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Hall v. Conoco Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

April 10, 2018

SAMANTHA HALL, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
CONOCO INC.; CONOCOPHILLIPS COMPANY; PHILLIPS 66 COMPANY, Defendants - Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma D.C. No. 5:14-CV-00670-HE

          Jason B. Aamodt of Indian & Environmental Law Group, PLLC, Tulsa, Oklahoma (Krystina E. Phillips, Dallas L.D. Strimple, of Indian & Environmental Law Group, PLLC, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Trae Gray, Ryan Ellis, of LandownerFirm, PLLC, Coalgate, Oklahoma; G. Steven Stidham of Levinson, Smith & Huffman, P.C., Tulsa, Oklahoma, with him on the briefs), for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Brett J. Young (Joy M. Soloway, Katherine D. Mackillop, Devin Wagner, with him on the brief), of Norton Rose Fulbright U.S. LLP, Houston, Texas, for Defendants-Appellees.

          Before BACHARACH, MURPHY, and McHUGH, Circuit Judges.

          BACHARACH, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         This appeal involves issues of causation and exclusion of expert testimony. These issues arose in a suit by Ms. Samantha Hall against Conoco Inc., ConocoPhillips Company, and Phillips 66 Company (collectively, "ConocoPhillips") on theories of negligence, negligence per se, and strict liability.

         Ms. Hall was diagnosed with leukemia, and she attributes the disease to a ConocoPhillips refinery's emissions of a chemical known as benzene. Liability turned largely on whether benzene emissions had caused Ms. Hall's leukemia. On the issue of causation, the district court excluded testimony from two of Ms. Hall's experts and granted summary judgment to ConocoPhillips. We affirm because

. the district court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the expert testimony and
. expert testimony was necessary to create a genuine issue of material fact on causation because of the length of time between the exposure to benzene and the onset of Ms. Hall's disease.

         I. Background

         As a child, Ms. Hall had lived near ConocoPhillips's refinery in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Roughly two decades later, Ms. Hall developed a form of leukemia known as "Acute Myeloid Leukemia with Inversion 16." This disease, according to Ms. Hall, resulted from her early exposure to the refinery's emissions of benzene.

         In district court, Ms. Hall tried to prove this link through three expert witnesses:

1. Dr. David Mitchell, an air modeler,
2. Dr. Steven Gore, an oncologist, and
3. Dr. Mary Calvey, an epidemiologist.

Dr. Mitchell created an air model to estimate benzene concentrations near where Ms. Hall had lived. Based on Dr. Mitchell's estimates, Dr. Gore

. calculated Ms. Hall's cumulative exposure to benzene and
. used this calculation to opine that benzene exposure had caused Ms. Hall's leukemia.

Dr. Calvey expressed a similar opinion.

         ConocoPhillips moved for

. exclusion of opinion testimony by multiple expert witnesses, including Dr. Gore and Dr. Calvey and
. summary judgment on the issue of causation.

         The district court granted the motion to exclude the expert testimony by Drs. Gore and Calvey. In the absence of their testimony, the court also granted summary judgment to ConocoPhillips, concluding that Ms. Hall had not presented sufficient evidence linking her disease to benzene exposure.

         II. Exclusion of Expert Testimony

         Ms. Hall challenges the district court's exclusion of expert testimony by Drs. Gore and Calvey. We reject this challenge.

         A. Standard of Review

         The district court has "wide latitude" in deciding whether to exclude expert testimony, and we review the manner in which the district court exercises this gatekeeping function for an abuse of discretion. Bitler v. A.O. Smith Corp., 400 F.3d 1227, 1232 (10th Cir. 2005).

         The district court's exclusion of expert testimony is governed by federal law. See Sims v. Great Am. Life Ins., 469 F.3d 870, 879 (10th Cir. 2006). Under Federal Rule of Evidence 702, a qualified expert witness may give opinion testimony if

. the expert's scientific knowledge would help the fact-finder understand the evidence,
. "the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data, "
. "the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, " and
. "the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case."

Fed. R. Evid. 702.

         Before expert testimony can be admitted, the district court must determine that the proposed testimony is reliable. Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharm., 509 U.S. 579, 589 (1993). The district court's assessment of reliability is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. Goebel v. Denver & Rio Grande W. Ry., 346 F.3d 987, 990 (10th Cir. 2003). This review includes consideration of whether "the reasoning and methodology underlying the expert's opinion . . . is both scientifically valid and applicable to a particular set of facts." Id. at 991.

         B. Dr. Gore's Testimony

         Dr. Gore rendered a differential diagnosis on the cause of Ms. Hall's leukemia. A differential diagnosis "rule[s] in all scientifically plausible causes of the injury and then rule[s] out the least plausible causes ...


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