Two Defendants Obtain Summary Judgment Due to Insufficient Evidence as Required by Applicable Law

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U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, June 15, 2021

As previously reported by Asbestos Case Tracker, the plaintiff alleges that the decedent Richard Nybeck developed lung cancer following occupational exposure to asbestos. Defendants Ford Motor Company (Ford) and defendant, Air & Liquid Systems Corporation, as successor by merger to Buffalo Pumps, Inc. (Buffalo) filed motions for summary judgment. The allegations as Ford stem from the decedent’s work during high school at his father’s gas station in Michigan. As to Buffalo, the plaintiff alleges that the decedent was exposed to asbestos from his military service as a boiler technician aboard a Naval ship.

As to Ford’s motion for summary judgment, the court notes that Michigan law applies as the alleged asbestos exposure occurred exclusively in Michigan while the decedent was residing in Michigan. Under Michigan law, a plaintiff in a products liability action must establish that “(1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty to warn of the danger, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) the defendant’s breach was the proximate and actual cause of the plaintiff’s injury, and (4) the plaintiff suffered damages as a result.” Moreover, a manufacturer is not liable for an alleged failure to warn “unless the plaintiff proves that the manufacturer knew or should have known about the risk of harm based on the scientific, technical, or medical information reasonably available at the time the specific unit of the product left the control of the manufacturer.”

Ford contends that the plaintiff’s negligent failure to warn and breach of warranty claims fail because no evidence in the record establishes that Ford knew or should have known about dangers associated with asbestos in its brake and clutch products between 1954 and 1957, when the decedent was allegedly exposed. The plaintiff responds by pointing to Ford’s membership in a professional organization, the National Safety Council, which the plaintiff claimed creates an issue of fact as to whether Ford knew or should have known of the risks of asbestos during that time. The court noted that no documents in the record reflect that Ford was either an author or recipient. Nor do any documents establish what Ford knew or should have known between 1954 and 1957 about the dangers of exposure to its brake and clutch products, allegedly containing asbestos, let alone that or if such exposure could lead to lung cancer. The court also ruled that there was insufficient evidence to support the civil conspiracy claim made by the plaintiff.

Turning to Buffalo’s motion for summary judgment, the court notes that Buffalo seeks summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims of negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty. Buffalo contends that all of the plaintiff’s claims fail because his evidence is insufficient to establish that the decedent was exposed to any Buffalo product allegedly containing asbestos, let alone to the extent to which such exposure could be considered a substantial factor in causing the decedent’s lung cancer. Buffalo also argues that it is entitled to the government contractor defense on all claims.

Buffalo argued and the court agreed that maritime law applies as the alleged asbestos exposure related to Buffalo occurred exclusively while the decedent was working aboard a Naval ship while at sea and docked in the Philadelphia naval yard. Thus, to succeed on its asbestos-related products liability claims pursuant to maritime law, a plaintiff must establish causation “by showing (1) that the plaintiff was exposed to the defendant’s product and (2) that the product was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injury.” The court notes that the record established that while working as a Naval boiler technician aboard the USS New Jersey between 1967 and 1969, the decedent tightened a packing gland on a Buffalo pump at “one time or another.” He may also have performed work on some Buffalo pump valves. However, the court stated that the record is devoid of evidence that established the decedent was exposed to any asbestos from a Buffalo product or that he was “substantially exposed” as required by maritime law.

Thus, the court granted the summary judgment motions.

Read the first decision here.

Read the second decision here.