected loss of chance as a recognized claim,[13] marking Parkes v. Hermann as the first time a North Carolina court explicitly ruled on the admissibility of a loss of chance claim.[14]

In states that have accepted loss of chance doctrine, an injury resulting in a less than a 50% chance of recovery is still a valid cause of action.[15] Two distinct theories have arisen in the state courts: a causation approach first adopted in Pennsylvania,[16] and an injury approach popularized by professor Joseph King, Jr.[17] This is the approach adopted by Oregon[18] and is under consideration in both Hawaii[19] and North Carolina.[20] The causation approach takes cues from Section 323(a) of the Second Restatement of Torts,[21] and lowers the threshold of proof required to submit the question of proximate cause to the jury.[22] The jury is then called on to decide whether the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in bringing about the eventual harm.[23] By contrast, the injury approach recharacterizes the harm that recovery is sought for as the loss of chance itself, not the eventual harm.[24] Under this approach, a plaintiff seeks to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the defendant’s negligence resulted in the plaintiff’s loss of chance for a better outcome, or increased their risk of future harm.[25] In almost all states that have adopted loss of chance in some form, a proportional damages formula is used where if the claim is successful, the plaintiff recovers the percentage of chance lost multiplied by the value of what a full recovery would be.[26] That way, the plaintiff only recovers for the harm that the defendant’s negligence actually caused.[27]

The central reasoning for adopting loss of chance doctrine is to alleviate the harshness of the traditional approach.[28] Under the traditional approach currently followed by North Carolina, a plaintiff cannot recover anything unless they prove a doctor’s negligence more likely than not caused the eventual harm suffered.[29] Put into loss of chance terms, a plaintiff does not recover unless the loss of chance suffered is greater than 50%.[30] Thus, even though the patient in Parkes v. Hermann would have had a 40% chance of a better outcome had Defendant doctor correctly diagnosed the patient’s stroke and followed protocol, the patient is categorically barred from any recovery. If this arrangement seems unfair, many states agree that it is.[31] At present, twenty-five states have accepted loss of chance in either theory.[32] Hawaii may very well make it twenty-six.[33]

North Carolina has the opportunity to become the twenty-seventh[34] state to adopt loss of chance as a compensable claim in medical malpractice cases, but there are troublesome rumblings that suggest an uphill battle for loss of chance advocates. The sheer brevity of the Parkes v. Hermann opinion is one indicator. While the court in Estate of Frey v. Mastroianni took care to analyze both loss of chance theories, debate their merits, and cite case law from dozens of other jurisdictions,[35] the court in Parkes v. Hermann issued a very short and curt opinion comprised of only six paragraphs of analysis.[36] The court only cited a single case with reference to the various approaches adopted in each state.[37] The reasoning given for rejecting loss of chance was that no North Carolina case was cited that recognized such a claim, but this is to be expected when North Carolina courts have never taken any position regarding loss of chance until Parkes v. Hermann, rendering this reasoning entirely circular. While the court points to Gower v. Davidian[38]—a North Carolina Supreme Court case from 1937—to support a broad claim that “[t]he rights of the parties cannot be determined upon chance,”[39] this seems a thin reed upon which to hang the resolution of the loss of chance issue in light of the Gower court’s explicit statement that there was no evidence that loss of chance even occurred.[40] Besides, advances in medical technology made in the last eighty years have enabled expert witnesses to testify to reasonable medical certainty about the chances of recovery are in a wide variety of scenarios, and courts already rely wholly on chance to determine whether a patient had a 51% or more chance of making a recovery to establish proximate cause.

It seems like the court has no desire to seriously engage with the merits of the debate on loss of chance. Both the majority opinion and the concurrence written by Judge Berger cite dicta from Curl v. American Multimedia, Inc.[41] for the proposition that “recognition of a new cause of action is a policy decision which falls within the province of the legislature.”[42] While this is not a new idea even where loss of chance is concerned, [43] the underlying reason given for requiring legislative action is usually the presence of a conflict between loss of chance and a current medical malpractice statute.[44] The Parkes v. Hermann opinion contains no discussion of any conflict with existing North Carolina medical malpractice law.

In the absence of any statutory conflicts, there is no reason for the judiciary to paralyze itself regarding its own common law. Ever since the founding of the country, courts across the United States have interpreted statutes and maintained their common law without legislative handholding. In the wake of rapid technological progress that puts the legal community in a constant state of catch-up, courts cannot afford to tentatively wait for the legislature on every difficult question of evolving legal doctrine. A substantial majority of states that have both accepted and rejected loss of chance did so without any prior legislative direction.[45] Further, nothing stops the legislature from stepping in after the fact and reverting the law back to the traditional approach should it want to. Lord v. Lovett,[46] Jorgenson v. Vener,[47] and Falcon v. Memorial Hospital[48]are all state supreme court decisions that adopted loss of chance and were subsequently superseded by statutes passed by their respective state legislatures.

Parkes v. Hermann is a case of first impression in the North Carolina courts. Hopefully, the North Carolina Supreme Court considers the issues presented with greater care.


[1] See Joseph H. King, Jr., “Reduction of Likelihood” Reformulation and Other Retrofitting of the Loss-of-a-Chance Doctrine, 28 U. Mem. L. Rev. 491, 508–511 (1998).

[2] Smith v. Providence Health & Servs.-Or., 393 P.3d 1106, 1121 (Ore. 2017).

[3] No. CAAP-14-0001030, 2018 Haw. Ap. LEXIS 327 (Haw. Ct. App. June 29, 2018), cert. granted, No. SCWC-14-0001030, 2018 Haw. LEXIS 255 (Haw. Nov. 29, 2018).

[4] Oral Argument, Estate of Frey v. Mastroianni, No. SCWC-14-0001030 (Haw. argued Feb. 12, 2019), http://oaoa.hawaii.gov/jud/oa/19/SCOA_022119_SCWC_14_1030.mp3.

[5] See Lauren Guest et al., The “Loss of Chance” Rule as a Special Category of Damages in Medical Malpractice: A State-by-State Analysis, 21 J. Legal Econ. 53, 59 (2015).

[6] Id.

[7] 828 S.E.2d 575 (N.C. Ct. App. 2019).

[8] Petition for Discretionary Review, Parkes v. Hermann, No. 241P19 (N.C. filed July 5, 2019), https://www.ncappellatecourts.org/show-file.php?document_id=250145.

[9] Parkes, 828 S.E.2d at 576.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. at 577.

[13] Id. at 578.

[14] Bennett v. Hospice & Palliative Care Ctr. of Alamance Caswell, 783 S.E.2d 260, 261–62 (N.C. Ct. App. 2016) (pro se plaintiff did not attach Rule 9(j) certification to complaint, among other errors); Curl v. Am. Multimedia, Inc., 654 S.E.2d 76, 80–81 (N.C. Ct. App. 2007) (loss of chance not asserted in the complaint); Franklin v. Britthaven, Inc., No. COA05-1603, 2006 N.C. App. LEXIS 2119, at *12–13 (loss of chance not considered because plaintiff did not raise it at trial).

[15] See Joseph H. King, Jr., Causation, Valuation, and Chance in Personal Injury Torts Involving Preexisting Conditions and Future Consequences, 90 Yale L.J. 1353, 1364 (1981).

