Purifier Defendant Granted Summary Judgment as Plaintiffs Failed to Establish Causation

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U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, July 19, 2021

Defendant Alfa Laval filed this present amended motion for summary judgment. The plaintiffs allege the decedent, John Dale Wineland (decedent or Mr. Wineland), worked aboard a series of Navy ships including the USS Dynamic, USS Pledge, USS Loyalty, USS Tuscaloosa, and USS Esteem from 1963 to 1984, where he was exposed to asbestos from Alfa Laval products aboard these ships. The decedent worked in the engine room where he was repairing and maintaining machinery and equipment such as diesel engines, pumps, air compressors, and valves. Mr. Wineland developed mesothelioma and died in 2018. Plaintiffs assert that Alfa Laval is liable for Mr. Wineland’s illness and death under theories of negligence and strict liability.

Alfa Laval seeks summary dismissal of all of the plaintiffs’ claims, arguing that, under either Washington or maritime law, the plaintiffs have failed to produce admissible evidence from which a jury could reasonably conclude that (a) Mr. Wineland’s exposure to asbestos from Alfa Laval products, if any, was a substantial contributing factor in his illness and death and (b) even if such exposure were shown, the plaintiffs cannot demonstrate that the asbestos was original to the equipment or otherwise manufactured, supplied, or specified by Alfa Laval.

The court found that maritime law applies to the plaintiffs’ tort claims. To establish causation under maritime law, the plaintiffs must show that the decedent’s exposure to Alfa Laval products was a substantial contributing factor in causing his injuries, that is, more is needed than simply placing a defendant’s products in the workplace and showing that the decedent was occasionally exposed to asbestos dust from those products. The plaintiffs must provide “evidence regarding the amount of exposure to dust” attributable to Alfa Laval and the duration of such exposure.

While there was evidence that Alfa Laval products were present aboard the ships and there was evidence from which a reasonable jury could find that Mr. Wineland was exposed to significant levels of asbestos dust while working in the engine rooms of the five vessels, the asbestos dust from an Alfa Laval product was minimal. Further, Alfa Laval offered the opinion of an industrial hygienist, John W. Spencer, CIH, CSP, who concluded that the Alfa Laval purifiers found no asbestos exposure as a result of performing the cleaning tasks routinely performed on purifiers. To dispute Mr. Spencer’s opinion, the plaintiffs offered the deposition testimony of John Rogers, a seaman on the USS Newport News who stated that he removed asbestos-containing gaskets from an Alfa Laval product. However, the court noted that Mr. Rogers was a machinist, not an engineman like Mr. Wineland. Further, Mr. Rogers indicated that he removed the gaskets on an Alfa Laval purifier once during the years 1967 and 1971 during an overhaul and there was otherwise no reason to disturb the gaskets or anything on the purifier during the course of normal maintenance of these purifiers.

Therefore, the court found that the plaintiffs have not shown that the use and daily maintenance of the purifiers released any asbestos at all, much less a high enough level of dust to raise a reasonable inference that Alfa Laval’s asbestos was a substantial factor in his injury. As such, the court did not need to determine whether the asbestos-containing components in place during the years the decedent was aboard the ships were manufactured, supplied, or specified by Alfa Laval.

The court granted Alfa Laval’s motion for summary judgment.

Read the full decision here.