On January 13, 2014, the New York State Court of Appeals heard oral argument in the appeal of Cornell v. 360 W. 51st Realty, which is the latest First Department word on whether and when a claim alleging bodily injury due to mold can survive for presentment to a jury.
Cornell was decided by the First Department on March 6, 2012, and is generally regarded to have made it easier for a plaintiff’s mold claim to survive summary judgment under a Frye analysis. (Frye requires that for a plaintiff’s claim to survive, it must be generally accepted in the relevant scientific community that the offending agent (mold, asbestos, etc.) causes the claimed injury.)
A decision is likely months away but if the questions from the Court of Appeals bench during oral argument are any indication, Cornell stands an excellent chance of reversal or modification.
The Justices focused primarily on the difference between the word “causation”, and the term “association”. While science recognizes many associations, it recognizes far fewer causations -- and that is the entire point of Frye. If the relevant scientific community does not generally accept that A (e.g., mold) causes B (e.g., asthma), then plaintiff cannot prove causation and must be turned away. The Cornell plaintiff showed “association” between mold and illness; will that be enough for plaintiff’s case to survive for presentment to a jury?
About two years ago, this firm handled a Frye hearing in Supreme Court, Kings County in which the sitting Justice presciently asked the same question the Court of Appeals just did -- what is the difference between causation and association? In other words, do scientists (doctors) use “association” to mean the same thing that a layperson means by “causation”? This question gets at the very root of the confusion in some of the case law on whether to allow expert testimony under Frye.
Hypotheticals, some absurd, highlight the issue. There may be a strong association between men with grey hair, and mortality; or between membership in a sailing club, and sunburn; or between those who make appointments with Dr. Smith, and sickness. But it would never be argued seriously that the former causes the latter. That, in a nutshell, is why New York requires proof that causation is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.
So Cornell will likely turn on whether the Court of Appeals views causation and association as starkly different as these examples illustrate, or whether it accepts the more highbrow argument that causation and association are the same thing, differing only in the degree of experimental proof available for each.
- APX 1/16/14