Iowa Supreme Court splits over causation requirement for a toxic tort claim

by Ami Penquite | June 27, 2023

In an opinion filed June 23, 2023, the Iowa Supreme Court held a plaintiff suing her employer’s landlord for exposure to toxic chemicals at work did not present sufficient evidence to create a material dispute of fact concerning whether the exposure caused her permanent lung injury. Justice McDermott, joined by Chief Justice Christensen and Justices Waterman and Mansfield, wrote the majority opinion. Justice McDonald filed a dissent, joined by Justice Oxley. Justice May took no part in the decision of the case.

The Graham Group, Inc. owned and operated the medical office building where plaintiff Jacqueline Uhler worked. In response to a clogged sink, maintenance staff in the office building used a chemical drain cleaner to unclog the sink. Soon after, employees on the third and fourth floor of the building began making reports of a rotten smell and 11 people reported feeling ill. Uhler experienced a headache, nausea, difficulty breathing, and went home early from work. Two days after the incident, Uhler’s doctor diagnosed her with permanent lung injury and her preexisting asthma worsened.

Uhler sued Graham Group under a premises liability cause of action. The District Court, after discovery, granted Graham Group’s motion for summary judgment, finding “Uhler had failed to present sufficient evidence that the chemical fumes caused the permanent lung injury that she alleges.” The Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court, and the Iowa Supreme Court took the case up on further review.

Justice McDermott, writing for the majority, disagreed with Uhler’s characterization of her claim as a premise liability cause of action, and instead determined the claim was a toxic tort cause of action. Toxic tort claims require a showing of general causation (the substance was capable of causing the alleged injury) and specific causation (exposure to the substance caused the specific injury in question).

Uhler argued the chemical drain cleaner’s safety data sheet warned of her type of injury and thus raised an issue of fact as to causation for her injury. However, Justice McDermott determined that was not enough evidence to establish a genuine dispute of material fact. “Uhler needed to present evidence of the level of her exposure to the toxin and that that level could cause the injury she alleges.”

Justice McDermott stated evidence of a temporal connection between exposure to the chemical and ill employees in the office was also not enough evidence without an expert opinion. An expert needed to establish the level of chemical exposure Uhler experienced was capable of causing her permanent lung injury. None of Uhler’s experts presented evidence as to the concentration of the chemicals Uhler was exposed to or if such concentrated was capable of causing the alleged injury. A toxicology expert was necessary to establish that evidence.

Without evidence concerning the concentration of the chemical and its affects, Justice McDermott reasoned, “a jury is left to speculate, and speculation won’t do.” The Court held the claim was properly dismissed on summary judgment because without expert evidence the jury could not answer questions of general and specific causation.

In dissent, Justice McDonald argued the bifurcated general and specific causation analysis was not applicable in this case. He explained the bifurcated analysis was “inappropriate and not useful because ‘the plaintiff can prove the causal role of the defendant’s tortious conduct by observation, based upon reasonable inferences drawn from everyday experience and a close temporal and spatial connection between that conduct and the harm. Often no other potential causes of injury exist.’”

In this case, there was a single exposure and the injury to Uhler occurred almost immediately after. The evidence presented by Uhler—the chemical’s data safety sheet, the close temporal and spatial relationship between the chemical’s use and the illness of several employees including Uhler, Graham Group admitting the employee’s cause of harm was the chemical exposure, and Uhler’s medical expert that opined about her injury and preexisting condition— was sufficient to establish the issue of causation for the jury.

Justice McDonald argued the general causation evidence asked for by the Court may be impossible to acquire and was unnecessary “because the close temporal and spatial relationship between the defendant’s use of [the chemical] and the onset of simultaneous injury to at least eleven people within the building is sufficient to establish both general and specific causation.” Justice McDonald urged the bifurcated test should not become a bright-line rule for future toxic tort claims.




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A defendant’s right under the Iowa Constitution to confront witnesses at trial is not satisfied by one-way video testimony where the witness testifying on camera is not able to see the defendant, the Iowa Supreme Court held in a 4-3 ruling handed down June 28. In reaching that conclusion, the Court declined to follow a U.S. Supreme Court precedent and overruled one of its own prior rulings.

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The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in nine cases during April 2024.  Opinions from April not covered elsewhere on the blog are summarized below.



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