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Judges on Trial in NSF-Funded Project at UCR

Judges on Trial in NSF-Funded Project at UCR

(June 12, 2000)

June 12, 2000

A $160,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will allow two professors from the University of California, Riverside to determine whether judges are making good decisions in lawsuits related to human exposure to environmental toxic chemicals.

Carl Cranor, professor of philosophy, will work with David A. Eastmond, an environmental scientist, on a two-year study called "A Philosophic and Scientific Assessment of the Use of Scientific Evidence in Toxic Tort Law." The NSF grant is effective July 1 and expires June 30, 2002.

The grant, awarded late Friday (June 9), will fund research that can determine if judges have ruled properly in allowing or excluding scientific evidence before they decide these complex cases. "When we get done we will know a little bit better whether judges have done a good job in screening scientific evidence," said Cranor. "If they haven't, my guess is that will mean some injured plaintiffs were denied their day in court."

The collaborative effort between the two professors, one from the humanities and one from the sciences, is part of a growing emphasis at UCR related to both the scientific and ethical issues involved in the environment's impact on human health.

Eastmond, an associate professor of cell biology, studies the effects of human exposure to toxic chemicals used in agriculture and industry. His research involves monitoring the chromosomal changes occurring in the cells of people who smoke cigarettes, manufacture benzene or spray pesticides.

Cranor's task is to look at the judges' reasoning, and why they allow some kinds of scientific evidence, and exclude other kinds. Some judges are fair. Others clearly misunderstand the science, and make incorrect rulings as a result. "Frankly, their stated reasons in a range of cases have been indefensible," Cranor said.

Cranor cited a case in which a supervisor ordered an employee to clean up a volatile organic compound. The employee suffered severe bronchial problems immediately afterward and eventually quit his job and sued for his injuries. A federal district court rejected his lawsuit because he could not provide exact measurements of his level of exposure. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision. "A number of people I've talked to think that is just an outrageous decision," Cranor said.

The NSF grant will allow the two scholars to combine their expertise for a multi-faceted understanding of an issue of great importance, and one that recently infiltrated pop culture with the success of the Universal film, "Erin Brockovich," about a true-to-life toxic tort case against Pacific Gas and Electric.

Cranor, who arrived at UCR in 1971, foreshadowed his interest in this issue when he delivered the Distinguished Research Lecture in 1997. He said philosophers must take on the moral and ethical implications of human exposure to the nearly invisible molecules of toxic chemicals.

"Such exposures, resulting from what has become an increasingly chemical society since World War II, can harm us just as much as the grosser forms of violence, theft and deception that have typically served as grist for philosophers' analytic mills," he said.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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