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Rubanick v. Witco Chem. Corp.

Supreme Court of New Jersey

March 12, 1991, Argued ; August 1, 1991, Decided

No. A-125

Opinion

 [*424]  [**734]   The opinion of the Court was delivered by

HANDLER, J.

In this case, the Court must determine the standard governing the admissibility of expert evidence relating to the causation of cancer in toxic-tort litigation. The survivors of two men who had worked at a chemical plant where they had been exposed to a toxic substance, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), claim that their decedents' fatal colon cancer was caused by that exposure. The Law Division conducted a hearing to determine whether plaintiffs' expert testimony [***9]   [**735]  that PCBs had caused the fatal colon cancer of the victims was admissible.  [*425]  Applying the conventional rule for determining the admissibility of such testimony, the court found that the expert's theory of causation was not sufficiently reliable because it had not been "accepted by at least a substantial minority of the applicable scientific community," and granted summary judgment for defendants. See 225 N.J. Super. 485, 542 A.2d 975 (1988).

A divided panel of the Appellate Division reversed the trial court. It determined that the conventional "general acceptance" test of reliability for theories of causation that are novel and controversial is inadequate in toxic-tort cases. It concluded that a different test of testimonial reliability, one focusing on the soundness of the foundation for the novel scientific theory of causation, is required in toxic-tort litigation. Finding plaintiffs' expert testimony admissible under that standard, it remanded the case to trial. See 242 N.J. 36, 576 A.2d 4 (1990).

Ronald G. Rubanick worked for the Witco Chemical Corporation (Witco) at its plant in Perth Amboy from 1974 through 1979. In 1979 he was diagnosed as suffering [***10]  from colon cancer. He died of the cancer on July 23, 1980, at the age of twenty-nine. About three-and-one half years after Rubanick's death, Anthony DeMaio, a thirty-year Witco employee, was also diagnosed as suffering from colon cancer. He died of the disease on June 29, 1984, at the age of fifty-two.

Plaintiffs, survivors of Rubanick and DeMaio, brought separate actions, which were heard together in the Appellate Division. Each complaint alleged that the individual decedent's exposure to PCBs caused the decedent's colon cancer and ultimate death. Defendant Monsanto Company (Monsanto) had sold witco PCB fluids, under the trade-name Therminal, beginning in 1969 and continuing until some time prior to 1976.

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125 N.J. 421 *; 593 A.2d 733 **; 1991 N.J. LEXIS 85 ***; 60 U.S.L.W. 2112; 22 ELR 20222

PATRICIA RUBANICK, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF RONALD G. RUBANICK, AND PATRICIA RUBANICK, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS GUARDIAN AD LITEM FOR DAMIEN RUBANICK & RONALD G. RUBANICK, INFANTS, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, v. WITCO CHEMICAL CORP., (FOR DISCOVERY), WITCO CHEMICAL CORP., ABC CORP., (A FICTITIOUS CORPORATION); DEF CORP., (A FICTITIOUS CORPORATION); ALAN DOE, (IDENTITY UNKNOWN); CARL DOE, (IDENTITY UNKNOWN), DEFENDANTS, AND MONSANTO COMPANY, (FORMERLY MONSANTO CHEMICAL CORP.), DEFENDANT-APPELLANT. OMBRA DEMAIO, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF ANTHONY DEMAIO, AND OMBRA DEMAIO, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT, v. WITCO CHEMICAL CORP., (FOR DISCOVERY), WITCO CHEMICAL CORP., ABC CORP., (A FICTITIOUS CORPORATION); DEF CORP., (A FICTITIOUS CORPORATION), ALAN DOE, (IDENTITY UNKNOWN), CARL DOE, (IDENTITY UNKNOWN), DEFENDANTS, AND MONSANTO COMPANY (FORMERLY MONSANTO CHEMICAL CORP.), DEFENDANT-APPELLANT

Prior History:  [***1]  On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 242 N.J. Super. 36 (1990).

CORE TERMS

scientific, causation, cancer, reliability, plaintiffs', exposure, expert testimony, studies, methodology, toxic-tort, scientific community, epidemiological, disease, general acceptance, colon cancer, courts, trial court, carcinogen, effects, reasonably rely, birth defect, carcinogenesis, spermicide, assess, causal connection, toxicological, scientists, chemical, animals, cases

Evidence, Admissibility, Expert Witnesses, Helpfulness, Types of Evidence, Testimony, General Overview, Expert Witnesses, Environmental Law, Hazardous Wastes & Toxic Substances, Toxic Torts, Scientific Evidence