Summary Judgment Upheld for Motorcycle Manufacturer Based on Lack of Proof of Asbestos in Brake Linings

Court of Appeals of Oregon, March 24, 2021

In this asbestos action, decedent Ronald Laux alleged exposure to asbestos from replacing motorcycle brake linings from 1961 until 2014. Thereafter, he developed mesothelioma and brought negligence and strict products liability actions against numerous defendants. After Mr. Laux’s passing, Mrs. Laux was named as the personal representative of his estate.

Defendant Yamaha moved for summary judgment, arguing that the record was devoid of sufficient evidence to show the decedent was exposed to asbestos from a product manufactured, distributed, or supplied by Yamaha. Specifically, Yamaha points to the decedent’s testimony that he could not recall performing repair work on Yamaha motorcycles. Further, the majority of the work performed on Yamaha motorcycles took place at a different store location and there was no evidence that the shop obtained brakes from authorized Yamaha dealerships.

The plaintiff opposed Yamaha’s motion, contending that the depositions of the decedent and several fact witnesses allow the inferences that not only did the decedent work on Yamaha motorcycles throughout his career, but also that those working in the garage would breathe in brake dust from the work of other mechanics. In addition, Mr. Chesser, Yamaha’s corporate representative, testified that “he could not confirm whether there were any Yamaha models that had asbestos-free brakes before 1990.”

The trial court granted Yamaha’s motion. The court noted, in relevant part, that “Plaintiff has not presented admissible evidence from which an inference can be drawn that the specific Yamaha motorcycles serviced at Fred’s Honda were equipped with asbestos-containing brakes.”

In this appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in its decision. The plaintiff asserted that Mr. Chesser’s testimony that “asbestos-free friction materials began to surface in the market sometime in the 1970s” allowed the factfinder to “infer that Yamaha brake linings contained asbestos until at least the 1970s.” Therefore, the plaintiff’s showing of the presence of asbestos dust from Yamaha products in the decedent’s workplace would be sufficient to defeat summary judgment under Griffin v. Allis-Chalmers.

In opposition, Yamaha contended that the plaintiff must prove that all Yamaha motorcycle brakes contained asbestos since the decedent did not identify a specific Yamaha motorcycle brake product that contained asbestos under Greer. Yamaha rejected the plaintiff’s argument as to Mr. Chesser’s testimony as impermissible speculation. Specifically, Yamaha noted that Mr. “Chesser did not testify that any brake product prior to the 1970s actually contained asbestos, nor was Mr. Chesser able to provide any information about which motorcycles might have had brake products from any given third-party vendor.”

The Court of Appeals framed the pertinent question in this appeal as “whether Chesser’s statement that ‘asbestos-free friction materials began to surface in the market sometime in the 1970s,’ is sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether defendant’s brake-friction materials contained asbestos during the relevant time period.” Ultimately, the Court of Appeals determined that Mr. Chesser’s statement was insufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as the plaintiff’s argument relied on a substantial leap between two inferences: all pre-1970 brake-friction materials contained asbestos and all Yamaha pre-1970 brake-friction materials must have contained asbestos. The court noted that Mr. Chesser’s knowledge that asbestos-free friction materials began to surface in the 1970s was derived from a trade publication with no direct connection to Yamaha. Importantly, the court set forth that “a plaintiff cannot rely on the generalized notion that asbestos is present in the industry to survive summary judgment.” In this matter, the court found that the record contained no evidence that Yamaha’s brake parts contained asbestos. Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.

It should be noted that Judge Shorr dissented from the majority opinion. Judge Shorr noted that the record contained sufficient evidence for a factfinder to make the inference that “it was the standard at Yamaha and throughout the industry for brake-friction materials to contain asbestos before the introduction of asbestos-free brake materials to contain asbestos before the introduction of asbestos-free brake materials beginning in the 1970s and going forward.”

Read the full decision here.