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Kennedy v. Southern California Edison Co

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiffs brought suit against Defendant for the wrongful death of decedent. They asked the District Court for jury instructions to be given which were consistent with a precedential case. The judge refused and the jury found for Defendant. Plaintiff appealed.
    Synopsis of Rule of Law. District Courts are not relieved from the responsibility of giving a proper instruction when presented with an applicable instruction that raises an important issue of law or directs the court’s attention to a point upon which an instruction to the jury would be important, simply because the party making the request has proposed an instruction that does not completely comply with the relevant law.

    Facts. Ellen Kennedy died in 1996 of chronic myelogenous leukemia (“CML”), a rare form of cancer at the age of 43. The Plaintiffs were her husband, Joe, and their four children (Plaintiffs). From 1982 to 1990, Mr. Kennedy worked as machinist for Southern California Edison Company (Defendant) at the company’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). The Plaintiffs brought suit against Defendant in federal court, asserting jurisdiction pursuant to the Price-Anderson Act. They sought damages for Ellen Kennedy’s wrongful death. The action alleged that her terminal CML resulted from negligence on the part of the Defendant that resulted in her exposure to radiation from SONGS. Further, Plaintiffs sued another Defendant, Combustion Engineering, Inc. (Defendant), under a products liability cause of action, for the alleged faulty production of nuclear fuel rods. The theory of the case was that Joe Kennedy inadvertently brought home microscopic particles of radioactive material, known as “fuel fleas,” from the power plant on his clothing, hair, tools, etc. These fuel fleas, according to Plaintiffs, contained radiation dosages in excess of the maximum allowable by federal regulations and came in contact with Ellen Kennedy and caused her fatal cancer. The District Court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss all the products liability claims against it. Before trial began, the Plaintiffs asked the District Court to issue a jury instruction that had been the basis in another similar trial, Rutherford. The case had dealt with the proper jury instructions to be given on causation when multiple potential causes of the injury existed. The District Court denied this request. Plaintiffs attempted twice more to request the jury instruction and were denied. The trial commenced and the jury found for the Defendant. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. Whether the District Court erred in refusing to give a jury instruction in a case involving a single defendant who raised alternative possible sources of his injury as a defense to claims under California products liability law. Whether the District Court incorrectly dismissed claims under California products liability law.

    Held. We reverse and remand the case for a new trial. The District Court’s failure to give a proper Rutherford instruction was not harmless error. When the District Court is presented with an applicable instruction that raises an important issue of law or directs the court’s attention to a point upon which an instruction to the jury would be important, it is not relieved from the responsibility of giving a proper instruction simply because the party making the request has proposed an instruction that does not completely comply with the relevant law. Whether a defect that releases such particles poses a foreseeable risk to family members of workers who are exposed to them is at least a question of fact on which reasonable people may differ and thus should have been presented to the jury. It was error for the district court to decide the question as a matter of law.

    Discussion. The lower court reasoned that because Ellen Kennedy was not a user or consumer of the nuclear fuel rods produced by the Defendant, the Defendant could not have reasonably foreseen that its product would injure Ellen Kennedy. Jury instructions challenged as a misstatement of the law were to be reviewed de novo. The Book of Approved Jury Instructions (BAJI) for California provided two general instructions on causation for cases involving injuries with multiple potential causes. Plaintiff cited Rutherford’s holding which asserted that the BAJI provisions had to be augmented by an additional instruction. It cited four factors in asbestos- related cancer cases that necessitated a departure from the standard jury instructions on causation. The California Supreme Court in Rutherford also altered the necessary burden of proof instead of shifting it. The instructions that the Rutherford court gave and which the Plaintiff sought stated, “the plaintiff may meet the burden of proving that exposure to defendant’s product was a substantial factor causing the illness by showing that in reasonable medical probability it was a substantial factor contributing to the plaintiff’s or decedent’s risk of developing cancer.” Plaintiff’s proposed instruction left out a small, but critical, phrase. It stated that radiation from SONGS need only have “contributed” to Ellen Kennedy’s risk of developing cancer. The Court of Appeals read Rutherford to require more. Plaintiff’s burden was not to show that exposure to radiation in reasonable medical probability “contributed” to a risk of cancer. Rather, it was to demonstrate that the exposure in reasonable medical probability was “a substantial factor” in contributing to the risk of cancer. The omission of this modifier was essential to a proper Rutherford instruction.


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