Post written by Mark Behrens, partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. and co-chair of SHB's Public Policy Group
The New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, today rejected an equitable medical monitoring claim brought by longtime heavy smokers who have not been diagnosed with a smoking-related disease. The court said that medical monitoring is only available after a physical injury has been proven. The court explained that the "requirement that a plaintiff sustain physical harm before being able to recover in tort is a fundamental principle of our state's tort system" and that this physical injury requirement is important because "it defines the class of persons who actually possess a cause of action, provides a basis for the fact-finder to determine whether a litigant actually possesses a claim, and protects court dockets from being clogged with frivolous and unfounded claims."
The court also stated it "undoubtedly has the authority to recognize a new tort cause of action, but this authority must be exercised responsibly...." Echoing arguments previously articulated by SHB - and citing a Missouri Law Review article by Victor Schwartz and Leah Lorber - the court summarized some of the policy problems that could occur from creating a new, full-blown tort cause of action. For instance, the court acknowledged that countless plaintiffs could come forward to recover monitoring costs, "effectively flooding the courts while concomitantly depleting the tortfeasor's resources for those who have actually sustained damage." "Moreover," the court added, "it is speculative at best, whether asymptomatic plaintiffs will ever contract a disease; allowing them to recover medical monitoring costs without first establishing physical injury would lead to the inequitable diversion of money away from those who have actually sustained an injury as a result of the exposure." The court also noted that, from a practical standpoint, "it cannot be overlooked that there is no framework concerning how such a medical monitoring program would be implemented and administered." Again citing the article by Victor & Leah, the court concluded, "The Legislation is plainly in the better position to study the impact and consequences of creating such a cause of action, including the costs of implementation and the burden on the courts in adjudicating such claims."