[16] Hamil v. Bashline, 392 A.2d 1280, 1286–90 (Pa. 1978).

[17] See King, supra note 14, at 1365–76 (for an in-depth explanation of the injury approach to loss of chance).

[18] Smith v. Providence Health & Servs.-Or., 393 P.3d 1106, 1112–17 (Ore. 2017) (discussing and rejecting the causation approach while adopting the injury approach).

[19] Estate of Frey v. Mastroianni, No. CAAP-14-0001030, 2018 Haw. Ap. LEXIS 327, at *13–15 (Haw. Ct. App. June 29, 2018) (agreeing with courts that have adopted the injury approach).

[20] Parkes v. Hermann, 828 S.E.2d 575, 577 (N.C. Ct. App. 2019) (“The question presented is whether her loss of this 40% chance, itself, is a type of injury for which Ms. Parkes can recover.”).

[21] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323(a) (Am. Law Inst. 1965).

[22] Hamil, 392 A.2d at 1286 (“We agree . . . that the effect of § 323(a) is to relax the degree of certitude normally required of plaintiff’s evidence in order to make a case for the jury as to whether a defendant may be held liable . . . .”).

[23] Id. at 1288 (“[S]uch evidence furnishes a basis for the fact-finder to go further and find that such an increased risk was in turn a substantial factor in bringing about the resultant harm . . . .”).

[24] Parkes, 828 S.E.2d at 575 (“[Plaintiff] argues, however, that she has suffered a different type of injury for which she is entitled to recovery; namely, her “loss of chance” of a better neurological outcome.”).

[25] Smith v. Providence Health & Servs.-Or., 393 P.3d 1106, 1114 (Ore. 2017) (“[T]reating loss of chance as a theory of injury does not dispense with causation requirements, but instead shifts the causation inquiry to whether a defendant caused the opportunity of a better outcome to be lost . . . .”).

[26] See, e.g., King, supra note 14, at 1382 (“The value placed on the patient’s life would reflect such factors as his age, health, and earning potential, including the fact that he had suffered the heart attack and the assumption that he had survived it. The 40% computation would be applied to that base figure.”).

[27] See, e.g., Estate of Frey v. Mastroianni, No. CAAP-14-0001030, 2018 Haw. Ap. LEXIS 327, at *14 (Haw. Ct. App. June 29, 2018) (“As such, damages are then limited only to those proximately caused by the medical provider’s breach of duty.”).

[28] See, e.g., King, supra note 14, at 1381 (“In summary, the all-or-nothing approach to the loss of a chance irrationally and unfairly denies the reality of chance as an appropriately cognizable interest in the torts system.”).

[29] Parkes, 828 S.E.2d at 577 (“To establish proximate cause, the plaintiff must show that the injury was more likely than not caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct.”).

[30] Id. at 578 (“Under the “traditional” approach, a plaintiff may not recover for the loss of less than 50% chance of a healthier outcome.”).

[31] See Guest, supra note 4, at 59 (note all the states in the “accepted” category).

[32] Id. (note that since this article was written, Oregon accepted loss of chance doctrine to make 25 states).

[33] See generally Oral Argument, supra note 4.

[34] Assuming Hawaii also adopts the doctrine.

[35] Estate of Frey v. Mastroianni, No. CAAP-14-0001030, 2018 Haw. Ap. LEXIS 327, at *8–18 (Haw. Ct. App. June 29, 2018).

[36] Parkes v. Hermann, 828 S.E.2d 575, 577–78 (N.C. Ct. App. 2019).

[37] Id. at 577 (the cited case is Valadez v. Newstart, No. W2007-01550-COA-R3-CV, 2008 Tenn. App. LEXIS 683 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 7, 2008)).

[38] 193 S.E. 28 (N.C. 1937).

[39] Id. at 30.

[40] Id. at 30–31 (“The evidence discloses that the use of modern equipment and methods by trained and skillful surgeons . . . has availed nothing. . . . Unfortunately, upon this record as it now appears, the plaintiff has suffered an injury that could not then and cannot now be relieved by the medical profession.”)

[41] 654 S.E.2d 76 (N.C. Ct. App. 2007).

[42] Id. at 81. (quoting Ipock v. Gilmore, 354 S.E.2d 315, 317 (N.C. Ct. App. 1987)).

[43] Smith v. Parrott, 833 A.2d 843, 848 (Vt. 2003) (“[W]e are persuaded that the decision to expand the definition of causation and thus the potential liability of the medical profession in Vermont “involves significant and far-reaching policy concerns” more properly left to the Legislature . . . .”).

[44] Id. (“Plaintiff urges us nevertheless to depart from the strict statutory requirements, noting that they were codified in 1976, well before “loss of chance” became a recognized as a viable theory of recovery.”) (emphasis added).

[45] See Guest, supra note 4, at 63–103 (tables showing authority from each state jurisdiction and the reason behind adoption or rejection of loss of chance doctrine).

[46] 770 A.2d 1103 (N.H. 2001) (superseded by a 2003 amendment to N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 507-E:2 (2019)).

[47] 616 N.W.2d 366 (S.D. 2000) (abrogated by S.D. Codified Laws § 20-9-1.1 (2019)).

[48] 462 N.W.2d 44 (Mich. 1990) (superseded by a 1993 amendment to Mich. Comp. Laws. § 600.2912a (2019)).

By Greg Berman

Controversy erupted last week after a George Washington University professor, Dave Karpf, tweeted a joke at New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’s expense.  Quoting an 8-word post about a bedbug infestation in the Times’ newsroom, Karpf joked that “[t]he bedbugs are a metaphor.  The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”[1]  Although this tweet did not initially gain much traction, it later went viral when Stephens personally emailed Karpf, as well as the George Washington University provost, demanding an apology for the insult.[2]  After several more tweets and an off-scheduled column post by Stephens with visible references to the controversy, both sides of the feud seem to be slowing down.[3]  Although this back and forth is just one isolated incident between two individuals, it highlights a growing trend in our discourse.  With the growing usage of social media in our society, these sorts of ideological clashes have seemingly become more prevalent than ever.[4]  And even though these virtual arguments tend to be more of an annoyance than a liability, reputation-damaging attacks (even those made on the internet) still can run the risk of triggering a costly libel lawsuit.[5] 

The tort of libel is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as “[a] defamatory statement expressed in a fixed medium, esp[ecially] writing but also a picture, sign, or electronic broadcast.”[6]  The enforcement of libel laws in the United States dates predates the ratification of the Constitution, most notably with the trial of John Peter Zenger, whose 1735 jury acquittal established the idea that someone cannot be charged with libel if the remark is true.[7]  Even today, the accuracy of the allegedly libelous statements continues to be one of key factors for courts to consider in libel cases, with each state setting their own standards for liability.[8]  Another key consideration for courts comes from New York Times v. Sullivan, where the Supreme Court differentiated defamation claims involving public figures and private individuals, holding that any libel suit against a public figure requires the inaccurate statement to be made with “actual malice.”[9]  Actual malice has been defined by the Court as “knowledge that (the statement) was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”[10]  Additional protections against libel claims were enacted nine years later, when the Supreme Court limited libel laws to apply only to intentionally false statements of fact, even if a trial court is presented with baseless opinions that are similarly incorrect.[11]

