Law School Case Brief
Burst v. Shell Oil Co. - 104 F. Supp. 3d 773 (E.D. La. 2015)
Fed. R. Evid. 702 requires the district court to act as a gatekeeper to ensure that any and all scientific testimony or evidence admitted is not only relevant, but reliable. The court's gatekeeping function thus involves a two-part inquiry into reliability and relevance. At the second step, the court must determine whether the expert's reasoning or methodology is relevant. The question here is whether the reasoning or methodology "fits" the facts of the case and will thereby assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence.
On June 20, 2013, physicians diagnosed Bernard Burst, Jr. with acute myeloid leukemia. He was 71 years old. He passed away as a result of the leukemia on Dec. 21, 2013. Bernard's wife, plaintiff Yolande Burst, filed a products liability action in federal district court against defendants Shell Oil Co., Chevron U.S.A. Inc., and Texaco, Inc. She alleged that Bernard worked at various gas stations owned or operated by defendants from 1958 through 1971, during which time he regularly used products manufactured, supplied, distributed, and sold by defendants. Specifically, she alleged that he would regularly come into contact with gasoline containing benzene. She alleged that such exposure caused Bernard's leukemia. She claimed that defendants negligently manufactured and sold products containing benzene and that they negligently failed to warn foreseeable users about the health hazards associated with these products. She also alleged strict products liability. As evidence of Bernard's exposure to benzene through his use of defendants' products, Yolanda relied on an expert report from Richard Miller, an industrial hygienist. In the report, Miller provided an estimate of Bernard's cumulative exposure to benzene from gasoline while working at a certain gas station over a one-year period between 1966 and 1968. Defendants filed a motion to exclude Miller's opinions on the ground that they were unreliable and irrelevant.
Was Miller's testimony unreliable and irrelevant?
The district court held that Miller’s estimate of Bernard's benzene exposure from inhaling gasoline evaporated from the parts-washing bucket was unreliable under Fed. R. Evid. 702 because he failed to validate his results against studies, including at least one cited in his own report, showing that the corresponding gasoline vapor levels required to expose a person to that much benzene would be so high as to be lethal within a matter of minutes. Miller's estimate of Bernard's dermal exposure to benzene from washing parts was unreliable because his assumption that Bernard's hands and forearms were wet with gasoline for a minimum of 1.25 hours per day and a maximum of 10.5 hours per day was inconsistent with the factual record and failed to account for evaporation.
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