Superior Court panel affirms defense judgment to Rohm & Haas in brain cancer death case

By Jon Campisi | Dec 9, 2013

A Pennsylvania appellate court panel has upheld a lower court ruling that

granted summary judgment to Rohm & Haas in a suit initiated by the widow of a brain cancer victim, determining that the trial judge properly dismissed the litigation because a plaintiff’s expert witness failed to conclusively demonstrate that chemicals used by the defendant led to the worker’s disease.

The three-judge Superior Court panel, in a Dec. 6 opinion, affirmed an April 17, 2012, decision by a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge granting judgment in favor of Rohm & Haas Co. in a case initiated by Anne Snizavich.

The woman filed suit on behalf of her late husband, Joseph Snizavich, a pipefitter for Welsch Co. who worked for much of his 13 years with the company at the Rohm & Haas plant in Spring House, Montgomery County.

Joseph Snizavich engaged in various contracting jobs at the suburban Philadelphia facility, such as working on air conditioning, refrigeration, and assembly and disassembly of the environmental chambers at the site, the record shows.

The man was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2005 and succumbed to the disease three years later.

His widow filed suit against Rohm & Haas in April 2009, accusing the company of wrongful death.

Anne Snizavich claimed that her husband’s brain cancer was caused by exposure to chemicals while working at the Spring House plant, and that Rohm & Haas was liable.

The court record shows that the defendant first sought summary judgment in the summer of 2011, arguing that Snizavich failed to submit expert witness testimony needed to prove causation.

The plaintiff subsequently submitted an expert report by a doctor named Thomas Milby, after which defense summary judgment was denied.

Following oral arguments in April 2012, however, a Philadelphia judge granted the defendant’s summary judgment motion, ruling that the doctor’s report “failed both of the basic requirements of showing a coherent scientific or technical methodology to which any type of analysis could be applied as to its acceptance in the scientific community or showing that its conclusions would in any way assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or a fact in issue.”

The trial judge, the Superior Court noted, was especially bothered by Milby’s reliance on a University of Minnesota report that found a statistically higher occurrence of brain cancer in workers at the Spring House facility.

Despite that finding, the appellate judges noted, the report had been inconclusive as to the cause of brain cancer found in the Spring House workers and the relationship between the chemicals and increased incidence of brain cancer.

The trial judge pointed out that Milby failed to state any scientific methodology that he used, instead simply stating his own “opposite conclusions without any further support.”

The trial judge also found that Milby’s conclusion on causation was not based on a “reasonable degree of medical certainty, despite Dr. Milby’s use of ‘the magic words’ to the contrary,” the Superior Court ruling states.

The lower court also found that no “scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge beyond that possessed by a layperson” was used to formulate Milby’s opinion.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial judge erred in totally disqualifying Milby’s expert opinion.

The appeals judges ended up agreeing with the defense, writing that Milby’s report was missing a “scientific authority,” such as facts, testimony or empirical data,” that supports his conclusion.

“Although Dr. Milby references and seems to rely on the Minnesota Report, he ignores the fact that it specifically and intentionally disclaims the exact conclusion that he himself reaches – that the instances of brain cancer in Spring House employees were caused by exposure to a chemical or chemicals while working at Spring House,” the appellate panel wrote. “Dr. Milby also does not offer any other scientific authority that even suggests a causal relationship between possible exposure to chemicals at Spring House and brain cancer, or any reason to doubt the scientific veracity of the Minnesota Report.”

The opinion was written by Superior Court Judge Anne E. Lazarus.

The other participating jurists were former President Judge Correale Stevens and Senior Superior Court Judge Robert E. Colville.

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