Our ever-increasing move toward a digitalized world raises the question of how these libel laws can be applied to internet publications.  To start, no claim for libel can be made against any social media site, such as Facebook or Twitter, for content posted by a user of that social media site.[12]  This is primarily due to the expansive legal protections given to these “interactive computer services” by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.[13]  That being said, individuals may still be held liable for content that they post on the internet, with each state continuing to apply its own standards for libelous conduct even as information crosses state lines.[14]  When it comes to the question of jurisdiction, the Supreme Court clarified in Keeton v. Hustler Magazine, Inc. that a state can claim jurisdiction over a non-resident when injurious information is intentionally disseminated to its citizens.[15]  Specifically, the Court cited each state’s interest in protecting its citizens from intentional falsehoods as a key consideration in its decision.[16] While online information is disseminated in a different manner than the magazines from Keeton, courts have begun allow jurisdiction for internet libel cases when the online post directly targets one or more residents of the state.[17]

When applying libel laws to online statements, courts have used similar substantive principles to those used for print publications.  In 2009, former musician Courtney Love was sued by her former attorney after tweeting allegedly libelous remarks.[18]  As this was the first reported case to go to a jury decision for remarks made over Twitter, the trial court was left with a case of first impression.[19]  In a landmark decision, the court opted to apply traditional libel laws.  A jury found that Love did not know that the statements were false at the time they were made; she therefore lacked the actual malice required to be considered libel.[20]  

There have also been other cases involving libelous comments made over Twitter.[21]  For example, one such case took place after a tenant complained on her personal Twitter account about her “moldy apartment.”[22]  After seeing the post, the landlord sued the tenant under Illinois libel laws; the case was later dismissed with prejudice because the tweet was too vague to meet the requisite legal standards for libel.[23]  Another lawsuit took place after a mid-game conversation between an NBA coach and a referee was overheard and tweeted out by an AP reporter.[24]  The referee insisted that the reported conversation never took place, and the subsequent lawsuit ultimately resulted in a $20,000 settlement.[25]  Each of these cases present factually unique scenarios, but all together indicate a growing trend: even as the medium for public discourse has been rapidly shifting towards the digital sphere, traditional libel laws still continue to apply.

In addition to substantive treatment, there also remain unresolved legal questions stemming from courts’ application of the single publication rule.  The single publication rule provides that “any one edition of a book or newspaper, or any one radio or television broadcast, exhibition of a motion picture or similar aggregate communication is a single publication” and therefore “only one action for damages can be maintained.”[26]  The justification behind this rule is simple: by aggregating all damages allegedly caused by a publication to a single action, a party would not be perpetually bombarded with litigation long after their active role in publication has ended.[27]  This rule has already been adopted in “the great majority of states” and was implemented within the 4th Circuit in Morrissey v. William Morrow & Co.[28]  However, some academics have proposed that the single publication rule should not always be applied to social media posts, citing the possibility that a publisher could personally solicit shares or retweets and thereby maintain an active role in republishing libelous information.[29]  The issue of continual dissemination by means of retweeting seems primed to be raised in later litigation, but thus far has not been brought before any court.[30]  Still, many circuits have already begun the process of implementing the single publication rule to online posts in general (so far these cases have been litigated over personal blogs rather than Facebook or Twitter posts), so it will be interesting to see how courts handle the issue if eventually raised by litigants down the road.[31]

As the social media presence in our society grows stronger each day, only time will tell if courts will craft separate libel principles for online publications.  There are arguments to be made on both sides, especially now that online mediums are increasingly taking over many of the informational functions previously held by their print counterparts.[32]  For now, at least, courts are continuing to use the same traditional libel laws that have been evolving and changing since John Peter Zenger’s 1735 acquittal. [33]  And while the jury is still out on whether Dave Karpf actually thinks Bret Stephens is a metaphorical bedbug, he can likely rest easy knowing that current libel laws will protect his joke from any future legal trouble.


1. Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 26, 2019, 5:07 PM), https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1166094950024515584.

[2] See Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 26, 2019, 9:22 PM), https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1166159027589570566; Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 26, 2019, 10:13 PM) https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1166171837082079232; see also Tim Efrink & Morgan Krakow, A Professor Called Bret Stephens a ‘Bedbug.’ The New York Times Columnist Complained to the Professor’s Boss, Wash. Post (Aug. 27, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/08/27/bret-stephens-bedbug-david-karpf-twitter/ (summarizing the context of Korpf’s tweet and the resulting controversy).

[3] See Dave Korpf (@davekorpf), Twitter (Aug. 30, 2019, 7:58 PM), https://twitter.com/davekarpf/status/1167587392292892672; Bret Stephens, Opinion, World War II and the Ingredients of Slaughter, N.Y. Times (Aug. 30, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/30/opinion/world-war-ii-anniversary.html.

[4] Jasmine Garsd, In An Increasingly Polarized America, Is It Possible To Be Civil On Social Media?, NPR (Mar. 31, 2019) https://www.npr.org/2019/03/31/708039892/in-an-increasingly-polarized-america-is-it-possible-to-be-civil-on-social-media.

[5] See id.; Adeline A. Allen, Twibel Retweeted: Twitter Libel and the Single Publication Rule,15 J. High Tech. L. 63, 81 n.99 (2014).

[6]  Libel, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

[7] Michael Kent Curtis, J. Wilson Parker, William G. Ross, Davison M. Douglas & Paul Finkelman, Constitutional Law in Context 1038 (4th ed. 2018).

[8] James L. Pielemeier, Constitutional Limitations on Choice of Law: The Special Case of Multistate Defamation, 133 U. Pa. L. Rev. 381, 384 (1985).

[9] 376 U.S. 254, 279–80 (1964); see also Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974) (defining a public figure as either “an individual achiev[ing] such pervasive fame or notoriety” or an individual who “voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy”).

[10] Sullivan, 376 U.S. at 280.

[11] See Gertz, 418 U.S. at 339 (“[u]nder the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a false idea.”).

[12] See Allen, supra note 5, at 82.  Of course, Facebook and Twitter are not immunized against suits for content that they post on their own platforms.  Cf. Force v. Facebook, Inc., ___ F.3d ___, No. 18-397, 2019 WL 3432818, slip op. at 41 (2d Cir. July 31, 2019), http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/a9011811-1969-4f97-bef7-7eb025d7d66c/1/doc/18-397_complete_opn.pdf (“If Facebook was a creator or developer, even ‘in part,’ of the terrorism-related content upon which plaintiffs’ claims rely, then Facebook is an ‘information content provider’ of that content and is not protected by Section 230(c)(1) immunity.”).

[13] 47 U.S.C. §230(c)(1) (2017) (“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”).  “Interactive computer service” is defined by the act as “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server”). Id. at §230(f)(2); see also Allen, supra note 5, at 82 n.100 (describing additional protections provided by the Communications Decency Act, including how Twitter falls under its definition of “interactive computer service”).

[14] See Allen, supra note 5, at 84; Pielemeier, supra note 8, at 384.

[15] 465 U.S. 770, 777 (1984); see also Calder v. Jones, 465 U.S. 783, 791 (1984) (holding that personal jurisdiction is proper over defendants who purposefully directed libelous information at the plaintiff’s home state with the intent of causing harm).

[16] Keeton, 465 U.S. at 777.

