Justia U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Personal Injury
Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp.
Sardis was attempting to adjust a container containing a garage door hood on a forklift when the wood slat constituting the container’s handhold broke off, causing him to fall off a ladder rack and hit his head on the pavement nine feet below. He died two weeks later. His estate sued, alleging that ODC was negligent in designing the container’s handholds, and had a duty to warn foreseeable users of the container to not rely on the handholds for pulling it. The estate offered Sher Singh, Ph.D., a packaging design engineer, as its sole expert on design defects and Michael Wogalter, Ph.D., who described himself as an expert on “human factors,” as the sole expert on failure to warn. The court rejected “Daubert” challenges to both experts. The jury rendered a $4.84 million verdict.The Fourth Circuit reversed. The district court abdicated its critical gatekeeping role to the jury and admitted Singh’s and Wogalter’s “irrelevant and unreliable” testimony without engaging in the required Rule 702 analysis. Without that testimony, the estate offered insufficient admissible evidence as a matter of law to prevail on any of the claims. Even if an expert provides relevant testimony as to how an allegedly defective product breached a governing industry standard (which Singh did not), that says nothing about whether the expert reliably opined that said breach caused a plaintiff’s harm. Wogalter’s testimony was incompatible with the governing Virginia “reason to know” standard. View "Sardis v. Overhead Door Corp." on Justia Law
Pledger v. Lynch
Plaintiff filed suit alleging that prison officials ignored his repeated medical complaints and denied him meaningful treatment, leading to his collapse and major surgery. Plaintiff alleged a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claim against the United States for medical negligence, as well as a Bivens claim against certain individuals involved in his care for deliberate indifference in violation of the Eighth Amendment.The Fourth Circuit concluded that the district court erroneously dismissed the FTCA claim because plaintiff did not secure a certification from a medical expert before filing suit, as required by West Virginia law. As two of its sister circuits have concluded, state-law certification requirements like West Virginia's are inconsistent with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and thus displaced by those rules in federal court. Accordingly, the court reversed the district court's dismissal of the FTCA claim.The court vacated the district court's grant of summary judgment to individual defendants on plaintiff's Bivens claims. The district court reasoned that plaintiff could not establish deliberate indifference as a matter of law. However, the court concluded that the district court did not first provide plaintiff, who proceeded pro se, with proper notice of his obligation to support his claims or an opportunity to seek discovery. Accordingly, the court vacated this portion of the district court's judgment and remanded for further proceedings on the Bivens claims. View "Pledger v. Lynch" on Justia Law
Lightfoot v. Georgia-Pacific Wood Products, LLC
After he was diagnosed with nasal cancer, plaintiff filed suit against defendants, alleging that they produced the lumber that his father used in his woodshop and are liable to him for damages because they failed to warn his father that wood dust causes cancer. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants, concluding that during the exposure period, defendants did not have a duty to warn plaintiff's father that wood dust causes cancer because that fact was not known at the time as part of the "state of the art," i.e., the level of knowledge reached.The Fourth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the district court properly determined from the record that the state of the art did not indicate that wood dust causes cancer until 1995, a few years after the exposure period at issue ended, and thus defendants had no duty to warn plaintiff's father of any risk of cancer during that period. The court rejected plaintiff's contention that the district court established an Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) litmus test to the exclusion of other relevant evidence. Rather, the district court appropriately identified and relied on the state of the art as represented by studies collected and evaluated by experts in the field. View "Lightfoot v. Georgia-Pacific Wood Products, LLC" on Justia Law
Fairfax v. CBS Corp.
