Louisiana Court of Appeals Gives Deference in Chemical Exposure Case

In September 2006, Georgia Gulf Lake Charles, LLC’s Westlake facility suffered a fire and explosion. Because of the fire and explosion, hazardous chemicals were released into the air. Several people filed suit because of the medical complications that the exposure caused. Georgia Gulf stipulated that it was the cause of the chemical release, but argued that the release did not cause the Plaintiff’s medical complications and that it should not be charged damages. The trial court disagreed and awarded the Plaintiffs damages. Georgia Gulf appealed.

Georgia Gulf’s major concerns were about two major decisions of the trial court. The first was that the trial court excluded their expert witness. Second, the lower court found a link between the Plaintiff’s symptoms and the chemical exposure, which Georgia Gulf argued did not really exist.

In Louisiana, the Court of Appeals reviews these types of decisions with great deference to the lower court. The lower court gets to see all of the witnesses and hear the testimony whereas the Court of Appeals generally does not. As such, the lower court may be a better judge of character and credibility because they actually see the person making the testimony and can observe their demeanor and evaluate how truthful they seem. The court is set up in this way so that people do not have to come back repeatedly to testify and attorneys do not have to present the same evidence to different people again; it is a matter of convenience and timesaving for everyone involved.

The standard that the Court of Appeals uses to evaluate the exclusion of experts is “abuse of discretion.” That is, the court will consider whether the lower court made an arbitrary decision or whether it had good reason to exclude the expert. The court may not agree with the lower court, but whether they agree is not relevant for the standard.

In this case, the lower court argued that the expert was not using the proper standard to evaluate the case. Defendant’s expert used a “scientific certainty” standard to evaluate the information that he was presented. However, the required standard for experts in Louisiana is based on La. Code Evid. Art. 702. It does not include the requirement to have “a reasonable degree of medical and scientific certainty.” Instead, the standard is simply preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not.

Since the expert did not use the correct standard to evaluate the information, the lower court determined that although he had done an extensive amount of work the case, it was not relevant because he was using the wrong standard. The court pointed out the great deference required to the lower court and did not determine that the lower court abused its discretion by excluding the expert witness due to relevancy concerns.

The next issue was the causation issue. The lower court found a link between the Plaintiff’s medical conditions and the chemicals that were released into the air. A legal cause has a proximate relation to the harm involved. The court defines proximate relation as a “continuous sequence, unbroken by any efficient, intervening cause [and] produce[s the] result complained of.” The court explains that if the cause had not occurred, then the harm would not have happened. In this case, the lower court found that the eyewitnesses to the chemical exposure and medical records proved the link between the chemicals and the harm.

The Court of Appeals reviews causation issues through a manifest error standard. That is, the court asked if the lower court had something to base their decision on and was that basis a reasonable one. Even if the Court of Appeals does not agree with the outcome, they will still give the lower court the benefit of the doubt if the lower court was not clearly in error.

In this case, the Court of Appeals found that the lower court could have found a connection between the harm and the chemical exposure, so there was no manifest error. As a result, the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision in both of the contested issues and awarded damages to those affected by the chemical exposure.

It can be difficult to get around the required standards of review at the Court of Appeals level. That is one of the many reasons that it is so important to have a good, solid case at the trial level. An excellent attorney is important to presenting your case.

If you have legal issues, call The Berniard Law Firm today and we would be happy to discuss your legal options.