Pump Defendants Granted Summary Judgment in Maritime Asbestos Claim U.S. District Court, D. Delaware, January 18, 2019

DELAWARE — The plaintiffs initially filed suit in the Superior Court of Delaware on November 2, 2016 against various defendants asserting claims arising out of an alleged exposure to asbestos suffered by the plaintiff Earl Janis, Jr. (Janis).  The case was removed to federal court on February 16, 2017 pursuant to the federal officer removal statute under U.S.C. §§ 1442(a)(1).  On June 4, 2018, three similarly situated defendants (manufacturers of pumps located on naval ships) filed summary judgment motions that are at issue in this decision.

The plaintiffs generally allege that Janis developed lung cancer through his exposure to asbestos-containing materials during his service in the United States Navy as a machinist mate between 1971 to 1975.  More specifically, Janis was responsible for installing, repairing and maintaining valves and pumps aboard various naval vessels.  This work included the removal, scraping and cleaning of gaskets on the repair of these valves and pumps.  Janis testified that removing gaskets and creating new gaskets out of the provided gasket material “dispersed products into the air, producing visible particles that he inhaled”. [citation omitted].  More generally, Janis’s testimony establishes that he generally worked on pumps manufactured by varied manufacturers hundreds of times during his naval service spanning from 1971 to 1975.

Both parties agreed that maritime law applied to this naval/sea-based asbestos claim.  Here, in order to establish causation in an asbestos claim under maritime law, a plaintiff must show, for each defendant, “that (1) he was exposed to the defendant’s product, and (2) the product was a substantial factor in causing the injury he suffered.”  Lindstrom v. A-C Prod. Liab. Trust, 424 F.3d 488, 492 (6th Cir. 2005).  In meeting this standard, the plaintiff may rely upon direct evidence (such as deposition testimony) and/or circumstantial evidence that will support an inference that there was exposure to defendant’s product for some length of time.  However, under Lindstrom, “minimal exposure’ to a defendant’s product is insufficient [to establish causation]. Likewise, a mere showing that defendant’s product was present somewhere at the plaintiff’s place of work is insufficient.”  Rather, the plaintiff must show a high enough level of exposure that an inference that the asbestos was a substantial factor in the injury is more than just conjectural.  Lindstrom, 424 f.3D at 492. 

In each of the motions, the defendants argue that the plaintiffs failed to establish that the defendant’s products were a substantial factor in causing Janis’s injuries.  Here, the plaintiff had primarily relied upon 2 pieces of evidence: (a) ship records showing defendants’ products were aboard some of the various naval vessels that Janis served and (b) Janis’s deposition testimony that he generally recalled working with the defendant’s products. Defendants argued that Janis was unable to provide any details as to the mechanisms the pumps were used for; the composition of the insulation or gaskets within the pumps and whether they contained asbestos; the number of times he worked with any specific pump manufacturer; and the specific naval vessel to which he worked with any specific pump manufacturer.

In light of the above, the court found the general testimony of Janis as to the pumps he worked on without any a real specificity failed to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether defendant’s products were a substantial factor in causing Janis’s injuries.  As such, defendants’ motions for summary judgment were GRANTED.

Only the Westlaw citation is currently available at 2019 WL 264890.

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