Artificial Turf Battle Shows Importance of Science in Products Liability Lawsuits

Artificial Turf Battle Shows Importance of Science in Products Liability LawsuitsWhen we think of the words “turf wars,” we often think of conflicts over property, or, in a sports environment, battles on the football field. In an example of how everyday products can be harmful, the term is now being used to define a series of lawsuits that are challenging the health and safety of artificial turf, or Astroturf.

What is Astroturf?

Astroturf is an artificial surface, usually used as flooring for sporting events to replace natural grass. Astroturf has many practical benefits, including the fact that because it is not real grass, it does not need sunlight or water. This saves costs and allows the turf to be used inside enclosed stadiums. As of 2015, it was believed that 11,000 fields had been equipped with Astroturf in the United States.

The “grass” is not placed on natural soil and earth, but on synthetic products. It used to be placed on cement, making the grass unusually hard, and causing excess injury to athletes. To soften it and give it a more natural feel and make it presumably safer, the grass began being placed on top of a soft rubber mat, made of a product called “crumb rubber,” which is essentially rubber ground to the consistency of sand, usually from tires (an added benefit according to some, who say that using these tires keeps them out of our landfills).

Concerns Over Safety

This fake grass (specifically, the rubber underneath) has come under some criticism in the media and with the government in the past few years. Congress and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have investigated the product’s safety, and ESPN has run an article questioning its safety.

In 2017, parents in San Diego sued their school board, alleging that the Astroturf recently installed on school grounds is cancerous, or else that it was installed without conducting proper testing to make sure it is not. Citing studies, they allege that the crumb rubber contains heavy metals that can be ingested by children and which will make contact with the children’s skin. The suit also expresses concern that heavy rain could wash the material into the drinking supply, and that in the heat the materials become dangerous fumes.

The suit cites to an instance in 2016 in California in which the crumb rubber was installed on a school playground. The first day it was installed, over 40 kids reported to the school nurse for heat exhaustion.

The district that installed the turf has a contract with a company called FieldTurf. That company is also facing a class action lawsuit in New Jersey. That sued alleged that the material broke down long before its 10-year expected lifespan, unable to withstand exposure to prolonged UV radiation. Parents expressed concern over the safety of children and the community by the early degradation of the rubber substance.

Science is Inconclusive

As of this time, the evidence connecting Astroturf and cancer is mostly anecdotal. Four members of the Philadelphia Phillies who played on the substance for many years died of brain cancer.

In 2008, a University of Miami athlete playing on the substance was diagnosed with cancer and later died in 2012. She had begun playing on the substance in grade school in Washington. After her death, her mother began compiling a list of athletes playing on the substance who contracted cancer, and had gathered over 60 names.

Still, the company that makes the product says that it is safe. At least one toxicologist (who did work for the turf industry) has said that the manufacturing process ensures that the chemicals stay trapped inside, and that the link between the substance and cancer is “simply not true.”

Scientific Evidence is a Hurdle in Products Liability Suits

This is only one of many kinds of fights, where the world of science is simply not developed enough to catch up to what we as consumers believe to be true or perceive in our daily lives. 
Winning lawsuits requires causation. We have often discussed causation in terms of who caused a car accident or whether someone’s injury was caused by an accident or something before the accident.

In these major products liability cases, causation becomes the central focus, often litigated with multiple experts and complex and imprecise science. To win, a plaintiff must show a jury that the injury is actually caused by the defective product.

Sometimes there is enough wiggle room in scientific studies to allow defense experts to provide evidence to protect their clients. Yet, sometimes the science is just so conflicting that it makes defendants’ experts’ jobs easier.

Litigation Over Disputed Science

Although we generally accept that nicotine has dangerous effects and that it is a harmful and addictive substance, that was not always the case. For many years, the science was not there to make that connection in court. Lawsuits against tobacco manufacturers were revolutionary and experimental.

Today, we have other disputes in which scientific causation is hotly debated. For example, debate still rages over whether vaccines cause autism and other diseases. Most studies seem to show little or no connection, but the evidence is not conclusive enough, leaving room for experts in court to battle it out.

In products liability lawsuits, a plaintiff does not have to prove that a defendant knew or should have known that a product was defective. A defendant cannot take the position that it had no idea a product would cause harm. That makes the burden somewhat easier for a consumer victim.

That is also why defendants fight the science behind product liability lawsuits that much harder. If it is proven a product or substance is dangerous and caused injury, all that is left is to evaluate the level and extent of damages. In a class action products liability lawsuit, that can be an extraordinary amount.

If you are injured as a result of a defective product, make sure you have expert witnesses that understand the science involved. Contact Brill & Rinaldi today about a free consultation to discuss your case and your injuries.