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New York Court Discusses Issue of Epidemiology

Epidemiology itself is certainly not novel. It is defined as (1) a branch of medical science that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of disease in a population; [or] (2) the sum of the factors controlling the presence or absence of a disease or pathogen. It is a science which focuses on the question of general. Epidemiological studies, such as those conducted by the City and plaintiffs, are similarly not novel. In addition, numerous courts have held that this field of science is the primary generally accepted methodology for demonstrating a causal relation between a chemical compound and a set of symptoms or a disease. At least one court has noted that epidemiological evidence is indispensable in toxic and carcinogenic personal injury tort actions where direct proof of causation is lacking.

Plaintiffs’ toxicological evidence is similarly admissible without a Frye hearing. Toxicology is likewise not a novel field of science. Rather, classically it is known as the science of poisons. In fact, the City’s argument is not that the field is novel, but that plaintiffs’ toxicological submissions fail to show causation because they do not give a specific dose-response relationship19 between the carcinogens in the landfill and plaintiffs’ cancers.

Citing Parker v Mobil Oil Corp, a case involving an individual plaintiff who claimed that exposure to benzene on the job caused him to contract acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), the dissent adopts the City’s argument. In Parker, the Second Department dismissed the action because the plaintiff’s experts did not quantify the level of benzene to which plaintiff had been exposed on the job, or provide the dose-response relationship between benzene and AML.

The holding in that case cannot be applied to the facts here because no scientist could make an accurate measurement of the doses of the combined carcinogens to which these plaintiffs were exposed. The federal reference manual instructs that dose-response relationships are only one of nine factors which can lead an epidemiologist to draw a causal inference. It is not the dispositive measure here.

Instead, Dr. Neugebauer conducted a study following proper epidemiological methods, and after comparing his results with other studies and expert opinions, he concluded that there was a causal connection between the Pelham Bay landfill and plaintiffs’ cancers. It was a proper exercise of the IAS court’s discretion to allow the introduction of his conclusions, subject to cross-examination, and subject to the introduction of the City’s expert findings which came to opposite personal injury conclusions.

It also bears noting that in Annunziato v City of New York, an action was dismissed upon Dr. Neugebauer’s conclusion that any alleged link between the Staten Island landfill and plaintiffs’ cancers was still in the hypothetical stage. As discussed, supra, epidemiological reports, such as those submitted in this case, are essential to proving medical causation in toxic tort cases. Dr. Neugebauer and other experts completed epidemiological reports, some concluding there was a causal connection between the landfill and plaintiffs’ cancers, and others coming to a conclusion that a causal link had not been established. Dr. Neugebauer’s opinion was based upon a statistically significant increase in incidence of the type of cancers suffered by plaintiffs in the area closest to the hazardous site. As discussed, the specific methodologies of the experts and the validity of their conclusions are subjects for trial, and not a basis for summary disposition of the action.

Unlike Parker, this case does not involve one plaintiff alleging that exposure to one carcinogen from one source caused cancer. This litigation arose from a community with a disproportionate incidence of fatal cancers in an area surrounding a landfill containing approximately one million gallons of hazardous waste. It is uncontested that accident defendant allowed years of illegal dumping of what are known to be carcinogens at the Pelham Bay landfill, and one of plaintiffs’ experts identified four exposure pathways through which these plaintiffs could have been poisoned by the dumped carcinogens. It is uncontested that the landfill was closed because it contained unacceptable levels of carcinogens. Proper methods of containing the spread of hazardous materials through a variety of exposure pathways were concededly not implemented.

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