A family in New York City public housing sued the housing authority, claiming mold in their apartment caused asthma in their children. The major issue in the case was whether the mold caused the asthma. The trial judge dismissed, finding that the family had not produced sufficient evidence to say that the mold was the cause of the asthma. In reaching that decision, he relied in part on the fact that others in the family had asthma, which he felt suggested that the asthma had a familial cause. A group of judges from across the country debated this—and other cases—at a recent training at Northeastern University on how cases can be affected by the social determinants of health.
“We were trying to show that the way the court saw the issue doesn’t really take into account the complexity of causation—the plaintiff may have a genetic propensity but also might be in a population at higher risk due to the exposure of mold,” says Wendy Parmet, faculty director of “Salus Populi: Educating the Judiciary about the Social Determinants of Health.” “We’re trying to show this more complex way of how epidemiologists might look at the problem,” she says, “which is often quite different from how lawyers and judges might look at the problem.”