Minggu, 01 Februari 2009

Scientific Uncertainty and Shared Responsibility

Here’s an interesting dilemma for you: An industrial chemical is known to cause a particular type of cancer in rats. A lifelong employee at the plant that makes the chemical is diagnosed with the cancer, so he sues the company for millions of dollars. Ultimately the employee loses the case and receives nothing, because the company’s lawyers argue (correctly) that the worker could have gotten the cancer from some other source, or that the worker had a genetic predisposition to cancer. In other words, the worker cannot prove scientifically beyond a reasonable doubt that his cancer was caused by exposure to the chemical while working in the company’s plant. Having won the case, the company continues to expose its current workers to the chemical.

Do we consider this to be fair, equitable, and just? Should the entire burden of uncertain science be borne by just one side?

Some lawyers are now arguing for the concept of “shared responsibility” when the scientific evidence leaves room for uncertainty. Perhaps the company should be asked to pay at least a small amount to its workers who develop the cancer as acknowledgment that their chemical might have caused the workers' cancers - not enough for the workers to have “won the lottery” or to bankrupt the company, but at least enough to help defray the workers’ medical expenses. Over time that might cause the company to reconsider continuing to expose its current workers.

What do you think?

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