U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Decision of Trial Judge that an Expert Witness Was Necessary to Prove Causation in an Injury Case Caused by Chemical Exposure

Kent Higgins, along with his wife and two children, visited Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari amusement park. During their stay, the filter pump connected to the park’s lazy river ride malfunctioned due to a tripped circuit breaker.

While the park’s staff worked on fixing the problem, pool chemicals, which included bleach and hydrochloric acid, accumulated into the pump. When the pump restarted, these chemicals discharged into the water and a cloud of chlorine gas was released in the air.

Although at the time the chlorine gas was released, the Higginses were far enough away from the area, a niece of theirs was much closer. The Higginses received a call alerting them that the niece was in trouble, which prompted them to head in that direction. When they arrived, Kent Higgins inhaled an unspecified amount of chemical fumes that lingered in the air. Higgins visited the emergency room that day and was diagnosed with having a mild chemical exposure.

He saw a pulmonologist later that summer but waited more than a year before consulting his primary care physician who then referred him to a second pulmonologist. The second pulmonologist, Dr. Haacke, diagnosed Mr. Higgins with reactive airways dysfunction syndrome and chronic asthma. This occurred in August 2010. In May 2011, Higgins filed a lawsuit against Koch Development Corp., the amusement park’s owners.

Higgins designated Dr. Anthony Margherita as his causation expert. The defendant Koch moved to disqualify Dr. Margherita for choosing not to establish a reliable methodology. The district court judge granted the motion and then Koch moved for summary judgment arguing that Higgins could not prove that the chemical fumes caused his injuries.

In opposition, Higgins maintained that he did not need a causation expert to testify in order to prove his case. The district judge disagreed and granted summary judgment. Higgins took this appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Indiana law governed whether an expert was needed to prove causation because the occurrence took place in Indiana. The panel stated that proving negligence in the instant case required proof for both general and specific causation. The panel stated that a typical lay person does not possess the requisite knowledge to draw a causative line, without the assistance of a medical expert, between a brief encounter with chlorine gas and the onset of asthma.

Because there was no obvious origin of the injury and it had multiple possible sources, an expert witness was necessary to establish causation. The court of appeals panel therefore determined that without a causation expert, Mr. Higgins was unable to prove his case and summary judgment was the right decision. Accordingly, the appeals panel affirmed the district court’s decision granting summary judgment ending this case.

Kent Higgins, et al. v. Koch Development Corp., No. 14-2207 (July 20, 2015).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, chemical exposure cases, pharmaceutical defect injury cases, product defect cases and car accident cases for individuals and families who have been injured or killed by the negligence of another for more than 38 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas including, Evergreen Park, Merionette Park, Calumet Park, Harvey, Palos Heights, Hickory Hills, Bedford Park, Brookfield, Stickney, River Forest, Norridge, Harwood Heights, Chicago (Jefferson Park, Norwood Park, Edgebrook, Mayfair, Polish Village, Humboldt Park, Lawndale, Little Village, Stockyards, Canaryville, Englewood), Bridgeview and Hinsdale, Illinois.

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