[17] See, e.g.,Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., 952 F. Supp. 1119, 1124 (W.D. Pa. 1997); Young v. New Haven Advocate, 315 F.3d 256, 263 (4th Cir. 2002); Tamburo v. Dworkin, 601 F.3d 693, 707 (7th Cir. 2010) (each applying traditional libel tests for personal jurisdiction to online publications, requiring the publication to be intentionally targeted towards citizens of the state). 

[18] Gordon v. Love, No. B256367, 2016 WL 374950, at *2 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 1, 2016). The exact language of the tweet in question was “I was fucking devastated when Rhonda J. Holmes, Esquire, of San Diego was bought off @FairNewsSpears perhaps you can get a quote.”  Id.  The tweet was deleted five to seven minutes after it was posted.  Id. at *3.  This was Love’s second time being sued for defamation over comments made on her Twitter account, although the first lawsuit resulted in a $430,000 settlement before trial. Matthew Belloni, Courtney Love to Pay $430,000 in Twitter Case, Reuters (Mar. 3, 2011), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-courtneylove/courtney-love-to-pay-430000-in-twitter-case-idUSTRE7230F820110304.

[19] See Allen, supra note 5, at 81 n.99.

[20] Love, 2016 WL 374950, at *3.  The reason actual malice was required in the case is because Love’s attorney had gained public figure status, which was not disputed at trial. Id.

[21] See Joe Trevino, From Tweets to Twibel*: Why the Current Defamation Law Does Not Provide for Jay Cutler’s Feelings, 19 Sports Law J. 49, 61–63 (2012) (describing a series of libel lawsuits stemming from social media posts).

[22] Id. at 61.

[23] Andrew L. Wang, Twitter Apartment Mold Libel Suit Dismissed, Chi. Trib. (Jan. 22, 2010), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2010-01-22-1001210830-story.html.

[24] Trevino, supra note 21, at 63. 

[25] Lauren Dugan, The AP Settles Over NBA Twitter Lawsuit, Pays $20,000 Fine, Adweek (Dec. 8, 2011), https://www.adweek.com/digital/the-ap-settles-over-nba-twitter-lawsuit-pays-20000-fine/.

[26] Restatement (Second) of Torts § 577A(3–4) (Am. Law Inst. 1977).

[27] Id. at § 577A cmt. b.

[28] 739 F.2d 962, 967 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Keeton, 465 U.S. at 777 n.8).

[29] Allen, supra note 5, at 87–88.

[30] See Lori A. Wood, Cyber-Defamation and the Single Publication Rule, 81 B.U. L. Rev. 895, 915 (2001) (calling for courts to define “republication” in the context of internet publications).

[31] See, e.g., Firth v. State, 775 N.E.2d 463, 466 (N.Y. 2002); Van Buskirk v. N.Y. Times Co., 325 F.3d 87, 90 (2d Cir. 2003); Oja v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, 440 F.3d 1122, 1130–31 (9th Cir. 2006); Nationwide Bi-Weekly Admin., Inc. v. Belo Corp., 512 F.3d 137, 144 (5th Cir. 2007).  But see Swafford v. Memphis Individual Prac. Ass’n, 1998 Tenn. App. LEXIS 361, at *38 (Tenn. App. 1998).

[32] See Allen, supra note 5, at 91 n.157.

[33] See Trevino, supra note 19, at 69.

By Sophia Pappalardo & Kenya Parrish

In re: Murphy-Brown, LLC

In this civil case, the Petitioner requested mandamus relief from a gag order issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The gag order imposed strict requirements on participants and potential participants of interrelated nuisance suits brought against hog farms in North Carolina. The Fourth Circuit found the district court’s order to be defective and granted the petition. Thus, the Fourth Circuit directed the district court to vacate the gag order and allow the parties to begin their suits again under guidelines set forth by the Fourth Circuit, but only if warranted by exceptional circumstances.

 

By: Lanie Summerlin

Henderson v. Bluefield Hosp. Co.

In this civil appeal, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) appealed the District Court’s refusal to grant preliminary injunctive relief under section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB sought preliminary injunctions against two hospitals until NLRB agency adjudication of a complaint filed against the hospitals by the National Nurses Organization Committee (“Union”) was complete. The injunctions would have required the hospitals to bargain with the Union in good faith, and NLRB argued the injunctions were necessary to protect the nurses’ fundamental right to be represented through collective bargaining. The District Court denied these injunctions because it ruled the NLRB failed to prove this type of relief was necessary to preserve the remedial power of the NLRB. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision and emphasized that the NLRB has the burden of proving irreparable harm absent the injunction. Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit held the NLRB failed to meet this burden because its theories of harm were speculative; the NLRB failed to explain why its own forms of relief available after completion of the agency process would be insufficient.

U.S. v. Bell

In this criminal appeal, Quintin Bell (“Bell”) challenged his convictions of four counts of drug trafficking and one count of illegal possession of a firearm. Bell argued the District Court erred in (1) denying his motion to suppress statements he made to police officers who were executing a search warrant on his residence; (2) admitting evidence of another arrest of Bell under Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 404(b); (3) denying Bell’s motion to disclose the identity of a confidential informant; and (4) enhancing Bell’s sentence to 480 months’ imprisonment due to his prior convictions. The Fourth Circuit held the District Court did not err in denying Bell’s motion to suppress his statements because Bell was not being interrogated at the time the statements were made; the officer’s question was directed to Bell’s wife and Bell voluntarily answered. The Fourth Circuit also held the District Court did not abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of Bell’s other arrest because this evidence’s relevance to Bell’s motive and intent was not substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice to Bell. In regards to the confidential informant, the Fourth Circuit held the District Court did not err in refusing to disclose the informant’s identity because Bell failed to prove the informant’s identity was necessary to establish his own guilt or innocence. The Fourth Circuit also reviewed Bell’s criminal record and held that his 480 month sentence was appropriate due to the nature of the crimes on his record. Overall, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Bell’s convictions. Judge Wynn dissented; he argued the Fourth Circuit should have remanded the issue of Bell’s statements to police officers to the District Court for a determination of whether Bell perceived himself as being interrogated. Judge Wynn also argued that Bell’s prior convictions do not qualify as predicate convictions to enhance his sentence.

VanDevender v. Blue Ridge of Raleigh

This civil appeal focuses on the District Court’s decisions as to two judgment as a matter of law (“JMOL”) motions filed by Blue Ridge of Raleigh (“Blue Ridge”). Blue Ridge operated a long-term skilled nursing facility in Raleigh, North Carolina, but consistently failed to meet state-mandated staffing levels and supplies requirements. The estates of three deceased ventilator-dependent patients at Blue Ridge brought claims of wrongful death nursing home malpractice against Blue Ridge. The jury awarded compensative and punitive damages to each Plaintiff. However, the District Court granted Blue Ridge’s motion for JMOL as to all three Plaintiffs’ punitive damages awards because it ruled the Plaintiffs had not produced sufficient evidence. The District Court denied Blue Ridge’s motion for JMOL as to Plaintiff Jones’s compensatory damages. Plaintiffs appealed the JMOL as to their punitive damages, and Blue Ridge cross-appealed the denial of JMOL as to Plaintiff Jones’s compensatory damages. The Fourth Circuit held the District Court erred in granting JMOL as to the Plaintiffs’ punitive damages. Based on the record, the Fourth Circuit held that a jury could determine Blue Ridge’s staffing policies and managerial decisions constituted willful or wanton conduct. It held that the District Court erred by requiring the Plaintiffs to prove malice, which is not required for willful or wanton conduct. The Fourth Circuit emphasized that Blue Ridge failed to follow state and federal laws on staffing and intentionally failed to follow its own patient safety policies. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Blue Ridge’s JMOL motion as to Plaintiff Jones’s compensatory damages. There was sufficient evidence that Blue Ridge breached the standard of care it owed to Plaintiff Jones by being understaffed without proper supplies. The Fourth Circuit remanded with instructions for the District Court to enter punitive damages for all three Plaintiffs consistent with North Carolina’s statutory limits.

