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The California Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling, found that the citizens of Redlands, California, had no basis for filing a class action toxic tort lawsuit again the Lockheed Martin Corporation. The ruling in Carrillo v. Lockheed Martin both clarified the terms upon which mass medical tort claims may be filed, and debunked the increasingly common notion that "medical monitoring" is always a reasonable response when people are exposed to hazardous chemicals.
The suit has its origins in the Lockheed Martin Corporation's disposal of chemical waste over a forty-year period. Beginning in 1954, Lockheed Martin had discharged numerous chemicals into the groundwater in Redlands, affecting its water supply. The plaintiffs alleged that Lockheed Martin's carelessness posed a threat to the health of Redlands' citizens. Their suit sought to establish two classes for everyone who had been exposed to the Redlands water for six months or more since 1955: a punitive damages class and a medical monitoring class.
The trial court found that the plaintiffs had a "well-defined community of interest" and that common questions of law and fact outweighed individual ones; it thereby certified the two classes. The appellate court overturned that ruling, but when a further appeal by the plaintiffs took the case to the California Supreme Court, Atlantic Legal became involved.
On behalf of a group of medical experts in epidemiology, toxicology, and public health, Atlantic Legal filed an amicus brief designed to clarify the issues in the case. Our brief demonstrated two related points: That the original ruling was based on profoundly unsound science; and that the original ruling also failed to adhere to the established criteria for class actions.
Atlantic Legal's brief noted that, on a scientific level, the plaintiffs' claim made no sense. The chemicals to which Redlands citizens had been exposed had no demonstrable effect on their collective health: one has not been shown to cause cancer in humans, while the other had not increased cancer rates beyond those one would expect for the general population. The claim that medical monitoring was needed was thus unjustified. It was also, we observed, entirely impractical. There is no such thing as "cancer screening," only screening for specific kinds of cancers. To monitor upwards of 100,000 people--the number that would potentially be included in the class action--for early signs of an unspecified, unspecifiable cancer would be to attempt to monitor them for early signs of all cancers. This in turn would involve repeatedly subjecting a large population to an inordinate number of unwarranted and tremendously expensive tests, some of which are themselves invasive and potentially harmful.
Our brief further explained that the illogic on what the plaintiffs' medical monitoring claim was based extended to the court's assessment of the validity of the class action. A toxic tort claim of this sort, we argued, cannot be made en masse: Individuals vary too much in their levels of exposure, in their lifestyles, and in their medical histories. It simply is not possible to assess a widely diverse group's potential vulnerability to disease when individual factors are so important in determining that vulnerability. We concluded by noting that the common issues that must predominate in class action suits were simply not present in this case.
In an opinion that closely tracked the arguments laid out in Atlantic Legal's brief, the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's judgment. The Court's recognition that plaintiffs bear the burden of establishing a viable basis for class action is of landmark importance in a legal climate that is increasingly tolerant of both toxic tort claims and class actions. Though the court acknowledged that a medical monitoring claim might legitimately form the basis of a class action, the court also emphasized that the evidentiary standards for class actions are no less stringent than those for personal injury suits. As such, the Court sent the strong message that class action may not be used to prosecute claims that could not be pursued successfully on an individual basis. Atlantic Legal Foundation is proud to have played a significant role in this pivotal case.