In September of 2012, William Stallings filed suit in Kentucky state court against Georgia Pacific and other manufacturers of the asbestos containing products he had been exposed to decades earlier, seeking punitive damages under theories of strict liability and negligence. Specifically, Stallings was diagnosed with mesothelioma allegedly caused by his four years of Naval Service, where he helped operate and maintain boilers aboard the USS Waller. After leaving the Navy, Stallings worked as a drywall finisher, where he alleged exposure from mixing and installing drywall. The case was later removed to federal district court, and proceeded there until September 2013, when Stallings passed away from complications due to his mesothelioma. Carol Lee Stallings, as the surviving spouse and as executrix of the estate (the plaintiff), filed an amended complaint and added a wrongful death claim.
The remaining defendants, including Georgia-Pacific, moved for summary judgment arguing the plaintiff failed to meet the causation standard in Kentucky, which the district court granted. As to the claims against Georgia-Pacific, the court found that Stallings had failed to establish that the company’s products were a substantial factor in bringing about Stallings’ mesothelioma, as required for a finding of causation under Kentucky common law. Specifically, the court noted, in order to survive summary judgment, the plaintiff would have had to provide evidence that the company’s products were probably, rather than possibly, a substantial cause of Stallings’ mesothelioma. However, the plaintiff’s medical experts could only testify “that any exposure to asbestos qualifies as a substantial exposure,” offering no more precise estimate of how much of that exposure was due specifically to Georgia-Pacific’s products. Accordingly, as Kentucky does not follow the “any exposure” theory of causation, the district court dismissed the claims against Georgia Pacific. The plaintiff appealed.
In review of this appeal, the United States Court of Appeals of the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment to grant defendants motion for summary judgment. This Court of Appeals reasoned that because prior precedent had already rejected the type of evidence on which Stallings relies as simply too insubstantial to satisfy that standard, Stallings cannot show that Georgia-Pacific was legally responsible for Mr. Stallings’ injury. For example, this type of limited testimony — the only that the plaintiff can cite on behalf of the claim that Georgia Pacific’s products were legally responsible for her Stallings’ mesothelioma—is too spare to satisfy Kentucky’s substantial factor test, especially given the evidence of Stallings’ considerable daily exposure to asbestos aboard the USS Waller during his Naval Service. Accordingly, the court found the plaintiff failed to present evidence showing that Georgia Pacific’s products were a probable, as opposed to a merely possible, cause of Stallings’ disease. Under Kentucky law, as the Court of Appeals has understood it, that failure was not enough to make a reasonable inference of causation. Georgia-Pacific was therefore entitled to summary judgment.