Plaintiff’s Verdict Reversed as Trial Court Gave Erroneous Causation Instruction

Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division One

Defendant The Marley-Wylain Company successfully argued that Michigan law should apply in this California action as all of the plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos manufactured or supplied in connection with Weil-McLain boilers occurred in Michigan. Marley-Wylain was the only remaining defendant at trial, where the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff and entered a judgment against Marley-Wylain for $5,489,688.68. The trial court subsequently denied Marley-Wylain’s motions for a new trial and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

On appeal, Marley-Wylain argued that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on the California causation standard rather than the Michigan causation standard. The plaintiff opposed, contending that Marley-Wylain failed to request that the trial court apply Michigan law as to the specific element of causation of the negligence cause of action. As Marley-Wylain did not request that the trial court apply Michigan causation law, California causation law should apply. The appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that laws of different states should govern different elements of a cause of action under a choice of law analysis in California state courts. As previously determined:

[plaintiff’s] exposure to Weil-McLain products occurred entirely in Michigan … there are ‘material differences in California and Michigan product liability and damage laws,’ that Michigan’s interest in applying its own law to [plaintiff’s] claims against Weil-McLain is superior to California’s interest, and that Michigan’s interests would be more impaired than California’s if California substantive law applied to [plaintiff’s] claims against [Marley-Wylain].

Thereafter, the appellate court reviewed the causation standards of both California and Michigan. As such, the court set forth that the Michigan causation standard for asbestos-related negligence cases is that “a plaintiff must establish and a jury must conclude that the defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in producing the plaintiff’s injuries, and not merely in increasing the risk that the plaintiff would suffer the injury.” However, the appellate court’s review of the trial record shows that the plaintiff proffered evidence through a board-certified pulmonologist and critical-care specialist that would have met the Michigan causation standard had the jury been properly charged. Specifically, the expert agreed that “work with Weil-McLain boilers was a substantial factor, proximate cause” of the plaintiff’s disease.

However, the appellate court agreed with Marley-Wylain’s contention that the trial court erroneously charged the jury with the California causation standard, which is different that the Michigan causation standard. When determining prejudicial error, a California appellate court must determine “whether it is reasonably probable that the party asserting error would have obtained a more favorable result in its absence.” After reviewing the trial record, the appellate court determined that plaintiff’s trial strategy was “geared toward California’s causation standard.” Further, the appellate court set forth that “[t]he jury in this matter was repeatedly told that any exposure to asbestos was sufficient to increase a person’s risk of mesothelioma, and … [plaintiff] needed only demonstrate that exposure to asbestos in Weil-McLain boilers had increased his risk of contracting the disease.” As such, the appellate court determined that it was reasonably probable that the jury could have found that plaintiff did not meet its burden under Michigan causation law if the jury was given the proper jury instruction. Thus, the appellate court reversed the judgment and remanded the matter for a new trial.

Read the full decision here.