Federal Court Rejects Argument That Manufacturer Cannot Be Liable for Asbestos-Containing Component Parts

The plaintiffs filed suit in the Court of Common Pleas, First Judicial District, Philadelphia County, against various defendants claiming that the decedent, who had been employed since the 1950s as a millwright in multiple power plants and steel mill factories, developed work-related malignant mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos and to products containing asbestos.

This state action was ultimately removed to federal court and became part of Multidistrict Litigation-875 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Here, the plaintiffs specifically alleged that defendant Crane Co. manufactured, produced, sold, and/or supplied valves to the decedent’s various worksites. Following an eight-day trial against only defendant Crane Co. (all other defendants were dismissed or settled), the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded $1,085,000 in total damages; $835,000 in compensatory damages to the decedent’s estate under the Survival Act, 20 Pa. C.S. § 3371, et seq., and $250,000 for loss of consortium. The jury apportioned liability amongst specific defendants and, particularly, assessed Crane with 30 percent liability for damages.

Following the verdict, Crane filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law contending (1) it owed no legal duty to the decedent to warn of the hazards of asbestos-containing materials made and sold by third parties Crane had no control over; and (2) the plaintiffs did not establish causation and failed to prove that the decedent encountered asbestos-containing materials that Crane manufactured or supplied. Crane further argued that under Pennsylvania law, a manufacturer cannot be held legally responsible for asbestos-containing components that it did not make, sell, or otherwise place in the stream of commerce; an argument the defendant has made numerous times, and each time the argument has been rejected based upon the holding of Schwartz v. Abex Corp., 106 F. Supp. 3d 626 (E.D. Pa. 2015).

The court dismissed Crane’s first two arguments as without merit pursuant to the law of the case doctrine. Here, the court found that Crane previously litigated these points within prior motion practice. More specifically, Crane relied upon the identical case law and legal arguments that was considered and rejected within these prior motions. Therefore, Crane was not entitled to re-litigate or have this court reconsider these same legal issues. That is, under this doctrine, “once a court decides an issue, the same issue may not be re-litigated in subsequent proceedings in the same case.” [Citation Omitted].

As to Crane’s second argument, the court also found this to be flawed, noting that under Schwartz, a product manufacturer can be held liable for negligently failing to warn about asbestos hazards of component parts used with its product which it neither manufactured nor supplied if the product manufacturer, such as Crane (1) knew its product would be used with an asbestos-containing component part of the type at issue, (2) knew that asbestos was hazardous, and (3) failed to provide a warning that was adequate and reasonable under the circumstances. In this case, the facts established that Crane conceded that it supplied the valves at issue; Crane knew that asbestos was hazardous; and that it had not provided any warning regarding the use of asbestos in its valves. Further, Crane‘s corporate representative testified that they manufactured valves that incorporated asbestos-containing gaskets and packing, as well as valves that did not contain asbestos components, depending on the customer’s specific preference.

Taking the above into consideration, the court ultimately found that while the plaintiffs may not have presented actual direct evidence that Crane supplied asbestos-containing valves to any of the decedent’s work sites, the totality of the circumstantial evidence supports the jury’s finding that Crane did. Accordingly, Crane’s motion for judgment as a matter of law was denied.

Read the full decision here.