Products Liability Law Daily Claims against DuPont, 3M for water contamination illnesses survive dismissal attempt
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Monday, June 25, 2018

Claims against DuPont, 3M for water contamination illnesses survive dismissal attempt

By Leah S. Poniatowski, J.D.

A products liability lawsuit alleging that 3M Co. and E.I. DuPont deNemours and Company did not provide adequate warning with respect to the health and environmental risks associated with perfluorooctanoic acid, which both companies manufactured and sold to other companies, survived the manufacturers’ motion to dismiss, a federal district court in New York ruled (Andrick v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., June 21, 2018, Kahn, L.).

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a chemical used to repel liquids and is used on cookware, fabric, carpeting, and in the manufacture of Teflon. A married couple who were long-time residents of Hoosick Falls, New York developed illnesses they allege result from exposure to PFOA that had contaminated the air and water of the town. The husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 1999 and his wife developed a thyroid disease in 1982. Both of these conditions are known effects of PFOA exposure, and the couple alleges that these illnesses and other risks were known to 3M and DuPont for decades. The couple also alleges that the municipal water system of Village of Hoosick Falls had been contaminated by local manufacturers that purchased and used PFOA, including Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, Corp. and Honeywell International, located in the Village on McCaffrey Street (McCaffrey Site). In January 2016 the site was designated a state Superfund Site after the discovery of hazardous concentrations of PFOA. The couple filed a strict products liability lawsuit, alleging in part that 3M and DuPont failed to warn of PFOA’s hazardous nature. The manufacturers filed the present motion to dismiss.

Statute of limitations. The court determined that, although the couple did not timely file under a provision of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules, another provision of the rules, allowing claims to be filed within three years of a site being designated as a superfund site under either state or federal law, applied in this case. Thus, the court found their claim was timely.

Duty to warn. The court disagreed with the manufacturers that the couple failed to satisfy the duty or causation elements of their failure to warn claim. First, it is established law that manufacturers have a duty to warn against latent dangers arising from the foreseeable use of their products and this duty extends to others beyond the purchasers of the product, including third persons exposed to the risk of harm from the failure to warn. The court clarified that the duty to warn does not extend to a manufacturer warning bystanders. Instead, the purchasers or users of the product must be warned by the manufacturer to use the product in a manner to reduce a bystander’s foreseeable risk of harm. Pursuant to applicable case law, the court held that 3M and DuPont were in a superior position to know of and warn against the dangers of PFOA, and that the substantial costs to the manufacturers in exercising their duty to warn were not overly burdensome. Additionally, finding the manufacturers owed a duty to third parties in this case would not be so expansive that it would expose the manufacturers to unlimited liability to an indeterminate class of potential victims.

Causation. Similar to a causation analysis in asbestos exposure case law, the court explained that it was reasonable to infer that the PFOA in the water and air, and as accumulated by the residents of Hoosick Falls, came from 3M and DuPont because the couple alleged that those manufacturers produced the majority of PFOA used and discharged by the companies at the McCaffrey Site. Accordingly, the allegation against 3M and DuPont was adequate.

Remaining claims. The court also explained that New York courts consider strict products liability and negligence claims to be functionally synonymous and, thus, the couple’s negligence claim was not dismissed because it was based on the same facts as the failure-to-warn claim. Moreover, the spousal derivative claims survived for the same reasons. Therefore, the manufacturers’ motion to dismiss was denied.

This case is No. 1:17-CV-1058 (LEK/DJS).

Attorneys: Eric T. Chaffin (Chaffin Luhana LLP) for Edward Andrick. Douglas E. Fleming (Dechert LLP) and Patrick D. Curran (Quinn, Emanuel Law Firm) for Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp. Allyson Himelfarb (Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP) and Dale A. Desnoyers (Allen & Desnoyers LLP) for Honeywell International Inc. f/k/a Allied-Signal Inc. f/k/a Allied Signal Laminate Systems, Inc. Stephanie E. Niehaus (Squire Patton Boggs [US] LLP) for E.I. DuPont Denemours and Co.

Companies: Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.; Honeywell International Inc. f/k/a Allied-Signal Inc. f/k/a Allied Signal Laminate Systems, Inc.; E.I. DuPont Denemours and Co.

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