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Williams v. Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

May 14, 2018

RHONDA WILLIAMS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
MOSAIC FERTILIZER, LLC, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 8:14-cv-01748-MSS-TGW

          Before TJOFLAT and ROSENBAUM, Circuit Judges, and UNGARO, [*] District Judge.

          OFLAT, Circuit Judge:

         In this toxic tort suit, Rhonda Williams appeals the District Court's grant of summary judgment against her and in favor of Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC ("Mosaic"). Ms. Williams alleged that toxic substances emitted from a factory operated by Mosaic caused or exacerbated various medical conditions from which she suffers, including pulmonary hypertension, obstructive pulmonary disease, and other lung and non-lung-related conditions. The District Court, acting pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S.Ct. 2786 (1993), excluded the opinions of her proffered expert witness, Dr. Franklin Mink. Dr. Mink's opinions were Ms. Williams' only evidence as to general and specific causation. Therefore, upon excluding Dr. Mink's opinions, the Court granted Mosaic's motion for summary judgment with respect to all causes of action requiring a showing of causation. The District Court also excluded Ms. Williams' testimony about the value and salability of her home, and, in the absence of other evidence showing that the value of her home was diminished by Mosaic's alleged contamination of it, granted summary judgment in favor of Mosaic as to the remaining cause of action.

         After careful review of the record, and with the benefit of oral argument, we affirm.

         I.

         Ms. Williams was born in 1967 and has lived her entire life at the same residence in Tampa, Florida. The home, located in the Progress Village neighborhood, is approximately three miles from Mosaic's Riverview plant. She alleged that she suffers from G6PD associated pulmonary hypertension, asthma-related restrictive pulmonary function, obstructive pulmonary disease, airway remodeling, lower lung scarring, allergic reactions, side effects from therapeutic treatments for her lung disorders, extreme fatigue, intense abdominal pain, and diabetes. She alleged that chemicals emitted from Mosaic's facility caused, contributed to, or exacerbated these conditions.

         According to Ms. Williams, Mosaic's operations in and around the Riverview plant involve the production and handling of a number of chemicals, including sulfuric acid, phosphoric acid, fluoride, and ammoniate phosphates. She averred that Mosaic's production of these substances produces emissions, in the form of dust and particulates, of toxic substances that permeate the ambient air in and around her home and community. Some of these include various types of particulate matter, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, manganese, nickel, phosphorous, and zinc.

         In the past, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") and the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission have promulgated data taken from monitoring stations at or near the Riverview plant showing that sulfur dioxide levels in the ambient air at those stations exceeded the National Ambient Air Quality Standard ("NAAQS") of 75 parts per billion. Additionally, Hillsborough County at large has been found in violation of the NAAQS standard, and the ambient air at a monitoring station at the Riverview plant has on multiple occasions been found in violation of Florida's more lenient standard of 100 parts per billion. In addition to these sulfur dioxide emissions, monitoring data at a testing site located near the Riverview facility and Ms. Williams' neighborhood showed, on at least one occasion, that the concentration of PM10 respirable particulates, a respiratory irritant, exceeded the national standard of 150 micrograms based on a one-hour average.

         Ms. Williams alleged six causes of action under Florida law in separate counts: negligence, gross negligence, strict liability, strict liability failure to warn, strict liability for "prohibited discharge" of pollutants, and medical monitoring and environmental testing.[1] To establish general and specific causation, she turned to Dr. Mink. Dr. Mink, an experienced toxicologist, prepared and furnished a summary of his "preliminary expert opinions."

         The report contained sixteen pages of analysis, including a description of Ms. Williams' medical background, information on G6PD deficiency, and a set of "preliminary expert opinions" reached "with a reasonable degree of scientific certainty." Those opinions were:

1) Rhonda Williams has been exposed to significant quantities of regulated pollutants and hazardous materials from both direct and fugitive sources as a result of Mosaic's operations including phosphogypsum mining, processing, storage, transportation and waste handling operations over her lifetime residence in Prospect Village, Florida primarily through inhalation and dermal exposures.
2) Rhonda Williams has developed significant adverse health effects as a result of these hazardous exposures including G6PD associated pulmonary hypertension and obstructive pulmonary disease resulting in a diminished quality of life and potentially reduced life span.
3) Rhonda Williams has developed significant adverse health effects as a result of secondary effects from therapeutic agents used to treat her diseases/symptoms resulting from these exposures further diminishing her quality of life and threatening her long-term physical and mental wellbeing.

         At the end of the analysis section of the report, Dr. Mink listed fifty-eight references. These consisted of various empirical studies, website references, and regulatory documents. Within the body of the analysis, he cited another eighteen sources. None were pin-cited or otherwise annotated to show which portions supported each conclusion.

         After Dr. Mink submitted his preliminary report, Mosaic deposed him. After the deposition, Mosaic moved to exclude Dr. Mink's testimony under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert. Mosaic also moved for summary judgment as to all of Ms. Williams' claims. Ms. Williams filed responses in opposition. Without conducting a Daubert hearing, the District Court granted Mosaic's motion to exclude Dr. Mink's opinion testimony. The Court explained its decision thusly:

[T]he Court concludes that Dr. Mink's expert report and proposed testimony cannot survive a Daubert challenge. Critically, Dr. Mink has neglected the hallmark of the science of toxic torts-the dose response relationship. In and of itself, this is a sufficient basis for excluding his testimony. He also unjustifiably relies on regulatory standards to determine dose, infers facts from studies that contradict his conclusions, fails to consider the background risk for Plaintiff's illnesses, fails to rule out alternative potential causes of Plaintiff's illnesses, and renders speculative and conclusory opinions about Plaintiff's exposure to Mosaic's emissions. All in all, it is clear that Dr. Mink has failed to adhere to the methodology expected of toxicologists in toxic tort cases, and he has not demonstrated a reliable basis for his opinions.

         In its order granting the motion, the Court comprehensively analyzed Dr. Mink's report and methodology, identifying and explaining its primary concerns and others. Because Dr. Mink was Ms. Williams' sole source of causation evidence, the Court, in the same order, granted Mosaic's motion for summary judgment as to all claims requiring a showing of causation.

         When the dust settled, Ms. Williams had one remaining claim: her "prohibited discharge" claim. This claim was brought under Section 376.313 of the Florida Statutes, which confers a private right of action on citizens who suffer damage from a discharge of materials in violation of Florida's environmental standards. For this claim, Ms. Williams alleged that the pollutants and dust from the Riverview plant diminished the value of her home to the point where it was unsellable. Ms. Williams planned to testify on her own behalf as to the value of her home. According to her responses to Mosaic's interrogatories, Ms. Williams believed and planned to testify that "the property has ...


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