In 2019, the television program CBS This Morning broadcast interviews with two women who accused Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, of sexual assault. Fairfax had previously denied the allegations. Although he admitted that both sexual encounters occurred, he claimed they were entirely consensual. The CBS interviewer, Gayle King read from a statement Fairfax had given CBS denying the allegations. King directed viewers to Fairfax’s full statement on CBS’s website. Fairfax later issued a public letter to a North Carolina district attorney, alleging for the first time the existence of an eyewitness. Fairfax demanded that CBS retract the interviews, and CBS refused. Fairfax sued CBS for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court dismissed the complaint in its entirety but denied CBS’s motion for attorney’s fees and costs finding that CBS established its entitlement to statutory immunity under Virginia’s anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) statute.The Fourth Circuit affirmed. Fairfax’s complaint fails to plausibly allege that CBS made the allegedly defamatory statements with knowledge or reckless disregard of their falsity, as required to state a claim for defamation of a public official. The fee-shifting statute is discretionary, not mandatory or presumptive. Fairfax’s allegations did not plausibly allege that CBS broadcast its This Morning programs despite entertaining “serious doubts as to the truth” of those broadcasts. View "Fairfax v. CBS Corp." on Justia Law
Eshelman v. Puma Biotechnology, Inc.
Puma, a pharmaceutical company, created an investor presentation during a proxy contest with Eshelman, a Puma shareholder and the founder of PPD, another pharmaceutical company. Puma invited its shareholders to visit a link on its website where it had published the presentation, which indicated that, a decade earlier, while Eshelman was CEO of PPD, a clinical investigator falsified documents. The presentation was published at least 198 times. Puma also filed the presentation with the SEC, which made it permanently accessible on its website.Eshelman, a resident of North Carolina, initiated a diversity action with state-law claims of defamation. Puma is incorporated in Delaware and has its principal place of business in California; Auerbach, Puma’s CEO, resides in California. The court found defamatory per se Puma’s statements that Eshelman was “involved in clinical trial fraud” and that Eshelman was replaced as CEO after being forced to testify regarding fraud in 2008. A jury awarded Eshelman $15.85 million in compensatory damages and $6.5 million in punitive damages.The Fourth Circuit affirmed as to liability but vacated the award after finding that Puma waived its personal jurisdiction claim. Each of the statements at issue is capable of a singular, defamatory interpretation but “there is no evidence justifying such an enormous award.” View "Eshelman v. Puma Biotechnology, Inc." on Justia Law
Warfaa v. Ali
After the district court entered judgment against defendant on plaintiff's claim of torture under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA), defendant challenged the district court's grant of partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiff on defendant's statute of limitations defense.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's judgment, concluding that the district court did not err in granting partial summary judgment against defendant on his statute of limitations defense where equitable tolling applied to plaintiff's claims. In this case, the district court did not err in determining that plaintiff's unrebutted evidence demonstrated extraordinary circumstances justifying equitable tolling where plaintiff presented credible evidence that he lacked realistic access to a legal remedy during and after the Barre regime in Somalia given the absence of a functioning government, widespread chaos and violence, and the risk of reprisal. Therefore, plaintiff satisfied his burden of showing the appropriateness of equitably tolling the limitations period until at least 1997. View "Warfaa v. Ali" on Justia Law
Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co.
Wickersham filed suit against Ford, alleging that Wickersham's Ford Escape airbag system was defective and seeking various damages. Wickersham's claims stemmed from John Wickersham's accident in his Ford Escape that left him with serious injuries. The pain from John's injuries was difficult to control, he struggled to maintain his employment as a pharmacist after the accident, and committed suicide almost a year and a half after his accident. Ford moved for summary judgment, arguing in relevant part that the company was not liable for Wickersham's wrongful-death action because any defective design could not be the proximate cause of Wickersham’s death by suicide under South Carolina law. The district court denied Ford's motion for summary judgment and a jury subsequently found in favor of Wickersham as to all claims.The Fourth Circuit vacated the district court's judgment as to Wickersham's wrongful-death action where there is no presumption in South Carolina that a death by suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law and the district court must first decide whether John's suicide was "unforeseeable as a matter of law." If not, the jury must then consider foreseeability as well as causation-in-fact. Because the district court rejected traditional proximate-cause principles and did not appear to have explicitly analyzed the foreseeability of John's death by suicide, the court cannot be certain that the district court's analysis comports with South Carolina law. Considering the unique procedural posture of this case, the court believed that the most prudent course is to remand for the district court to reconsider its Rule 50(b) motion under the proper legal framework. Furthermore, a properly instructed jury could have found that John's death was unforeseeable to Ford, especially given the difficulty of establishing such a connection, and the district court's improper instruction seriously prejudiced Ford. The court also vacated the resulting $2.75 million damages awards to Wickersham's estate and Crystal Wickersham. The court affirmed the district court's judgment in all other respects. View "Wickersham v. Ford Motor Co." on Justia Law
Connor v. Covil Corp.
