Ford Granted Summary Judgement in Two Automotive/Tractor Cases in Delaware Superior Court of Delaware, May 10, 2017

Ford was granted summary judgment in two matters pending in the Superior Court of Delaware.

First, plaintiff Paul Norris brought suit against Ford Motor Company alleging that he developed an asbestos related disease as a result of his occupational and non-occupational exposure to asbestos while performing work on Ford brakes, clutches, and gaskets. The plaintiff started working on his father’s farm in 1960, which included work on a Ford tractor. The plaintiff testified that the new brakes and clutches used for his tractor work were purchased from a Ford dealer. Additionally, he believed the 1960 Ford tractor was new. The plaintiff also testified that he performed engine work on his personal vehicles, including Ford vehicles. Based on Mr. Norris’ testimony, Ford filed for summary judgment.

The Superior Court of Delaware applied Tennessee substantive law in this matter. Under Tennessee law, the threshold requirement of any asbestos case is proof that an injured plaintiff was exposed to friable asbestos from a product for which a defendant is responsible. Where there is more than one potential cause of an injury, a plaintiff must show that a particular defendant’s conduct was “a substantial factor causing the injury.” Thus, in order to be the proximate cause of a plaintiff’s injuries, a defendant’s negligent act need not have been the whole cause or the only factor in bringing them about.

The court granted summary judgment in this matter, finding that the plaintiff could not demonstrate he was exposed to friable asbestos from a Ford product. The plaintiff’s only testimony was that he purchased replacement parts for the tractors at a Ford dealer. There was no evidence that the plaintiff removed any Ford parts. Thus, a jury would have had to speculate that the clutches, brakes, and gaskets Mr. Norris removed were in fact manufactured by Ford. In granting the motion, the court noted, “Because Plaintiff failed for provide evidence, beyond speculation, that Mr. Norris worked with Ford brakes, clutches, and gaskets, summary judgment is appropriate.”

In the second matter, Nathanial Harris brought a suit against Ford Motor Company alleging that he developed lung cancer as a result of his occupational exposure to asbestos while performing work as a farmer between 1949 and 1992 at Cobb Farm in North Carolina. During the period of 1953-79, Mr. Harris worked on Ford tractors at Cobb farm. Mr. Harris believed he was exposed to asbestos during that period when he performed grinding on the head gaskets and manifold gaskets, performed clutch work, and did brake jobs on the tractors. Mr. Harris believed the parts were manufactured by Ford because the parts had “Ford” stamped on them. However, Mr. Harris’ could not identify the specific brand of the parts he removed and installed for the majority of his work. Based on the lack of specific product identification testimony, Ford filed for summary judgment.

The Superior Court of Delaware applied North Carolina Substantive law to this matter. In North Carolina, a plaintiff is required to establish “actual exposure to an asbestos-containing product manufactured, sold, or distributed by the defendant.” A plaintiff must provide evidence demonstrating that Plaintiff was exposed to an “offending” product. The exposure must be more “than a casual or minimum contact with the product containing asbestos in order to the hold the manufacturer of that product liable. Instead, the plaintiff must present evidence of exposure to a specific product on a regular basis over some extended period of time in proximity to where the plaintiff actually worked.” Thus, in any asbestos case, a plaintiff must (1) identify an asbestos-containing product for which a defendant is responsible, (2) prove that he has suffered damages, an (3) prove that defendant’s asbestos-containing product was a substantial factor in causing his damages.

The court granted Ford summary judgment. In Mr. Harris’ testimony, he was not able to identify the brand of parts he installed or removed. As such, the court noted that, “a reasonable juror could not infer, beyond speculation, that Plaintiff worked with a Ford asbestos products.”

Read the Norris decision here.

Read the Harris decision here.

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