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Federal Court in California Greenlights Discovery After Sufficient <i>Lone Pine</i> Submissions

In a case demonstrating the limits of a Lone Pine strategy, a California federal court allowed a toxic tort class action to proceed after plaintiffs’ experts showed that “Plaintiffs’ case is not meritless or frivolous.” The court therefore declined to dismiss the case and instructed the parties to proceed into discovery.  See Trujillo v. Ametek, Inc., Case No. 3:15-cv-01394 (S.D. Cal. July 17, 2017).   

The plaintiffs are classes of students and teachers from an elementary school bordering a property once owned by the defendant Ametek, Inc.  The plaintiffs alleged that chemicals released on the property migrated into groundwater and air at the school and posed significant health risks to the school’s occupants.  Plaintiffs seek, among other things, medical monitoring damages. 

On Ametek’s motion, the court issued a Lone Pine case management order (“CMO” or “Lone Pine Order”; named after Lore v. Lone Pine Corp., 1986 WL 637507 (N.J. Sup. Ct. Nov. 18, 1986)), requiring the plaintiffs to show prima facie evidence of exposure along with other elements relevant to their damage claims.  The plaintiffs produced their Lone Pine submission along with five experts’ opinions on exposure, increased risk of specific injury, and causation with other information responsive to the CMO.  Ametek and its co-defendent objected that the submission was insufficient because it failed to establish a prima facie case and to address specific requests from the court.  

The court disagreed with Ametek.  First, the court held that its specific requests within the Lone Pine Order were not based on “individual elements of a prima facie case for negligence, but rather, [were] factors that the trier of fact must weigh before concluding that the plaintiffs are entitled to medical monitoring damages.”  Therefore, the court said, the requests from the CMO were “merely a useful tool” to evaluate whether the plaintiffs’ claims of exposure, injury, and causation would “have enough merit to warrant” discovery. 

The court further reasoned that the only two “narrow, but weighty” questions in dispute were the level of the plaintiffs’ exposure and whether such level was harmful.  The court found that the plaintiffs’ expert case reports answered the two questions with opinions that “Plaintiffs were exposed to a significant level of chemical toxins that has increased their risk of developing certain health problems.” Therefore, even though Ametek objected by citing opposite conclusions on the merits from the state government and by raising evidentiary challenges, the court held that the plaintiffs’ submission satisfied the CMO and that the case should proceed into discovery.