By Mickey Herman

On Thursday, January 17, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in the civil case Huskey v. Ethicon, Inc. The defendant-appellants, Ethicon, Inc. and Johnson & Johnson (collectively “Ethicon”), appealed the district court’s denial of their post-trial renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law (“JMOL”) or, alternatively, for a new trial. After reviewing the evidence presented to the jury in this products liability action, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of both motions.

Facts & Procedural History

In 2008, Mrs. Jo Huskey began suffering from Stress Urinary Incontinence. By 2011, her condition had deteriorated such that she underwent surgery to implant a Tension-Free Vaginal Tape-Obturator (“TVT-O”) to alleviate her symptoms. Following the surgery, Mrs. Huskey began experiencing pelvic pain, which her doctor determined was caused by erosion in the TVT-O’s heavy-weight polypropylene mesh. After several non-invasive attempts to relieve her pain failed, Mrs. Huskey again underwent surgery to cover the eroded mesh. Unfortunately, Mrs. Huskey’s pain persisted and she was referred to a specialist who performed a third surgery in an effort to remove the mesh entirely. That procedure too was unsuccessful, as a portion of the mesh was unrecoverable. As a result, Mrs. Huskey suffers from severe pain when engaging in physical activity and sexual intercourse. That pain will last of the rest of her life and she will require medication for pain management.

In 2012, Mrs. Huskey and her husband, Allen, filed suit in the Southern District of West Virginia as part of In Re Ethicon Inc., Pelvic Repair Sys. Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL 2327. Following the district court’s grant of partial summary judgment in favor of Ethicon, the trial proceeded on five claims: strict liability and negligent design defect, strict liability and negligent failure to warn, and Mr. Huskey’s loss of consortium. Mrs. Huskey sought both actual and punitive damages for her claims.

Following the Huskey’s case, Ethicon moved for JMOL pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). The district court granted the motion as to punitive damages; it otherwise deferred ruling on the motion. After Ethicon renewed the motion following its case, the district court again deferred and submitted the case to the jury. After the jury returned a unanimous general verdict for the Huskeys on all five claims, Ethicon renewed its motion for JMOL pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(b) and, alternatively, requested a new trial under Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A). The district court denied both motions. Ethicon appealed.

Denial of JMOL Motion

Ethicon first argued that the district court improperly denied its motion for JMOL. Noting that it reviews such denials de novo, the Fourth Circuit stressed that JMOL is appropriate only if “a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party on that issue.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a). Because the jury returned a general verdict, the Fourth Circuit emphasized that reversal was only appropriate if the Huskeys failed to prove both their design defect and failure to warn claims.

The Fourth Circuit turned first to the Huskey’s design defect claims. Pursuant to Illinois law (under which the Huskeys, Illinois residents, brought their claims), “[t]o prevail [on those] claims, the Huskeys had to demonstrate: 1) that a certain condition of the TVT-O resulted from Ethicon’s design, 2) that this condition made the product unreasonably dangerous, 3) that the dangerous condition existed when Mrs. Huskey’s TVT-O left Ethicon’s control, and 4) that the dangerous condition in the TVT-O proximately caused harm to Mrs. Huskey.” Ethicon argued that the Huskeys not only “failed to prove a specific flaw in the TVT-O’s design” but that Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402(a) comment k shielded the company from liability.

Addressing Ethicon’s first argument, the Fourth Circuit determined that the testimony of four of the Huskey’s expert witnesses—each of whom asserted that the design of the mesh was to blame—constituted sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Ethicon’s mesh caused Mrs. Huskey’s injuries and subsequent pain.

Considering Ethicon’s second argument, the Fourth Circuit analyzed the text of comment k, which “recommends that [unavoidably unsafe products], ‘with the qualification that they are properly prepared and marketed, and proper warning is given,’ not trigger strict liability.” Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402(a). Because whether a product is unavoidably unsafe is a question of fact, the Fourth Circuit made clear that “[i]f a reasonable jury could find that the TVT-O did not meet comment k’s parameters, Ethicon’s reliance on comment k fails.” Relying again on the Huskey’s experts’ testimony that the mesh’s design was, in fact, defective, the Fourth Circuit concluded that a reasonable jury could so find and, thus, Ethicon’s comment k argument fails.

Because it could affirm the district court’s denial of Ethicon’s JMOL on these grounds alone, the Fourth Circuit did not address the failure to warn claims.

Denial of New Trial Motion

The Fourth Circuit next turned to Ethicon’s assertion that the district court erred by denying its motion for a new trial. Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A), a new trial is warranted where “the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, rests upon false evidence, or will cause a miscarriage of justice.” The denial of such motions is reviewed for abuse of discretion.

Ethicon first argued that it was entitled to a new trial because the district court, by failing to clarify comment k’s policy rationale, improperly instructed the jury on comment k. Only where a jury instruction “fails to inform the jury of the controlling legal principle,” such that the challenging party suffers prejudice, is a new trial warranted. After comparing the language of comment k to the instruction given, the Fourth Circuit determined that, although the instruction failed to explain that comment k shifts the burden of proof to the defendant, that deficiency did not prejudice Ethicon. Furthermore, it concluded that because comment k requires a “case by case” analysis, its underlying policy was irrelevant and could be omitted without prejudice to Ethicon.

Ethicon next argued that it was entitled to a new trial because the district court improperly excluded four pieces of evidence concerning the FDA’s approval of the mesh used in the TVT-O. Evidentiary exclusions are reviewed for an abuse of discretion and a new trial is appropriate only where there exists “a high probability that the error . . . affect[ed] the judgment.” Reviewing each piece of evidence in turn, the Fourth Circuit concluded that they were properly excluded under Fed. R. Evid. 403 because their probative value was outweighed both by a risk of confusion and wasted time, as well as because of their needlessly cumulative nature.

Thus, because the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court did not abuse its discretion with respect to the contested jury instructions and exclusion of evidence, it held that Ethicon was not entitled to a new trial.

Conclusion

Determining that sufficient evidence supported the jury’s verdict in favor of the Huskeys, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Ethicon’s motion for JMOL. Furthermore, because it concluded that district court did not abuse its discretion in instructing the jury and excluding evidence, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Ethicon’s alternative motion for a new trial.

hamburg-1568842_1920

By M. Allie Clayton

On November 1, 2016, in the civil case of Ripley v. Foster Wheeler, LLC, a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit established that the government contractor defense is available in failure to warn cases. The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded to the Eastern District of Virginia to determine if the government contractor presented sufficient proof to warrant removal under U.S.C. § 1442.

