Jury Verdict Overturned: “Mere Possibility” of Exposure to a Product Insufficient to Meet Plaintiff’s Burden

Court of Appeal of California, First Appellate District, Division One, November 30, 2021

The plaintiff, Amos Webb, was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2018, and filed suit againstnumerous defendants, including General Cable Corporation, alleging that he was exposed to asbestos while working as an electrician for various employers throughout his career. Specifically, during his discovery deposition, Mr. Webb testified that he worked “quite frequently” with a product known as “Romex wire.” Romex was a popular brand of cable used for interior wiring, and General Cable acquired the trademark for “Romex” brand wire in 1944.

Following a full trial on the merits, a jury award was rendered in favor of the plaintiffs. General Cable appealed, arguing the plaintiffs did not present substantial evidence at trial that Mr. Webb was exposed to asbestos from any General Cable wire. The appellate court noted the plaintiffs were required to satisfy the two-part test established by the California Supreme Court in Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., which requires that “the plaintiff…establish some threshold exposure to the defendant’s defective asbestos-containing products” and “further establish in reasonable medical probability that a particular exposure or series of exposures was a ‘legal cause’ of his injury, i.e., a substantial factor in bringing about the injury.” 16 Cal.4th 953 (1997), citing Berg v. Colgate-Palmolive Co., 42 Cal. App. 5th 630 (2019).

The court reviewed the testimony of both Mr. Webb and the testimony of the plaintiff’s California certified asbestos consultant, Charles Ay, as it pertained to Romex wire, and found that based onall of the evidence presented, the testimony amounted to mere speculation that “some” of the Romex wiring contained asbestos. The courtfound multiple inconsistencies betweenMr. Webb’s and Mr. Ay’s testimony, and found that the evidence presented did not demonstrate thatMr. Webb was exposed to Romex products produced by General Cable. The court highlighted that when Mr. Ay was asked about specific names of manufacturers of wire that contained asbestos during the time period at issue, he did not mention General Cable, despite having done “a lot of research on it” and “a lot of testing on wires.”

Further, the court ruled that the evidence presented pertaining to the heating wiring, demonstrated only a possibility that Mr. Webb “may at some point have used or encountered” the heating wire, and that such possibility did not satisfy the plaintiff’s burden.

The court therefore concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to present substantial evidence that Mr. Webb was exposed to products manufactured by General Cable that contained asbestos, reversed the judgment on the jury’s award, and instructed the trial court to enter a defense verdict.

Read the full decision here.