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Roberts v. United States

April 18, 1963


Author: Sheridan

Before McLAUGHLIN and HASTIE, Circuit Judges, and SHERIDAN, District Judge.

SHERIDAN, District Judge.

This is an appeal by defendant-appellant, Union Carbide Corporation, from a judgment entered on a jury verdict in favor of Everett Melvin Roberts, plaintiff-appellee, and from the denial of motions for a directed verdict and a new trial.*fn1

Plaintiff, 28 years old at the time of trial, brought an action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey against Union Carbide Corporation, Dow Chemical Co.*fn2 and the United States of America,*fn3 defendants, to recover damages for personal injuries resulting from the negligence of the defendants during the time plaintiff was employed as a mechanic at Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Plaintiff contended defendant manufactured and sold an inherently dangerous substance, ethylene glycol, and failed to warn users of its dangerous nature and its adverse effect on their lives, health and limbs, and that plaintiff suffered severe and permanent injuries which were caused by close contact with and exposure to the ethylene glycol. The jury returned a verdict of $210,000 in favor of plaintiff and against defendant.

This is a diversity case. The district court had jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C.A. § 1332. The substantive law of New Jersey applies.

Defendant's principal arguments on appeal are that the evidence did not establish either a causal relationship or a foreseeable risk, and that the court erred in permitting certain expert testimony.

Plaintiff is entitled to the benefit of every inference which reasonably can be drawn from the evidence most favorable to him. Ayers v. Parry et al., 3 Cir., 1951, 192 F.2d 181. The evidence most favorable to plaintiff supports the following, which we accept. Plaintiff was employed as a mechanic by All American Engineering Co. on premises of the United States at Lakehurst, New Jersey, from January to December, 1957. As part of his duties he worked on hydraulic arresting gear, which was being experimentally tested for use by the United States Navy on aircraft carriers. He tested the gear for leaks by filling it with ethylene glycol and then bleeding it to release residual air. About 350 gallons of ethylene glycol were used in this process. Defendant was the manufacturer of the ethylene glycol, which was delivered in 50-55 gallon drums labelled, "Union Carbide". There was no warning to users.

Each time the gear was filled with ethylene glycol, the valves had to be bled several times. There were six valves, each with a 5/16th inch opening. Plaintiff bled these valves from four to six times on each weekday from February through April. Starting with the lowest valve, plaintiff placed a small container to catch the fluid that ran out as he opened the valve to release the air. As the pressure increased, he bled the upper valves. He opened the top valve, which was at eye level, with a wrench in one hand and caught the fluid in a bucket held in the other hand. First came a puff of air, then a mist or fog of ethylene glycol, and then the fluid. The mist and fluid spurted under 400 pounds of pressure and came in contact with his shoulders and head. Another valve emitted ethylene glycol mist from the stomach area upwards into his face. Mist and fluid from a third valve, also at eye level, sprayed upon his head and shoulders. Fluid from another valve poured into the container at great pressure, causing it to splash on plaintiff's face, chest and arms. A mist or fog of ethylene glycol was present during the entire bleeding operation. While the building in which plaintiff worked had six windows, the only ventilation came from a door when someone entered or left the building.

In June, 1957 plaintiff experienced difficulty with his vision for the first time. In August, 1957 he failed to pass his automobile driver's test because of defective vision. In December, 1957 he was forced to leave his employment at Lakehurst. He worked at odd jobs until December, 1959, but has not been employed since that time.

Plaintiff is suffering from bilateral retrobulbar optic neuritis, or an inflammation of the optic nerve heads in each eye, posterior to and at the entrance to the eyeball. He has lost all vision in his left eye, and has only about 10 to 20 percent vision in his right eye. This condition is irreversible. He also has ceco. central scotoma, or a blind spot in his vision directly in front of him, is afflicted with other nerve and organic disorders, and suffers from severe depression. He is totally and permanently incapacitated with confinement to a wheel chair probable within a year. His life expectancy is not more than 10 years. All of these conditions are the direct result of exposure to ethylene glycol. Prior to employment at Lakehurst, plaintiff was in excellent health.

Defendant attacks plaintiff's expert witnesses because their conclusions were not based on personal knowledge or familiarity with ethylene glycol, and because they had no knowledge of harmful effects from ethylene glycol other than through oral ingestion.

Dr. Lam, a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist who treated the plaintiff, and Dr. Brieger, a specialist in internal, preventive, and occupational medicine, and toxicology, testified without objection to their qualifications. Defendant did not move to strike their testimony. Each had an impressive background and substantial experience in dealing with disorders caused by toxic substances. Each was familiar with literature on the toxic effects of ethylene glycol when orally ingested. Dr. Brieger had performed experiments in which rats were subjected to ethylene glycol mist. While neither knew cases, other than of oral ingestion, in which ethylene glycol had neurotoxic effects, both concluded that plaintiff's disorder was a toxic disease of his nervous system caused by exposure to ethylene glycol. This testimony was for the jury. It was not destroyed because their only experience or knowledge had been with cases of oral ingestion. Trowbridge v. Abrasive Co. of Philadelphia, 3 Cir., 1951, 190 F.2d 825; 2 Wigmore, Evidence § 569 (3d ed. 1940).

Defendant points to the testimony of Dr. Lam that in all cases of neurotoxic effects from ethylene glycol known to him there was kidney damage, and that he observed no kidney damage to the plaintiff. This is not significant in view of the other testimony. Dr. Lam testified that certain tests made prior to his examination showed that plaintiff had had some kidney injury, but that by the time kidney tests were administered by him, the kidney had regenerated; that the kidney can withstand a considerable degree of insult and recover; and that if the optic nerve is atrophied, it will not regenerate. There was similar testimony ...

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