Bare Metal Defense Rebuts Plaintiffs’ Causation Argument for Majority of Industrial Equipment Manufactures U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, April 12, 2017
Patricia Carroll, as special administrator of Ronald Carroll’s estate, sued numerous manufacturers of industrial equipment in which asbestos replacement parts were used, manufacturers of asbestos, or both in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. The claims against the defendants arise from the time Mr. Carroll spent working at Wisconsin Power & Light (WP&L) from 1959 to 1974. Mr. Carroll worked in a variety of different jobs WP&L’s plants during that period of time, including plant helper, auxiliary equipment operator, and boiler operator.
The majority of the plaintiffs’ facts derive from deposition testimony of three of the decedent’s coworkers. The testimony of the coworkers alleged that all of the valves that were worked on were made of asbestos, regardless of their size. They also testified that the decedent used rope packing for valves. One coworker testified that the decedent would have replaced hundreds of gaskets over his career at WP&L. Lastly, all of the coworkers testified that the conditions in the plants were dusty.
All of the remaining defendants moved for summary judgment as to all of the plaintiff’s product liability claims. The defendants’ motions generally present similar arguments regarding the plaintiff’s causation evidence and assert the “bare metal defense.” The bare metal defense provides that “a manufacturer is not liable for harm caused by, and owes no duty to warn of the hazards inherent in, asbestos products that the manufacturer did not manufacture or distribute. To determine whether a plaintiff has sufficient evidence to prove causation at summary judgment, the court must evaluate “whether the defendant’s negligence was a substantial factor in contributing to the result.” Moreover, regarding asbestos-related litigation in particular, Wisconsin courts have declined to adopt bright-line causation tests, choosing instead to weigh whether a defendant’s product was a substantial factor causing injury “based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the work . . . and the products . . . generally used.” (Citation omitted).
The court handled the defendants in three groups. First, the court granted summary judgment for defendants Crosby Valve LLC, Atwood & Morrill Co., Inc. and ABB, Inc. because there are no facts from which a reasonable jury could find these defendants liable for manufacturing a defective product or failing to warn about the dangers of asbestos. The plaintiff produced no evidence that these defendants supplied original asbestos components that caused the decedent’s injury (such as what actual equipment was installed at the WP&L facilities and when), nor that defendants specified asbestos replacement parts.
Next, while the plaintiff offered evidence that at least some of the valves or pumps Flowserve US Inc., Crane Co. and Ingersoll Rand Company sold during the time period that Carroll worked at WP&L actually contained original asbestos gaskets and packing, and at least some of these defendants’ maintenance manuals specified asbestos packing to be used as replacement components, the plaintiffs have failed to offer sufficient evidence that the products of these defendants were substantial factors contributing to Carroll’s injury. As a result those three defendants are also entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
Lastly, the court discussed defendants A.W. Chesterton Company and John Crane Inc. The undisputed facts show that these defendants sold gaskets and packing containing asbestos during the time that The decedent worked at WP&L. Unlike the other defendants, the plaintiff also offers at least some evidence that those manufacturers’ asbestos products were used in the facilities at which Carroll worked. All three of the decedent’s coworkers testified that they worked with John Crane gaskets. Only one of the decedent’s coworkers remembered “probably” working with A.W. Chesterton’s products. There were no other facts on the records regarding A.W. Chesterton products. As a result of the testimony, the court granted A.W. Chesterton’s motion for summary and denied John Crane’s motion.