No Liability for Others' Asbestos Products

The Bloomberg BNA Toxics Law Reporter reported this morning concerning an important new decision from the Supreme Court of California in O'Neil v. Crane Co., Cal., No. S177401, 1/12/12
In summary, California's high court reaffirmed the principle that a product manufacturer may not be held strictly liable or negligent for harm caused by another maker's product, except where the defendant has some direct responsibility for the harm.  In so holding, California refused to open the floodgates in the asbestos litigation to permit suits against manufacturers that never manufacturer or marketed asbestos-containing products.

Joining the majority of other jurisdictions that have considered the issue, California's highest court held that California law did not impose liability on manufacturers of shipboard valves and pumps used in conjunction with asbestos-containing parts made by others.  In this case, the high court reversed the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, which ruled in favor of the family of Patrick O'Neil, a naval officer allegedly exposed to asbestos from 1965 to 1967. O'Neil died of mesothelioma, a disease caused by asbestos, at 62.                                                                                  
 “[A] product manufacturer generally may not be held strictly liable for harm caused by another manufacturer's product. The only exceptions to this rule arise when the defendant bears some direct responsibility for the harm,” Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court.

The court rejected the family's argument that Crane Co. and Warren Pumps LLC, which made valves and pumps used on the ship, should be held strictly liable because they foresaw that their products would be used with replacement asbestos parts. The rationale for the Court's holding is that  “[T]he foreseeability of harm, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for imposing strict liability on the manufacturer of a nondefective product, or one whose arguably defective product does not actually cause harm.”   The Court left open the possibility for imposing liability for a non-manufacturer of asbestos in instances where it could be shown that “the defendant's own product contributed substantially to the harm” or “the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.”  However, that was clearly not the case here.

As to the plaintiff's negligence claims, the Court held that the defendants pump and valve companies owed no duty of care in the circumstances, based on “strong policy considerations.”
The companies' connection to O'Neil's injury was remote because they did not manufacture the asbestos-containing products; imposing a duty would be unlikely to prevent future harm; the Navy made its own purchasing choices and specifications; and consumers could potentially be harmed by too many product warnings, the court reasoned.

Increasingly, the plaintiff bar is seeking to impose strict product liabililty on manufacturers whose products did not cause the alleged harm.  This trend in asbestos cases is not dissimiliar from those pharmaceutical product  liability cases in which the plaintiffs seek to hold a brand name drug manufacturer liable, whose product was never taken by the injured party, for injuries allegedly caused by a generic manufacturer's product.  These lawsuits are offensive to longstanding product liability case law and policy and should be rejected by the courts. 

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