Medical Expert required to establish Link between Chlorine Leak and RADS in Negligence Suit

Introduction

In the case of Higgins v Koch Development Corporation [2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 12491], the US Court of Appeals held that a medical expert was required to prove the causation of the onset of RADS in the plaintiff by the chlorine leak that the plaintiff was exposed to at the amusement park run by the defendant corporation. The Court also held that a practicing physician experienced with a particular disease cannot be automatically considered to be an expert in the factors leading to the causation of that disease. The Court also held the methodology employed by the medical expert to be insufficient and upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss the case.

Background

On a certain day when the plaintiff had visited an amusement park run by the defendants, there was a pump malfunction in the park’s lazy river. While the problem was being fixed, there was a build-up of the chemicals in the pool and this was released into the atmosphere near the park after the ride was restarted. The plaintiff alleged that exposure to these chemicals, specifically chlorine gas was responsible for him developing asthma and RADS. The plaintiff initially argued that there was no requirement for him to use an expert to prove negligence on part of the defendant. The alternative argument that was raised by the plaintiff in this case was that his physician could serve as the expert. The district court held against the plaintiff on both these grounds. Firstly, the causation was too complex to be proven without expert testimony. Secondly, the district court found the methodology applied by the physician was too inadequate to be held as expert testimony. The Court of Appeals upheld the district court’s view on both counts.

Discussion

The Court discussed the prevailing law in Indiana on this issue and referred to the decision in Myers v Ill Cent [629 F.3d 639, 641-42 (7th Cir. 2010)]. It has been held consistently that such cases of negligence require two levels of proof of causation. Firstly, at the general level, it has to be proved that the substance in question has the ability to cause the harm alleged. Secondly, specifically, it has to be shown that the particular ailment suffered by the plaintiff is caused by the relevant substance. The district thus correctly held that the plaintiff required an expert to prove specific causation i.e., that the chlorine fumes caused him to develop RADS. The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court and held that the injury caused to plaintiff was not obvious enough to not require an expert. The Court distinguished the cases that were cited by the plaintiff because in those cases the causation was obvious (for example damage caused to the leg by a car hitting an individual). The plaintiff argued that the damage to his lungs was obvious but he could not prove the amount of chlorine that has entered his lungs was capable of causing the damage he alleged it had. The Court refused to accept this logic and held that in such non-obvious cases of causation, expert opinion was required.

In the second part, the plaintiff argued that his physician, Dr. Haacke was competent to give expert testimony on the causation. However the district court found the methodology employed by the doctor to be too unreliable because she had for the most part depended on the description of the plaintiff for her diagnosis. Secondly, the plaintiff failed to prove the qualifications of his doctor to be an expert under Rule 702 of the Federal Rules of Evidence. Rule 702 requires the expert to be both qualified and reliable. Using the case of Lang v Kohl’s Food Store [17 F.3d 919, 924 (7th Cir.2000)], the Court held that the evidence lacked the methodological rigour required to bring it under the ambit of expert testimony.