Facts and Procedural History

For over four years in and around the 1970s, Mr. Bernard Ripley worked as a boilermaker at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. In 2014, when Mr. Ripley was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, he and his wife, Deborah Ripley, filed suit in Newport News Circuit Court, a Virginia state court. The Ripleys allege that Mr. Ripley was exposed to asbestos due to products that Foster Wheeler, LLC and Foster Wheeler Energy Corp. (“Appellants”) manufactured for the Navy, and that Appellants are liable for failing to warn Mr. Ripley of the asbestos hazards.

Appellants filed a Notice of Removal and removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Appellants asserted a government contractor defense, arguing that the suit stemmed from Appellant’s contract with the Navy, thus allowing removal pursuant to the federal officer removal statute 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)(1). The government contractor defense allows a company that contracts with the military to avoid liability under state-law tort claims for design defects. When the Ripleys moved for remand, the district court granted the motion due to a decades-old practice in the district that denies the government contractor defense in failure to warn cases. Because the federal defense did not apply, according to the District Court, the federal courts had no subject matter jurisdiction. Appellants appealed the grant of the motion for remand.

The Issue

Does the government contractor defense apply to failure to warn cases? If it does, can Appellants, under the federal officer removal statute, remove to the federal district court in order to establish the defense?

The Federal Officer Removal Statute

The federal officer removal statute is an exception to the well-pleaded complaint rule. It allows a defendant to remove a case if the defendant establishes:

  • (1) it is a federal officer or a “person acting under that officer,” 28 U.S.C. §1442(a)(1);
  • (2) a “colorable federal defense”; and
  • (3) the suit is “for a[n] act under color of office,” which requires a causal nexus “between the charged conduct and asserted official authority.” Jefferson Cty., Ala. v. Acker. (alteration and emphasis in original).

The Federal Officer Removal Statute—As Applied

Appellants sought removal based on the government contractor defense as explained under Boyle v. United Technologies Corp.. In Boyle, the Supreme Court held that the government contractor defense applied to design defect cases. The reasons for applying the defense to defect cases were two-fold: (1) separation of powers suggested that the judiciary should be hesitant to intervene in matters of military procurement contracts; and (2) a higher risk of liability for contractors would increase costs to the government and decrease the supply of contractors.

The Eastern District of Virginia in McCormick v. C.E. Thurston & Sons, Inc. had previously held that the government contractor defense was “not available in failure to warn cases.” However, the Fourth Circuit found that most other jurisdictions, including the Second, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits, that have considered this issue held that the defense does apply to failure to warn cases. The Fourth Circuit further found that the reasons for applying the defense to defect cases were equally applicable in the failure to warn cases. The separation of powers consideration was still relevant due to the fact that it was a military contract. Also, the increased costs to the governments due to the increase risk of liability and the decreased supply of contractors was equally relevant in the general failure to warn context, beyond asbestos. Due to the overwhelming amount of opposing precedent and the valid rationales supporting the application of the defense, the Fourth Circuit “join[ed] the chorus and h[e]ld that the government contractor defense is available in failure to warn cases.”

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit went against precedent that the District Court relied on in remanding the case back to the state court. Because of this shift in doctrine, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the District Court to determine if the Appellants have presented enough proof to warrant removal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1442.

peanuts

By Malorie Letcavage

On December 2, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in Severn Peanut Co., Inc. v. Industrial Fumigant Co. In this case, appellant Severn Peanut Co. (“Severn”) asked the Fourth Circuit to overturn the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for appellee, Industrial Fumigant Co. (“IFC”) on both the breach of contract and the negligence claim. The Fourth Circuit ultimately affirmed the grant of summary judgment because the consequential damages provision in the contract overcame the breach of contract claim and North Carolina law does not allow a plaintiff to pursue a tort claim under the guise of a contract claim.

Background

Severn entered into an agreement with IFC to apply a pesticide, phosphine, to its peanut storage dome. The parties signed a Pesticide Application Agreement (“PAA”) which detailed that Severn would pay IFC $8,604 for the pesticide services. The contract specified that the sum excluded IFC assuming any risk of “incidental or consequential damages” to Severn’s “property, product, equipment, downtime, or loss of business.” It also stipulated that the pesticide would be applied according to the instructions on its label.

The label on the phosphine requires the user to avoid the pesticide tablets from piling up because this could lead to fire or an explosion. Despite this warning, IFC dumped 49,000 tablets of the pesticide into the peanut dome through a single hatch. The pile up of the tablets caused a fire and an explosion. Severn’s insurer paid to cover Severn’s loss of peanuts, business income, and the damage to the peanut dome. Severn filed against IFC for breach of contract and negligence. The District Court granted partial summary judgment for IFC on the breach of contract claim because it found that the consequential damages clause in the PAA excluded a claim for breach of contract. It also found Severn to be contributorily negligent, and thus granted summary judgment in favor of IFC on the negligence claim.

Breach of Contract Claim

The Court examined the consequential damages limitations in North Carolina. It found that this doctrine allows parties the freedom to contract. It strongly stressed that it would not overhaul a valid enforceable contract that both parties agreed to and signed. It held that the consequential damages doctrine may only be limited if the clause is unconscionable. The Court found that overall the doctrine is a widely used tool for completing business.

In application to Severn’s case, the Court held that the language of the PAA established a valid consequential damages clause, and the items damaged fell within this language. It also found that the clause was not unconscionable. A clause is unconscionable when no reasonable person would view the contract’s result without feeling injustice. However, this clause was conscionable because it was between two experienced business parties who contracted specifically to include the provision; it was a fair result according to the contract.

The Court also rejected Severn’s argument that the clause was a violation of public policy. The Court refused to find consequential damage clauses against public policy without a clear indication from the North Carolina courts, of which there was none. It held that North Carolina law provides other criminal and civil penalties for the misapplication of the pesticide, so there was no reason to hold private liability as the only means of enforcement. Thus, the Court affirmed summary judgment on the breach of contract claim because the contract was an agreement between two sophisticated commercial entities who should be held to the terms of the contract they signed.

Negligence Claim and Economic Loss Doctrine

While the Court agreed with Severn’s argument that the ruling of contributory negligence ignored material facts, it still affirmed the grant of summary judgment for IFC because of the economic loss doctrine. The Court found that the negligence claims would not survive the assent to the consequential damages limitation. The economic loss doctrine “prohibits recovery for purely economic loss in tort when contract…. operates to allocate the risk.” The doctrine encourages parties to allocate the risk of loss themselves, as they are in the best position to do so.

In this case, Severn wanted to claim a remedy in tort for IFC’s breach of duty to apply the pesticide according to the label, which is the same source as their breach of contract claim. Yet since Severn bargained to limit consequential damages caused by breach of contract they cannot be allowed to try to undo that bargain using tort law. Additionally, the Court found that the storage dome and peanuts were not outside of the contract, and were not exempt from the economic loss doctrine.

Summary Judgment Affirmed

Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment for IFC on both the breach of contract and the negligence claim.

 

By Elizabeth DeFrance

In an opinion for the civil case, Marks v. Scottsdale Ins. Co., published June 29, 2015, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a general liability insurer for a hunt club had no duty to indemnify or defend a club member who accidentally shot a passing driver while hunting on land the club leased.

