Following extensive litigation on a preference case for a minor with Hemifacial Microsomia, partners David Wood and Tracy Lewis recently obtained summary judgment on behalf of their client, Westside Strawberry Farms, Inc. (“Westside”), in a landmark pesticide exposure/toxic tort case pending in the Ventura County Superior Court – Morales v. Well-Pict. This is the first in a series of cases filed in California by Waters, Kraus & Paul, a plaintiff’s firm with an impressive track record in asbestos litigation. The new suits all allege that in utero exposure to toxins in pesticides caused the children of pregnant farm workers to be born with serious birth defects. The complexity of the allegations resulted in the parties collectively identifying 26 experts for trial.
WHY THIS CASE IS IMPORTANT:
This case confirms that government records are not "self-authenticating" and must have an adequate foundation to fall within a hearsay exception. For cases like this one, involving the historical use of pesticides, the hearsay rule is a critical defense weapon, since most internal records of pesticide use are likely to have been destroyed, and the plaintiff may be unable to prove exposure.
In this action, plaintiff Erik Morales alleged that in 2007, his pregnant mother, Eulalia Lopez-Gomez, was exposed to toxic pesticides while working as a harvester. The site of the alleged exposure was a farming operation known as Anacapa Berry Farms in Oxnard, California. Plaintiff was born with serious birth defects and injuries, which he attributed to his mother’s exposure at Anacapa. Plaintiff sought damages in excess of $10 million.
In attempting to prove Westside’s connection to alleged pesticide exposure, Plaintiff's counsel relied upon a summary of pesticide application records from a Ventura County database. That document appeared to show that Westside had a role in a pesticide application at Anacapa Berry Farms in 2007. Plaintiff argued that the document was admissible under the Business Records and Official Records exceptions to the rule against hearsay. In its reply brief, Westside asserted that the documents cited by Plaintiff were inadmissible hearsay, lacked a proper foundation, and were not inherently reliable, all requirements for admission of the documents under the cited hearsay exceptions.
After extensive argument and additional briefing, the Court granted Westside's Motion for Summary Judgment, holding that Plaintiff failed to meet his burden of producing admissible evidence to raise a triable issue of material fact. The court's ruling could have a significant impact on the ability of Plaintiff to prove exposure with respect to other defendants still in the case. Trial for the remaining parties is currently set to start on February 21, 2017.