Manufacturer Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Failure to Warn Claim Denied

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, October 21, 2021

In this asbestos action, Dale Spurlin served in the U.S. Navy from 1963 until 1969. During this time, he alleged asbestos exposure while maintaining the boilers and other equipment in the fire rooms on the USS McGinty and the USS Rowan. After this matter was more than two years into its pendency and the filing of summary judgment motions, the defendants argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction by way of a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss. Namely, they adopted Fourth Circuit precedent and argued that Yearsley immunity is a jurisdictional bar. However, the Spurlin court disagreed and noted the jurisdictional split on this issue. The court sided with the Fifth and Sixth Circuits’ reading of Yearsley and held that Yearsley immunity is an affirmative defense, rather than a jurisdictional bar.

Thereafter, the court held that Yearsley immunity did not apply in this matter. Pursuant to Ninth Circuit precedent, Yearsley immunity “is limited to cases in which a contractor had no discretion in the design process and completely followed government specifications.” In this matter, the court set forth that there was no evidence that “Defendants’ failure to warn against asbestos can be attributed to their compliance with federal directions concerning the installation and repair of their asbestos-containing equipment … The record shows no government direction preventing Defendants from warning against asbestos hazards.” Indeed, the court pointed to the plaintiff’s naval expert’s report, which set forth that the “General Specifications for Machinery required manufacturers to provide installation, operation and maintenance instructions as well as safety precautions as an essential part of Instruction Books for machinery and electrical equipment.”

The court held that “Defendants did not completely lack discretion over its product warnings and that the lack of asbestos-related warnings—the alleged injury-causing condition—was not mandated by any specific government instruction.” Further, the defendants could not point to any specific government instruction for their failure to warn regarding the hazards of asbestos. The court stated that “the Navy authorized manufacturers to provide warnings and relied heavily on them to identify hazards associated with their products.” As such, the court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Read the full decision here.