Plaintiff Prevails on Defendant’s Expert Appeal; Court Affirms Seven-Figure Judgment

Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division Eight, September 13, 2021

This matter was brought on behalf of decedent Donald Vanni in 2014, alleging two causes of action for negligence and strict product liability against defendant Honeywell International, Inc. among others. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent was exposed to asbestos from owning and operating a bowling alley from 1957 to 1986. Specifically, the decedent was responsible for drilling finger holes in plastic bowling bowls manufactured by Ebonite. The decedent was diagnosed with pericardial mesothelioma in 2012 and ultimately passed away in 2013.

Honeywell’s motion for summary judgment was denied and in limine motion practice followed thereafter. Honeywell’s motions challenged the foundation for and admissibility of the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert on causation. The court denied Honeywell’s in limine motions and trial proceeded with experts Drs. Steven Compton, Carl Brodkin, and Barry Horn on behalf of the plaintiff, and Drs. James Crapo, Suresh Moolgavkar, Sheldon Rabinovitz, and Renee Kalme on behalf of Honeywell.

At the conclusion of trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff and found Honeywell was a substantial factor in contributing to the decedent’s mesothelioma. The trial court entered judgment against Honeywell in the amount of $1,970,716 and awarded an additional $101,500 in costs. Honeywell appealed the verdict, seeking to reverse the jury’s award and the judgment entered in favor of the plaintiff.

The two issues on appeal were whether the verdict rested on unfounded speculation that Honeywell exposed the decedent to asbestos and whether the verdict rested on unfounded expert opinions about causation.

First, Honeywell challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict. The court reviewed the sufficiency of the evidence under the substantial evidence standard of review. Izell v. Union Carbide Corp., 231 Cal.App.4th 962, 969 (2014). Under that standard, the court considered all the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, giving it the benefit of every reasonable inference and resolving conflicts in support of the judgment. Howard v. Owens Corning, 72 Cal.App.4th 621, 630 (1999). In an asbestos-related injury case, causation involves two elements: exposure and substantial factor causation. A plaintiff “may prove causation … by demonstrating that the plaintiff’s exposure to the defendant’s asbestos-containing product in reasonable medical probability was a substantial factor in contributing to the aggregate dose of asbestos the plaintiff or decedent inhaled or ingested, and hence to the risk of developing asbestos-related cancer.” Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 16 Cal.4th 953, 976-97 (1997).

The court found the evidence was irrefutable that Honeywell supplied asbestos dust to Ebonite over at least a four-year period from 1968 to 1972 and that Ebonite used dust as an ingredient to fill its plastic bowling balls. Honeywell’s own paperwork established the supply chain. The testing experts, Dr. Compton for the plaintiff and Renee Kalme for Honeywell, agreed that the tested Ebonite balls from the 1970’s contained varying levels of asbestos dust. While Ebonite’s former employee, William Duncan, testified that Ebonite had different formulas for its bowling ball filler, he confirmed that asbestos was one of the ingredients in the filler from the late 1960’s to 1978 or 1979. The evidence was also undisputed that the decedent drilled the bowling balls in a small unventilated space for two-and-a-half to five hours per week with no mask or other breathing protection, and that he did so while standing directly in front of and very close to the ball itself.

Honeywell next argued that the plaintiff’s expert opinions on causation were insufficient evidence because they rested on unfounded speculation. Again, the court disagreed. As discussed above, under the substantial evidence standard of review, the court looked at the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, even if there is contradictory evidence in the record. Shirvanyan v. Los Angeles Community College Dist. (2020) 59 Cal.App.5th 82, 89, fn. 2. The court stated “that there may be articles or passages in articles that arguably contradict the plaintiff’s expert opinions is not dispositive of the appeal in favor of Honeywell.” The court further explained that both of the plaintiff’s experts backed up their opinions, although contradictory to Honeywell’s expert opinions, with relevant literature in the field. The judgement was affirmed.

Read the full decision here.