U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, May 7, 2021
The plaintiff alleges exposure to asbestos-containing equipment during his service in the United States Navy. The plaintiff and his wife sued several equipment manufacturers alleging their products caused the plaintiff to develop mesothelioma.
The defendants filed an omnibus motion for summary judgment arguing (1) they had no duty to warn of product hazards, (2) there is no proof of causation, (3) the government contractor defense immunizes them from liability, and (4) punitive damages and loss of consortium are unavailable.
The defendants argued the plaintiffs’ claims fail as a matter of law because there is no evidence that the defendants owed the plaintiff a duty to warn of the dangers of asbestos associated with their products. Using the DeVries test, the court rejected the defendants’ contention. The court found that their products did not require incorporation of asbestos because it was the Navy that required asbestos parts. The court found the Navy’s directive to replace the asbestos parts in the defendants’ products with third party asbestos parts was not fatal to a duty-to-warn inquiry. Based on this, the court proceeded to analyze whether there was evidence that the defendants’ products required incorporation of asbestos.
In determining the defendants’ products required the incorporation of asbestos, meeting the first prong of the DeVries test, the court looked to expert testimony whereby it was evidenced Defendant companies were aware the products at issue contained asbestos and would require replacement with a similar part. The court also looked to internal documents detailing the Navy’s orders for asbestos containing replacement parts and drawings identifying asbestos containing parts.
The second prong of the DeVries test requires that the manufacturers knew or had reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses. To show the defendants had reason to know of the dangers of their integrated products, the plaintiffs relied on expert testimony pointing to the known dangers of asbestos as published in literature during the relevant time periods. The court also concluded that even assuming that the defendants were not aware of the available literature on asbestos hazards prior to selling their equipment to the Navy, later publications such as that by the American Industrial Hygiene Association in 1958 and that by the New York Academy of Science in 1965 support imposing a post-sale duty to warn in this case. The court found the plaintiffs presented a triable issue of fact as to whether the defendants had reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses.
As for the third and last prong outlined in DeVries, the court considers whether the defendants had “no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger.” The court, however, found that the plaintiffs have raised triable issues of fact as to whether the defendants had no reason to believe that their product’s end user, that is Navy sailors, would realize the asbestos hazards to which they were exposed. With all prongs of the DeVries test met, the court concluded the defendant manufacturers had a duty to warn.
Next, the court examined causation. The plaintiffs must prove that (1) the plaintiff was actually exposed to the defendants’ asbestos-containing materials and (2) such exposure was a substantial contributing factor in causing his injuries. The plaintiffs put forth expert testimony contenting that the work performed by the plaintiff on naval ships resulted in asbestos dust. Further the plaintiff’s shipmates provided further evidence of exposure. Based on this, the court determined there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find the plaintiff was exposed to the defendants’ products, and the court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment regarding no duty to warn of product hazards.
The court also found the plaintiffs had set forth sufficient evidence to create a triable issue of fact as to whether exposure to the defendants’ products was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injuries. The court found that the expert and deposition evidence that the plaintiffs presented—i.e., that the defendants’ products were in the specific area in which the plaintiff worked for two years, that the plaintiff and his shipmates’ daily routine consisted of repairing, maintaining, and cleaning up various equipment in the fire room in dusty conditions, and that such labor exposes a worker to an amount of asbestos fibers that can contribute to the development of mesothelioma—altogether provide a basis upon which a jury could determine that the asbestos from the defendants’ products was a substantial contributing factor to his injuries, even if it seems unlikely that a jury would do so. The court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment regarding proof of causation.
The court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the government contractor defense finding the plaintiffs had presented a triable issue on whether the supplier warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not to the United States. The court found no evidence that the defendants warned the United States about asbestos hazards.
The court, however, granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment regarding punitive damages and loss of consortium, finding there was no evidence that punitive damages were traditionally awarded in maritime negligence cases, coupled with the observation that a parallel statutory scheme does not allow for recovery of non-pecuniary losses.