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Lucas v. American Clean Energy Systems, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 17, 2017

ROBERT LUCAS, Plaintiff,
v.
AMERICAN CLEAN ENERGY SYSTEMS, INC., Defendants.

          OPINION

          MARK R. HORNAK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         In this product liability action, Plaintiff Robert Lucas alleges that he suffered cognitive and neurological injuries from workplace exposure to ACES II, a chemical fuel additive mixture manufactured by Defendant Tal Technologies, Inc. and distributed by Defendant American Clean Energy Systems, Inc. ("Defendants").[1] ECF No. 26 at 3-4; ECF No. 193 at 1-2; ECF No. 241-1 at 3-4; ECF No. 241-2 at 3-4; ECF No. 241-3 at 4, 6. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 192, 239.

         Defendants[2] argue in their Motion for Summary Judgment that Lucas' claims are barred by the doctrine of issue preclusion (also known as collateral estoppel). They say that causation of Lucas' injuries was fully litigated and conclusively determined in an Ohio workers' compensation administrative proceeding Lucas brought against his then-employer, Oxford Mining Company. Lucas appealed the final disposition of that proceeding to an Ohio trial court, where it was dismissed with prejudice with the agreement of the parties after they reached a settlement. See ECF No. 239. Defendants say that either or both of those prior Ohio decisions should have preclusive effect here as to the causation element of Lucas' claims. See id.

         Lucas argues in his Motion for Partial Summary Judgment that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the issue of Defendants' liability, leaving for determination only the amount of his damages. ECF No. 193 at 1. Lucas says there is no genuine dispute that Defendants violated certain federal regulations, that they were negligent or negligent per se, and that such breaches of their duties to him caused him an array of injuries. See ECF No. 26 at 1, 3, 5-7; ECF No. 192; ECF No. 193 at 1-2: ECF No. 194 at 10.

         For the reasons that follow, both motions will be denied in their entirety.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Robert Lucas worked for Oxford Mining Company as a fuel and lube technician from 2006 to 2008. ECF No. 26 at 3; ECF No. 241 at 2; ECF No. 241-4 at 3; ECF No. 241-7 at 7. His duties included refueling various heavy equipment and machinery, cleaning and changing filters and valves, changing oil, and performing other maintenance work. ECF No. 26 at 3, 6; ECF No. 241-7 at 7, 9. Lucas regularly worked with fuel additive and/or fuel solvent chemicals manufactured by Defendant Tal Technologies, Inc. and distributed by Defendant American Clean Energy Systems. ECF No. 26 at 3-4; ECF No. 241-1 at 3-4; ECF No. 241-2 at 3-4; ECF No. 241-3 at 4, 6. The chemical mixture Lucas complains about in this case is known as ACES II. ECF No. 193 at 1-2. According to Lucas, the chemicals in ACES II included toluene, benzene, and/or other toxic substances, one or more of which caused his injuries. ECF No. 26 at 4-7.

         Lucas says ACES II was shipped in 5 5-gallon drums that he mixed and hand-cranked into five-gallon plastic containers. ECF No. 26 at 3; ECF No. 194 at 8; ECF No. 241-4 at 4-6. On a regular basis, Lucas would pour about 10 gallons of ACES II into 7, 500-gallon fuel storage tanks. ECF No. 26 at 3; ECF No. 194 at 8; ECF No. 241-4 at 4-5. To do this, Lucas would use a ladder to climb on top of the 7, 500-gallon fuel tanks. ECF No. 241-4 at 5-6, 8. He would then bring up the chemical mixture by rope, remove the cap from the fuel tank, place the funnel into the fuel tank, and pour ACES II into the funnel. ECF No. 241-4 at 5-6. Lucas wore rubber-coated gloves, but he was not provided with, and so he did not wear, a mask or other respiratory protective gear. ECF No. 26 at 3-5; ECF No. 241-4 at 5. When the wind would blow, ACES II would spill onto Lucas, splashing over his hands and arms despite the fact that he was wearing gloves. ECF No. 194 at 8; ECF No. 241-4 at 7-8. Lucas would also inhale fumes from the chemical mixture. ECF No. 241-7 at 25. Lucas says that he did not know the chemical contents of ACES II. ECF No. 194 at 8. But Lucas says that as a result of his mixing and fueling duties, he was exposed to the allegedly toxic substances he now believes were in ACES II on a regular and continuing basis while working for Oxford Mining. ECF No. 26 at 3-5; ECF No. 241-4 at 8; ECF No. 241-7 at 23-24.

