In June 2023, the California Court of Appeal examined the proof needed to establish causation in toxic exposure cases, reversing a defense summary judgment in Beebe v. Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds LLC. The court held that the plaintiff had raised a triable issue of material fact through circumstantial evidence connecting his exposure to contaminated bird droppings in his workplace with his subsequent fungal infection.
The plaintiff, Dale Beebe, was an electrical foreman for Braaten Electric, Inc., a subcontractor hired by Potential Design, Inc. and its owner James Tjerrild (collectively “Potential Design”) for construction projects at a pistachio facility in Firebaugh, California owned by Wonderful Pistachios and Almonds LLC (“Wonderful”). For almost two years between 2012-2014, Beebe worked at Wonderful’s Firebaugh facility.
The Firebaugh facility was plagued by migrating flocks of swallows that nested under a pole barn-like structure and created extreme accumulations of bird droppings. Wonderful would periodically dry sweep or blow the droppings into the surrounding dirt using leaf blowers. In late 2015, over a year after completing work at the facility, Beebe was diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a fungal infection caused by inhalation of spores from the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, which thrives in bird feces.
Beebe sued Wonderful and Potential Design for negligence, alleging their conduct regarding the bird droppings caused his illness. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing there was no proof the droppings caused Beebe’s histoplasmosis. The trial court agreed, excluding Beebe’s expert declarations as speculative and granting summary judgment for the defendants.
The Court of Appeal reversed, finding Beebe had raised a triable issue of causation under California’s “substantial factor” test, which only requires a defendant’s conduct to be more than a negligible or theoretical cause. Though no soil testing definitively proved the droppings were contaminated, Beebe’s physician expert testified the San Joaquin Valley has a relatively high incidence of histoplasmosis. Other evidence showed the birds roosted at the site for years and Wonderful’s practices would disperse contaminated dust that Beebe inhaled while living and working onsite.
The court found Beebe’s circumstantial evidence analogous to the restaurant patron in Sarti v. Salt Creek who contracted food poisoning after eating raw tuna at a restaurant with unsanitary conditions likely causing cross-contamination. Though no testing proved the restaurant’s chicken carried the bacteria, the conditions permitted an inference of causation. Here, though testing did not confirm the droppings were contaminated, ample evidence supported causation under the substantial factor test.
The court underscored that property owners like Wonderful must handle toxic substances appropriately. By reversing summary judgment, the court opened the door for Beebe to prove at trial that Wonderful’s negligent handling of contaminated bird droppings caused his life-altering illness.
- The case involves a lawsuit brought by an employee who contracted a fungal infection, histoplasmosis, allegedly due to exposure to accumulated bird droppings at his workplace.
- A key issue examined by the court was whether the plaintiff provided sufficient evidence of causation between his illness and the defendants’ conduct regarding the bird droppings.
- The court held there was a triable issue of material fact as to causation based on the plaintiff’s expert testimony and circumstantial evidence connecting his exposure to contaminated bird droppings at his workplace to his subsequent infection.
- Even without definitive scientific proof like soil testing, the court found the circumstantial evidence created a reasonable inference of causation under the “substantial factor” test.
- The case illustrates the type of showing needed to establish causation in a toxic exposure case, including through expert testimony and circumstantial evidence.
- A property owner or employer may be liable where sufficient evidence connects negligence in handling toxic substances like contaminated bird droppings to a plaintiff’s illness.
In reversing summary judgment, the Beebe decision eased the causation burden for plaintiffs in toxic exposure cases, confirming that circumstantial evidence may be used to establish causation under California’s “substantial factor” test without definitive scientific proof. The court also found ample evidence to support a reasonable inference that the defendant’s negligent handling of contaminated bird droppings caused the plaintiff’s illness. This decision illustrates that property owners and employers must handle toxic substances appropriately or risk liability if their negligent actions are connected to resultant illnesses.