Marks Accidentally Hit by Pellets When Deer Hunter Shot Towards Public Road

Plaintiff Timothy B. Johnson (“Johnson”), a member of the Northumberland Hunt Club (“Hunt Club” or “Club”) was hunting deer on land leased by the Club when he took a shot that traveled towards an adjacent public highway. Pellets from Johnson’s gun struck Plaintiff-Appellant Danny Ray Marks, Jr. (“Marks”) in the head as he was driving. Marks filed a negligence claim against Johnson in Virginia state court, alleging that because Johnson was experienced with firearms and the location, he should have known his actions posed a risk to drivers on the highway. Marks also filed a negligence claim against the Hunt Club, alleging they failed to promulgate rules to protect the public. In a second complaint filed in Virginia state court, Marks sought a declaration that the Hunt Club’s insurer, Scottsdale Insurance Company (“Scottsdale”) had a duty to indemnify and defend Johnson due to an endorsement provision in the Club’s insurance policy. Scottsdale removed to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction and filed a counterclaim seeking an endorsement stating it does not have a duty to indemnify or defend Johnson. Johnson joined the district court litigation and the parties agreed to have a magistrate adjudicate the matter. On cross motions for summary judgment, the magistrate held that Scottsdale did not owe a duty to indemnify or defend Johnson, and granted Scottsdale’s motion.

Scottsdale issued a commercial general liability policy to the Hunt Club, establishing its duty to indemnify for “those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay for damages from bodily injury or property damage to which this insurance applies,” and to defend the Club in such suits. The policy also included an endorsement that modified its coverage “to include as an insured any of your members, but only with respect to their liability for your activities or activities they perform on your behalf.” “You” and “your” are defined as “the Named Insured.”

The Court Applied Contract Principles to Determine the Scope of the Policy’s Coverage

To determine whether Johnson was an “insured” under the policy’s endorsement, the Court looked to the plain meaning of the language. Under Virginia common law, ambiguous policy language is to be construed against the insurer. However, a term is only deemed ambiguous if it is “capable of more than one reasonable meaning.” An insurer only owes a duty to indemnify and defend if the allegations in the complaint come within the scope of the policy’s coverage.

Language of the Endorsement is not Ambiguous

The Court analyzed the language of the two clauses in the endorsement to determine the scope the coverage. The first clause insured “any of [the Club’s] members, but only with respect to [member] liability for the Club’s activities.” Johnson argued that the language was clear, and that his actions were covered under this clause because he was hunting at the time of the incident and hunting is one of the Club’s activities. In the alternative, he argued that the language was ambiguous and should be construed in his favor. The Court disagreed, reasoning that the language was clear, and that this clause “restricts coverage to situations involving a member’s alleged vicarious liability for the activities of the Club as an entity, not for torts allegedly committed by members during a Club activity.

Johnson conceded that the second clause in the endorsement, covering “activities [members] perform on [the Club’s] behalf,” did not apply to him in this situation.

The Court reasoned that Johnson’s proposed interpretation of the first clause was flawed when the language of the endorsement was examined as a whole. The court determined that the first clause covered actions taken by the Club that a member might be held vicariously liable for, and the second clause covered actions taken by an individual on behalf of the Club. However, under Johnson’s interpretation, the second clause becomes redundant because all member actions in connection with the Club would be covered under the first clause.

Once the scope of coverage was established, the court looked to Marks’s complaint to determine if the allegations against Johnson came within the scope of the policy’s coverage. The court reasoned that because the complaint only alleged that Johnson was a member of the club and on land leased by the club when he shot Marks, the complaint rested only on “the recreational pursuits indulged in by members,” not on Johnson’s vicarious liability for the Club’s activities.

Scottsdale has No Duty to Indemnify or Defend Johnson

Because Scottsdale was not be liable for any of the allegations against Johnson in the complaint, Scottsdale did not have a duty to indemnify or defend Johnson. The Court affirmed the judgment of the magistrate judge.

By Mikhail Petrov

In the civil case of Dan Ryan Builders, Inc. v. Crystal Ridge Development, Inc., Plaintiff, Dan Ryan Builders Inc., (“Ryan”) appealed the decision of the US District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia and sought additional damages from Defendant, Lang Brother’s Inc. (“Lang”). The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court, finding that the “gist of the action” doctrine was properly applied and Plaintiff was not entitled to additional damages. The case was argued on December 10, 2014, and the decision was released on April 20, 2015.

The Facts of the Case

The events of this case took place in West Virginia. Lang sought to build a housing development, Crystal Ridge, on a seventy acre tract of land. In 2005, pursuant to a Lot Purchase Agreement (“LPA”), Lang subdivided the land and contracted to sell all 143 lots to Ryan, a Maryland corporation. The LPA detailed the responsibilities of each party. The parties also entered into a number of other written contracts, including a contract to do a “fill of slope.” Lang was responsible for all of the infrastructure, including the fill slope, which was done by an independent contractor. In March 2007, cracks appeared in the basement slab and the foundation walls of a partially constructed house. Ryan contracted an engineering firm to fix the issue – but the relationship between Lang and Ryan had soured after the incident and the parties “divorced.” In December 2007, the slope behind the lot that had exhibited cracks in the foundation began sliding downhill towards a nearby highway. A geotechnical study concluded that the slope had failed due to its natural composition as well as poor construction. Ryan also experienced other difficulties with the development, including the storm water management system, the development permits, and the entrance drive.

At the District Court

In December 2009, Ryan filed a lawsuit against Lang seeking monetary damages. Ryan asserted three causes of action. First, negligence on the part of Lang in connection to the construction of the fill slope. Second, a breach of several contractual duties stated in the LPA and a subsequent amendment to the LPA made after the parties had “divorced.” Third, fraudulent misrepresentation. The third and final cause of action was abandoned at trial. The court held a five-day bench trial and awarded Ryan $175,646.25 in damages and $77,575.50 in pre-judgment interest for breach of contract with respect to repairs of the road leading to Crystal Ridge. Ryan failed to carry its burden of proof with other asserted breaches, including the entrance easement, storm water management, and the erosion control system. Lastly, the court rejected Ryan’s negligence claim because it failed under West Virginia’s “gist of the action” doctrine, which bars recovery in tort when the duty that forms the basis of the asserted tort claim arises solely from a contractual relationship. It requires plaintiffs seeking relief in tort to identify a non-contractual duty breached by the alleged tortfeasor. Ryan appealed.

Standard of Review

The Fourth Circuit used a mixed standard of review following a bench trial. Factual findings may only be reversed if clearly erroneous. Conclusions of law, including contract construction, are examined de novo.

Reasoning

Ryan offers two reasons why the district court erred in the “gist of action” holding. The court considered both of them separately.

Reason One – Principles of Party Presentation

Ryan contends that the “principles of party presentation” ought to have prevented the district court from relying on the “gist of the action” doctrine. The party presentation principle cautions a federal court to consider only the claims and contentions raised by the litigants before it – and neither Ryan nor Lang raised the “gist of action” doctrine in district court. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument, stating that a party’s failure to identify the applicable legal rule does not diminish a court’s responsibility to apply that rule. Additionally, the Supreme Court has long recognized that “a court may consider an issue ‘antecedent’ to … and ultimately ‘dispositive of’ the dispute before it, even an issue the parties fail to identify and brief.”  U.S. Nat’l Bank of Or. v. Indep. Ins. Agents of Am., Inc. 508 U.S. 439, 447 (1993). Here, the “gist of the action” doctrine is just such an “antecedent” and “dispositive” issue since it goes to the duty element of any West Virginia tort claim. Therefore, Ryan’s contention that the party presentation principle barred the district court is rejected.