         In June of 2010, Lucas filed this suit against Defendants, alleging on a number of theories that his exposure to ACES II caused him to suffer from seizures and other cognitive impairments, headaches, severe abdominal pain, and unexplained swelling of his lower extremities. ECF No. 26 at 1, 3, 5-7; ECF No. 193 at 1-2; ECF No. 194 at 10. Lucas says that the drums of ACES II he worked with had no warning labels affixed to them, and that the Material Safety Data Sheets ("MSDS sheets") issued by one or both Defendants failed to warn him of the toxic characteristics of the chemical toluene, its carcinogenic effects, or the extreme risk of seizures, cognitive impairments, and other neurological damage that could result from exposure to it. ECF No. 194 at 8-9. Defendants, on the other hand, deny that exposure to ACES II carries a risk of seizures or cognitive impairment. ECF No. 214 at 22; ECF No. 220 at 21-22. Defendants say that all ACES II drums were affixed with warning labels clearly setting forth the dangers of exposure to the chemicals contained therein. ECF No. 214 at 15-17; ECF No. 220 at 14-16. Defendants also say that the MSDS sheets sufficiently warned of any dangers that may have arisen from exposure to ACES II. ECF No. 214 at 20-25; ECF No. 220 at 20-25.

         On March 4, 2011, after filing this case, Lucas filed an application for workers' compensation benefits with the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation. ECF No. 241 at 2; ECF No. 251 at 1. Lucas' then-employer, Oxford Mining, defended that action. ECF No. 241 at 4; ECF No. 251 at 2. None of the Defendants in this case were involved in defending Lucas' Ohio workers' compensation benefits action, and Lucas does not allege that they could have been or should have been involved.

         In his workers' compensation case, Lucas made essentially the same claim against his employer, Oxford Mining, as he makes against Defendants here: that his exposure to toxic substances in ACES II while working for Oxford Mining caused his various injuries. ECF No. 241 at 2; ECF No. 241-5 at 2; ECF No. 251 at 1. Lucas' initial claim was denied by the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation. ECF No. 241-10 at 2. Lucas appealed that denial to an Ohio Industrial Commission District Hearing Officer. ECF No. 241-10 at 2. The Ohio District Hearing Officer held a hearing on Lucas' claim for workers' compensation benefits in September of 2011. ECF No. 241 at 3; ECF No. 251 at 2. The parties in the Ohio case were given notice of the hearing, which informed them that they attend and "introduce all testimony and evidence pertinent to [their] position on this matter." ECF No. 241 at 4; ECF No. 251 at 2; ECF No. 241-9 at 2.

         At the hearing, those parties were represented by counsel. ECF No. 241 at 4; ECF No. 251 at 2. Lucas testified in support of his application for workers' compensation benefits. ECF No. 241 at 4; ECF No. 251 at 2. He claimed that his injuries included headaches, migraines, night tremors, seizures, and incidents where he would lose consciousness and collapse at work. ECF No. 241-7 at 9-11. Lucas also submitted an expert report authored by Dr. Michael Dogali. ECF No. 241 at 3; ECF No. 251 at 1. Dr. Dogali reviewed Lucas' medical records from Wheeling Hospital, West Virginia University Hospital, the Cleveland Clinic, the Ohio Valley Medical Center, and individual doctors, as well as depositions of Lucas and his ex-wife. ECF No. 241-6 at 2. He then surveyed relevant medical literature. ECF No. 241-6 at 2. After all this, Dr. Dogali concluded that as a result of his exposure to ACES-II, Lucas had suffered cerebral degeneration, drug/chemical induced headache, epilepsy, and encephalopathy. ECF No. 241 at 3; ECF No. 251 at 1.

         In addition to Dr. Dogali's report, the District Hearing Officer reviewed reports from at least two other doctors, including doctors from the Cleveland Clinic and the Ohio Valley Medical Center. ECF No. 241-7 at 16, 32-34; ECF No. 241-10 at 3. The District Hearing Officer also questioned Lucas, ECF No. 241- at 35, and heard argument from both Lucas' attorney and Oxford Mining's attorney. ECF No. 241-7 at 15-21, 31-34. Following the hearing, the District Hearing Officer granted Lucas' application for workers' compensation benefits, finding that Lucas suffered memory loss, personality changes, headaches, and seizures because of his respiratory and physical exposure to ACES II during his employment with Oxford Mining. ECF No. 241 at 4; ECF No. 251 at 2; ECF No. 241-10 at 2-3.

