Court/Judicial body: Supreme Court of Florida
Date: 10 July 2003
Instrument(s) cited: Florida Statutes 2001
Background: The case was brought by a woman and her son against two companies: Du Pont, the manufacturer of an agricultural fungicide called Benlate, and Pine Island, the owners of a farm which used Benlate. When she was pregnant, the woman was exposed to a clear, odourless substance, which she believed to be Benlate, while walking through the farm. She alleged that this exposure led to the development of microphthalmia, a rare birth defect resulting in severely underdeveloped eyes, in her son. The farm owners, Pine Island, denied having used Benlate, despite previously confirming its use at the time in question to a journalist. The defendant companies also challenged the use of expert testimony which they considered to be flawed. The trial court admitted the expert testimony. The trial court awarded compensation to the plaintiffs in a product liability case, declaring both Du Pont and Pine Island negligent. On appeal, the court decided to reverse the trial court’s finding of negligence and award of damages, ruling that the expert evidence should not have been considered, but it upheld the finding that Benlate was being used by Pine Island at the material time. In the current case, the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to reinstate the finding in their favour.
Issue and resolution: Business and human rights. Whether there is a substantive link between the use of the chemical and the child’s microphthalmia. The Court held that Benlate was responsible for the birth defects and awarded damages to John Castillo, thereby reverting back to the trial court’s decision.
Court reasoning: The Court confirmed that “the evidence in this case is sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable person could conclude that Mrs Castillo was sprayed with Benlate”. The Court then considered whether the plaintiff can use evidence of an alleged link between Benlate and cases of children born with microphthalmia in Great Britain. A court at a previous instance decided that this evidence was vague and indefinite and its relevance was greatly outweighed by its potential to unfairly prejudice the jury. However, the Court found that it should be considered. This evidence had not been used to argue that the chemical had caused microphthalmia in the British children concerned, but, rather, the plaintiff’s conversations with an English reporter was used to explain how she came to believe that Benlate caused microphthalmia. The Court said that expert evidence can be introduced if there is a “general acceptance of the underlying scientific principles and methodology of the evidence presented”. This rule is intended to weed out “junk science” from valid science, but the defendats cannot use it to prevent the admission of evidence based on new scientific methodology where it is shown not to be “junk science”. The Court concluded that the trial court was correct to admit the evidence. The Court quashed the appeal court’s decision, holding that the trial court had properly admitted the Castillos’ expert testimony in accordance with the established legal standard, adding that there was sufficient direct evidence of the mother’s exposure to Benalte to support the jury’s verdict in her favour.
Impact: Further cases were reported to have been brought against the petitioners by other children believed to have suffered microphthalmia as a result of exposure to Benlate in vitro in the United States and New Zealand, among other places.
Link to full judgement: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/fl-supreme-court/1378691.html