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Tort/Negligence – No duty to warn about wood dust

Where the plaintiff alleged his cancer was caused by exposure to wood dust from 1981-1992, but the link between wood dust and cancer was not known at the time, judgment was granted to the lumber manufacturers.

Background

Christopher Lightfoot maintains that his cancer was caused by his exposure to wood dust while working in his father’s backyard woodshop from when he was 6 to when he was 18. He commenced this action, alleging that defendants produced the lumber that Lightfoot’s father used in his woodshop and are liable to him for damages because they failed to warn his father that wood dust causes cancer.

The district court granted the defendants summary judgment, concluding, among other things, that during the exposure period, the defendants did not have a duty to warn Lightfoot’s father that wood dust causes cancer because that fact was not known at the time as part of the “state of the art.”

Analysis

The district court concluded that neither the National Toxicology Program, or NTP, nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, nor the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, indicated before 1995 that wood dust causes cancer. The court noted also that Lightfoot “has not brought forth any other ‘available knowledge’ of carcinogenicity of wood dust constituting state of the art during the exposure period.”

Lightfoot argues first that the district court’s reading of the state of the art was too narrow, placing too much weight on the conclusion announced by OSHA in 1995. He argues that the district court essentially established an “OSHA litmus test,” abrogating manufacturers’ duty to reasonably inform themselves. But this argument itself reads the district court’s analysis too narrowly.

Lightfoot next contends that the state of the art is best ascertained by looking to the studies that underlie the IARC monographs, which date from the 1960s and which, as he argues, show links between wood dust and cancer. Yet IARC, the world’s expert cancer-research body, reviewed those studies in the 1980s and did not draw a general causal connection between wood dust and nasal cancer.

Lightfoot’s argument also implies that a manufacturer or seller has a duty to react to each of the many studies conducted over the years, however isolated or cutting edge. But such an argument does not take account of the applicable reasonableness standard, which imputes to a manufacturer or seller only that knowledge which it, “in the exercise of ordinary care,” should have had.

And it also does not take account of the fact that only the state of the art is imputed to manufacturers and sellers—the culmination of evidence or the synthesis of scientific studies. Given IARC’s superior vantage point in collecting, assessing and evaluating all the relevant studies and data about whether a given material is carcinogenic, its conclusions drawn from these studies and data better reflect the state of the art than any individual study.

Lightfoot argues further that, even if the court is limited to the conclusions drawn by IARC in its 1981 monograph, it should nonetheless conclude that wood dust was then recognized as carcinogenic. He relies on several isolated statements taken from that monograph. But these generalized statements are not the equivalent of a conclusion that wood dust itself is carcinogenic.

Lightfoot also argues that the state of the art includes knowledge beyond that found in IARC materials and their underlying studies. The court disagrees. Finally Lightfoot argues that the district court erroneously excluded the opinions of his two expert witnesses who construed the 1981 IARC monograph and the 1987 NIOSH review as concluding that wood dust was carcinogenic. The court agrees that the experts’ interpretations of the documents were irrelevant because the documents spoke for themselves. Additionally the experts’ opinions were unreliable because the experts failed to explain adequately how they drew from the statements identified the conclusion that wood dust is an out-and-out carcinogen.

Affirmed.

Concurrence

(Wynn, J.): The question presented by this case is “whether the state of the art during Lightfoot’s exposure period,” as derived from the record evidence provided by the parties, “indicated that wood dust causes cancer such that defendants had a duty to warn Lightfoot’s father about that danger.” Had the parties placed different evidence into the record, our conclusion as to the state of the art during the exposure period may have been different.

Lightfoot v. Georgia-Pacific Wood Products LLC (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-146-21, 22 pp.) (Paul V. Niemeyer, J.) (James A. Wynn, Jr., J., concurring) Case No. 20-1334. July 14, 2021. From E.D.N.C. at Wilmington (Louise W. Flanagan, J.) Sean Reed Cox for Appellant. Paul K. Sun Jr. for Appellees.


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