         Oxford Mining appealed the District Hearing Officer's decision to an Ohio Staff Hearing Officer and indicated that it would present additional evidence. ECF No. 241-11 at 2. Another hearing was held in April of 2012. ECF No. 241 at 4-5; ECF No. 251 at 2. The parties were again provided notice of the hearing, which informed them that they should be present, and that they would-once again-have the opportunity "to introduce all testimony and evidence pertinent to [their] position on this matter." ECF No. 241 at 5; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-14 at 2. Both parties were also represented by counsel at this hearing. ECF No. 241 at 6; ECF No. 251 at 3.

         Following the hearing, the Staff Hearing Officer noted that although the parties had submitted extensive medical records, evidence, and professional medical evaluations, the primary support for Lucas' claim of injury came from the report of Dr. Dogali. ECF No. 241 at 6; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-15 at 2-3. Ultimately, the Staff Hearing Officer vacated the decision of the District Hearing Officer and denied Lucas' application for workers' compensation benefits. ECF No. 241 at 6; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-15 at 2-3. In concluding that Lucas was not entitled to such benefits, the Staff Hearing Officer made a factual finding that "the medical evidence on file is not persuasive that any of [Lucas'] alleged conditions are causally related to [Lucas'] job exposure with [Oxford Mining]." ECF No. 241 at 6-7; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-15 at 3. "Significant cerebral and epileptic and headache conditions are alleged, but the medical evidence does not show that any potential exposures with this employer were the causal factor." ECF No. 241 at 6-7; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-15 at 3.

         Lucas appealed to another Staff Hearing Officer, indicating that he would not present any additional evidence. ECF No. 241 at 7; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-16 at 2. His appeal was refused in April of 2012. ECF No. 241 at 7; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-17 at 2. This denial of Lucas' appeal was the final administrative decision of the Ohio Industrial Commission. ECF No. 241-19 at 4; ECF No. 241-21 at 4.

         From that denial, Lucas filed a second appeal as of right seeking review of the Ohio Industrial Commission decision by the Court of Common Pleas of Coshocton County, Ohio. ECF No. 241 at 7; ECF No. 241-17 at 2; ECF No. 241-18 at 2-3; ECF No. 241-19 at 4; ECF No. 251 at 3. Lucas was once again represented by counsel in that appeal. ECF No. 241-1 at 3; ECF No. 241-19 at 4; ECF No. 241-20 at 2. Lucas voluntarily dismissed that appeal in January of 2013. ECF No. 241 at 8; ECF No. 241-20 at 2. ECF No. 251 at 3. Then, still represented by counsel, Lucas re-filed his appeal and complaint with the Court of Common Pleas of Coshocton County, Ohio, in January of 2014, naming Oxford Resources Gp, LLC, and the Administrator of the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation as defendants. ECF No. 241 at 8; ECF No. 251 at 3; ECF No. 241-21 at 2-4. None of the Defendants in this case were involved in defending Lucas' Ohio actions, and Lucas does not allege that they could have been or should have been so involved.

         Lucas' second complaint in the Ohio Court of Common Pleas alleged that he suffered work-related injuries at Oxford Mining due to his exposure to ACES II. ECF No. 241-21 at 2-4. Lucas complained of chemically-induced headaches, convulsive and intractable epilepsy, and chemically-induced encephalopathy. ECF No. 241-21 at 3. Before the Ohio court ruled, however, the parties agreed to dismiss the case with prejudice after reaching a mutually-agreeable settlement, and the Ohio court did so without vacating the decision of the Ohio Industrial Commission. ECF No. 241 at 8; ECF No. 241-22 at 2; ECF No. 251 at 3. The Ohio court's order dismissing the case stated: "Case settled and dismissed with prejudice by agreement of the parties. No record. Costs are to be paid by the Plaintiff." ECF No. 241 at 8; ECF No. 241-22 at 2; ECF No. 251 at 3. Judge Batchelor of the Ohio Court of Common Pleas signed and approved the order, as did counsel for all of the parties to that case. ECF No. 241-22 at 2.

         II. L ...


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