Reason Two – Gist of the Action

The Fourth Circuit found that the district court did not err in its application of the “gist of the action” doctrine. Because Ryan’s tort claim rests on Lang’s asserted negligence in performing the two contracts, the LPA and its Amendment, and not on any duty independent of those contracts, the “gist of action” doctrine bars the claim. The Fourth Circuit found that this is precisely the type of simple breach of contract claim that is masqueraded as a tort claim. Therefore, the court found that Ryan’s negligence claim fails as a matter of law.

Ryan’s New Claim

Alternatively, Ryan sought damages under claims he had not alleged at the district court level. Specifically, he alleges that he should have been awarded damages for the “fill of slope” contract. The Fourth Circuit found that the district court is not responsible for searching through the case in pursuit of potential basis for awarding relief. In fact, The Fourth Circuit stated that the district court did an excellent job of identifying Ryan’s meritorious claims.

Holding

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision of the district court. The Fourth Circuit did not agree with Ryan on either of his two arguments about the district court’s application of the “gist of the action” doctrine. Additionally, the Fourth Circuit rejected Ryan’s contention that he should have been awarded damages for the “fill of slope” contract. Arguing that Ryan should have been able to recover for the “fill of slope” contract, Circuit Judge Gregory dissented in part.

By Patrick Southern

On March 25, the Fourth Circuit released a published opinion in the civil case of Johnson v. American Towers, LLCIn its decision, the court affirmed a ruling from the District of South Carolina, declaring that court had properly determined it had jurisdiction over the matter on multiple grounds and had also properly dismissed the claim on the merits.

Plaintiff Was Brutally Attacked In His Home

Plaintiff Robert Johnson worked as a prison guard. He was attacked in his home and shot six times. He survived the attack, and a subsequent investigation revealed that the attack was ordered by an inmate at the prison where he worked, using a contraband cell phone.

The Johnsons sued several cellular phone service providers and owners of cell phone towers (including American Towers), seeking to recover under state law negligence and loss of consortium theories. The defendants fell into two groups: wireless service providers and owners of cellular towers. According to the Johnsons, these defendants were liable for Mr. Johnson’s injuries because they were aware that their services facilitated the illegal use of cellphones by prison inmates and yet failed to take steps to curb that use.

The defendants removed the case to federal court, citing federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and complete diversity under 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The Johnsons moved to remand to state court, and the District of South Carolina denied the motion on two grounds: (1) that federal question jurisdiction existed because the Federal Communications Act preempted their state law claims, and (2) that diversity jurisdiction existed because the only non-diverse defendants were fraudulently joined and the amount in controversy exceeded $75,000.

The defendants subsequently moved to dismiss the case under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The District Court granted the motion on three grounds: (1) that the Johnsons’ claims were barred by express and conflict preemption; (2) South Carolina law did not impose a duty on the defendants to prevent inmates from illegally using their cell phone services; and (3) the Johnsons’ claims were implausible and so did not meet pleading standards. The Johnsons appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

On Appeal, Plaintiffs Argued on Jurisdictional Grounds In Addition to the Merits of Their Claims

The plaintiffs brought forth two issues the Fourth Circuit considered on appeal.

First, they asked if the District Court had erred in concluding it had federal jurisdiction over the Johnsons’ state law claims. If the Fourth Circuit found federal jurisdiction was proper, they further argued the District Court had improperly dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims on the merits.

The District Court Erred in Finding Federal Question Jurisdiction

The District Court had found federal question jurisdiction existed because the plaintiffs’ state law claims were preempted by the Federal Communications Act. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit noted that this “complete preemption” is rare, and indeed there is a presumption against such preemption. The presumption exists because, in the court’s view, the principles of federalism dictate the judiciary should be careful to not draw an inference that Congressional actions are intended to wipe out wide swaths of state law (at least without some explicit statement as such from Congress).

While the court said the language of the Federal Communications Act constituted “ordinary preemption” it also noted that was not sufficient to create federal subject matter jurisdiction. Only complete preemption can do so. For complete preemption to exist, the preempting statute must provide the exclusive cause of action for claims in the area the statute preempts.

The Fourth Circuit said the Federal Communications Act does not provide the exclusive cause of action in this area, since that statute only permits recovery against common carriers, and the tower owners are not considered common carriers (since they do not provide wireless service). Even though the wireless providers can be sued under the Federal Communications Act, the court noted there was nothing in the Act that indicated Congress intended it to be the exclusive remedy for state law claims against such providers. Indeed, the language of the Act suggests the opposite — that it was not intended to supplant common law and state law remedies.

But Diversity Jurisdiction Allowed the District Court to Hear the Case

With respect to diversity jurisdiction, the Johnsons’ original complaint had named two non-diverse defendants. However, under the “fraudulent joinder doctrine” the District Court was free to remove those defendants and retain jurisdiction over the case. But to do so, there must be a showing that there could not be a claim against the defendants in question even if all questions of law and fact were resolved in plaintiffs’ favor. The standard is obviously plaintiff friendly — if even a “glimmer of hope” of recovery against the defendant at issue is found, it cannot be removed.

But these defendants met that lofty standard. One did not operate towers in the area of South Carolina in question, and so it could not have been found liable for any damages to Mr. Johnson. With regard to the other non-diverse defendant, the Fourth Circuit found that the Federal Communications Act preempted the Johnsons’ claims against it.  Thus, it was also removed properly, and diversity jurisdiction was proper.

The District Court Properly Dismissed the Claims on Their Merits

On three different grounds, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the decision of the District Court to dismiss the Johnsons’ claims.

First, it found that the Communications Act’s express language preempted the Johnson’s claims. The court indicated that the existence of a common law tort duty would obstruct or burden a wireless service provider’s ability to provide coverage. The providers would have to actively monitor their networks to prevent calls coming from inside South Carolina prisons, which would limit their ability to offer wireless service in those areas.

Second, it found the Johnsons’ claims were barred by conflict preemption. Conflict preemption applies to state law “when compliance with both federal and state regulations is a physical impossibility, or when state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.” The court found that a state law obligation to block calls from inside South Carolina prisons would conflict with parts of the Communications Act which bar actions to block cell phone signals. The provision in question says that no person shall interfere with any radio communications, including his or her own. Thus, a state law obligation to block the signals inside of prisons would directly conflict with the federal law, making compliance with both impossible.

Finally, it found the Johnsons’ claims were implausible. The court indicated the allegations were “speculative” in nature. The Johnsons’ complaint merely asserted that “an inmate at the prison using a cellphone ordered a coconspirator outside of the prison to kill Captain Johnson.” The Fourth Circuit said the Johnsons failed to offer any further facts to support their claims. Their complaint did not identify the wireless service provider who carried the alleged call, or even when the alleged call occurred. Without more factual allegations, the Fourth Circuit said it would be impossible for a district court to assess the Johnsons’ claims.