Sixth Circuit Upholds Rule 11 Sanctions for “Meritless” Medical Monitoring Claims
In a decision that may discourage the assertion of certain medical monitoring claims, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld $250,000 in sanctions on Plaintiffs’ counsel for filing “meritless” medical monitoring claims against Chevron, USA, Inc. See Baker v. Chevron, U.S.A. Inc., No. 11-4369 (6th Cir. Aug. 2, 2013), available at www.bdlaw.com/assets/attachments/BakervChevron.pdf. The court further found that Plaintiffs had offered insufficient proof for their personal injury and property damage claims. Baker, slip op. at 17-28.
Plaintiffs, approximately 200 former and current neighbors of a Chevron refinery, filed claims stemming from Chevron’s activities at its crude oil refinery in Ohio. Id. at 1-2. Chevron acknowledged that the refinery was responsible for considerable environmental contamination, including hazardous air emissions and the cumulative release of approximately 8 million gallons of gasoline that had seeped into the soil and formed a groundwater plume in the vicinity of the refinery. Id. Plaintiffs fell into three categories: (1) individuals claiming personal injuries from air emissions from the refinery; (2) individuals seeking medical monitoring damages related to plume and soil vapor exposure and (3) individuals claiming property damage from the plume and soil vapors. Id. at 2.
In its review, the district court bifurcated the personal injury Plaintiffs from the property damage Plaintiffs and adopted a bellwether approach in analyzing each category of Plaintiffs’ claims. Id. After excluding two of Plaintiffs’ experts as unreliable, the court granted summary judgment to Chevron on all claims. Id. at 2, 14. The court also granted Chevron’s motion for Rule 11 sanctions, finding that Plaintiffs’ counsel unreasonably pursued the medical monitoring damages despite being aware that the Plaintiffs lacked the individualized exposure data necessary to substantiate their claims. Id. at 2, 15.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to impose Rule 11 sanctions on Plaintiffs’ counsel. Id. at 36. The court explained in establishing medical monitoring damages in Ohio, Plaintiffs’ needed to establish present “increased risk” of contracting serious diseases. Id. at 33. By knowingly pursuing meritless medical monitoring claims, Plaintiffs’ counsel acted unreasonably, therefore, Rule 11 sanctions were appropriate. Id. at 32-36. In addition, the Sixth Circuit upheld the District Court’s dismissal of Plaintiffs’ personal injury and property damage claims, agreeing that Plaintiffs had failed to offer sufficient proof that releases from the refinery caused their injuries. Id. at 21, 28