After Charles F. Connor died at the age of 90 of mesothelioma, his son brought a wrongful death action against 22 named defendants. Plaintiff alleges that defendants wrongfully caused Mr. Connor to become exposed to asbestos and develop his fatal mesothelioma cancer. This appeal involves only Covil, a manufacturer and supplier of asbestos insulation. Plaintiff contends that Mr. Connor was exposed to Covil's asbestos products during his time as an employee at Fiber Industries, a polyester production company whose facility contained piping that was wrapped in Covil-supplied asbestos.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Covil, agreeing with the district court that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that Mr. Connor was sufficiently exposed to Covil's asbestos to create a genuine dispute regarding causation. The court explained that, under North Carolina law, a plaintiff must prove that defendant's alleged misconduct was a substantial factor causing plaintiff's injury. Even assuming, without deciding, that the nature of the underlying disease is relevant to the application of the frequency, regularity, and proximity test, the court concluded that plaintiff has not produced sufficient evidence to create a genuine dispute of fact regarding Mr. Connor's exposure to Covil's asbestos products. Furthermore, because the record demonstrates that Mr. Connor was exposed to comparatively little asbestos at Fiber Industries versus his asbestos exposure at Norfolk Southern, plaintiff cannot establish more than a mere possibility that Covil's asbestos products were a substantial cause of Mr. Connor's mesothelioma. View "Connor v. Covil Corp." on Justia Law
Lokhova v. Halper
Appellant filed suit against Appellee Harper and various news organizations, alleging defamation, civil conspiracy, and tortious interference with contract. Appellant, a Russian born academic, alleges that appellees defamed her by falsely stating that she was a Russian spy involved in the alleged collusion between Russia and the campaign of former President Donald Trump. On appeal, appellant challenges the district court's dismissal of her tort claims and Appellee Halper challenges the denial of his motion for sanctions.The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of the majority of appellant's defamation claims as time-barred, dismissal of the remaining defamation claims as a matter of law, and dismissal of the vicarious liability claim against NBCUniversal. In regard to statements published prior to May 23, 2018, the court rejected appellant's argument that each time an allegedly defamatory publication was hyperlinked or tweeted, the statute of limitations began anew. The court concluded that the public policy supporting the single publication rule and the traditional principles of republication dictate that a mere hyperlink, without more, cannot constitute republication. The court rejected appellant's contention that third party tweets constitute republication pursuant to Weaver v. Beneficial Finance Co., 98 S.E.2d 687 (Va. 1957), a Virginia Supreme Court decision from 1957. In regard to statements published after May 23, 2018, the court concluded that although these statements are not time-barred, neither can they survive a motion to dismiss. In this case, the Washington Post Article did not defame appellant, and NBCUniversal is not liable for the tweets authored by Malcolm Nance through a respondeat superior theory of liability. Because appellant's defamation claims fail, so too does her civil conspiracy claim. The court also concluded that appellant's claim of tortious interference with contract failed where the allegations of Appellee Halper's knowledge of appellant's business expectancies are wholly conclusory. Finally, the court concluded that the district court acted within its discretion by electing not to award sanctions to appellant's counsel at this point and in denying the motion to sanction without prejudice. View "Lokhova v. Halper" on Justia Law
Sedar v. Reston Town Center Property, LLC
After plaintiff experienced a serious fall down a short flight of stairs, she filed a premises liability action against defendants for negligence and negligence per se. The district court granted summary judgment to defendants, holding that plaintiff did not offer sufficient evidence that there was a dangerous condition, defendants had notice of the condition, or the alleged dangerous condition caused her fall.The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded, concluding that plaintiff has produced sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude the loose bricks and the gap between them and the step posed a dangerous condition; there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendants had constructive notice of the hazard; and there is sufficient evidence for a reasonable inference of causation. View "Sedar v. Reston Town Center Property, LLC" on Justia Law