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Court: Plaintiff Can't Prove Benzene Caused Leukemia

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 12, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals turned down a leukemia victim who said a refinery gave her cancer.

In Hall v. Conoco, Samantha Hall sued Conoco for strict liability and negligence, alleging the company's refinery emitted cancer-causing benzene into the air where she grew up. A trial judge excluded her expert witness, however, saying the doctor's opinion was unreliable.

The expert said benzene particles potentially caused her disease, but did not rule out an unknown cause of the cancer. So it turns out what you don't know really can hurt you.

"Idiopathic" Disease

"Idiopathic," a medical term, does not mean an "idiotic" disease. It means a disease for which the cause is unknown.

In Hall's case, oncologist Dr. Steven Gore gave a differential diagnosis on the cause of the plaintiff's leukemia. He said benzene was the potential cause, but did not rule out idiopathic diseases.

The trial judge said the testimony was unreliable because the doctor did not rule out idiopathic causes. Although benzene is one of the most widely used, carcinogenic chemicals in the country, the judge dismissed Hall's case for lack of causation.

On appeal, the Tenth Circuit affirmed.

Actual Causation

The appeals court said the plaintiff needed to show that benzene actually caused her disease. It was not enough that it was a potential cause.

Plus, the appeals panel said, the doctor used the wrong methodology to reach his conclusion. Another expert's testimony didn't help:

  • Q. You are not qualified when it comes to analyzing what value -- acute, chronic, subchronic -- is more relevant for assessing human health risk for benzene or any other chemical.
  • A. I fully agree with that.

The trial judge also found inconsistencies in the expert testimony. The Tenth Circuit said the judge did not abuse his discretion in excluding their testimony.

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