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Dryer Felt Manufacturer’s Judgment Upheld on Appeal

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Court: Court of Appeals of Washington, Division One

In this asbestos action, decedent Kevin Holdsworth worked at a paper mill in Camas, Washington from 1964 to 2001. He alleged exposure to asbestos from several sources during his employment, including from his role on the paper machine cleanup crew which required him to “blow down” every paper machine at the Camas mill.

Holdsworth also alleged exposure to asbestos from his role in the maintenance department at the Camas mill, where he frequently used a hammer to break off chunks of asbestos-containing insulation from pumps and pipes, and from his work in the pipe shop where he worked with valves, gaskets, and packing materials. He was diagnosed with mesothelioma in December 2018, which he alleges resulted from asbestos exposure at the Camas mill. He passed away in 2019.

Decedent’s trial commenced on May 20, 2021. At the close of Holdsworth’s case-in-chief, defendant Scapa Waycross moved for judgment as a matter of law, which the court denied. Scapa renewed its motion at the close of all evidence, which the court again denied. During its closing argument, plaintiffs objected to Scapa’s statement to the jury relating to its consideration of damages and substantial factors. The trial court provided a curative instruction to the jury, to which Scapa objected. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff. Scapa then renewed its motion for judgment as a matter of law and moved for a new trial, which were both denied. Scapa appealed.

On appeal, Scapa assigned error to the trial court’s denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law, arguing there was insufficient evidence of both exposure and proximate cause. The Appellate Court disagreed, first noting that courts are appropriately hesitant to take cases away from juries. The Appellate Court further noted that traditional product liability theory requires a reasonable connection between the harm suffered by the plaintiff, the product that caused the harm, and the manufacturer of that product, and that it is “well settled” plaintiffs may establish exposure to a defendant’s product through direct or circumstantial evidence.

Here, the Appellate Court noted that the evidence clearly established that during the relevant time period, Scapa supplied 238 dryer felts to the Camas mill (which were used on paper machines) and that 141 of the dryer felts supplied contained asbestos. Second, both Holdsworth and his coworker, Robert Crowson, recalled seeing the name “Scapa” on packaging of dryer felts at the Camas mill. Both men also testified that Holdsworth blew down every paper machine in the mill as part of his job duties. For these reasons, the Appellate Court found that the record amply evidenced the decedent’s exposure to asbestos from Scapa dryer felts.

Additionally, Scapa argued that plaintiffs failed to establish that the alleged asbestos exposure was a substantial factor causing the decedent’s mesothelioma. The Appellate Court noted that there are a variety of factors that courts are to consider regarding causation, including plaintiff’s proximity, the extent of time plaintiff was exposed, the types of products, and the ways in which products are handled and used. Scapa argued that the factor relating to proximity is “critical” and that the jury had no basis to evaluate the amount of time Holdsworth was allegedly exposed. The Appellate Court disagreed, noting that Scarpa failed to provide any citation to case law requiring that an asbestos plaintiff specifically raise this theory of exposure. Furthermore, Holdsworth provided other evidence of causation including the existence of asbestos-containing dryer felt manufactured by Scapa at the Camas mill, the existence of such dryer felt in Holdsworth’s presence, and expert evidence regarding the ability of asbestos fibers to travel in the air. For these reasons, the Appellate Court held that the jury heard enough evidence to reasonably support a causation conclusion.

Finally, Scapa argued on appeal that the trial court’s curative instruction to the jury was “improper, unconstitutional, and prejudicial” and effectively instructed the jury to disregard Scapa’s causation defense. The Appellate Court similarly disagreed with this argument, noting that the record established that both parties agreed to the instruction, and that after the instruction was provided, Scarpa simply noted that it wanted an objection on the record rather than requesting any specific recourse. Scapa also failed to demonstrate that the challenged curative instruction resulted in prejudice and was not remedied by other instructions provided by the court.

For these reasons, the Appellate Court denied Scapa’s appeal of the judgment against it and Scapa’s request for a new trial. 

Read the full decision here.