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Court Grants New Trial to Boiler Defendant Based on Improper Jury Instruction Regarding Causation

Court of Appeal of California, Second Appellate District, Division One, June 4, 2021

The decedent worked as a plumber in Michigan from 1969 to 1976. The plaintiff contends the decedent was exposed to asbestos during this time when working with boilers manufactured by Weil-McLain Company, Inc. (now a division of The Marley-Wylain Company (MW)). The decedent’s exposure to asbestos by MW products occurred entirely in Michigan. The plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2014 and subsequently filed suit, under California law, against a number of defendants including MW.

MW moved the trial court for an order declaring that, because the decedent’s exposure to asbestos from Weil-McLain products occurred entirely within the state of Michigan, Michigan law applied to the claims against MW. The trial court denied MW’s motion. MW petitioned the appellate court for a writ of mandate ordering the trial court to vacate its order and issue an order granting MW’s motion. The petition was granted and the trial court was ordered to apply Michigan law to the claims against MW. A jury trial was held whereby the jury concluded that Weil-McLain was negligent and that Weil-McLain’s negligence was a proximate cause of decedent’s mesothelioma. MW filed a notice of appeal.

In its appeal, MW contends the court should reverse the trial court’s judgment. Based on Michigan law, which MW argues applies, the trial evidence regarding the causal link between decedent’s exposure to asbestos and his mesothelioma was insufficient to support a jury verdict because Michigan law requires evidence of “but for” factual causation. MW also contends the trial court committed instructional error by improperly instructing the jury regarding causation.

The appellate court agreed that Michigan law applied to causation for decedent’s claims involving Weil-McLain’s products. The court noted California courts examine choice of law questions with regard to the particular issue in question. The court determined Michigan’s interest in applying its own law to plaintiff’s claims against Weil-McLain was superior to California’s interest.

The plaintiff contends that causation in asbestos cases is the same in California and Michigan. MW contends it is different: that factual causation in California is governed by an “every exposure” theory, but Michigan requires evidence of “but for” causation in all negligence actions and that asbestos cases are no exception. The appellate court did not agree with either contention.

The court rejected plaintiff’s contention that Michigan had adopted California’s Rutherford causation standard. A substantial factor contributing to an increased risk of a plaintiff’s injury is not the same thing as a substantial factor in producing the injury. The court concluded that to establish causation under Michigan law in a negligence cause of action for asbestos-related latent injuries, a plaintiff must establish and a jury must conclude that the defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in producing the plaintiff’s injuries, and not merely in increasing the risk that the plaintiff would suffer the injury.

The court found the plaintiff had tried his case to the jury as though the California causation standard was the proper standard. Nevertheless, in one question and answer, the record disclosed evidence that would have been sufficient to support the jury’s verdict had the jury been properly instructed on causation.

Next, MW contends that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury regarding causation in two different ways. First, MW contends that the trial court erred by not giving a special instruction that MW requested, which would have instructed the jury that plaintiff had to prove that “but for” Weil-McLain’s actions, plaintiff would not have been injured. Second, MW contends that the instruction the trial court did give was based on California’s causation standard, which is different from and more lax than Michigan’s causation standard.

The court determined the trial court properly refused the giving of a special instruction, finding Michigan law does not require a plaintiff to prove “but for” causation but, rather, a defendant’s actions were a substantial factor in producing the injury.

The trial court’s instruction to the jury contained the following language: “[A] proximate cause in causing harm is a factor that . . . a reasonable person would consider to have contributed to the harm. It does not have to be the only cause of harm. Plaintiff may prove that exposure to asbestos from . . . Weil-McLain’s asbestos-containing product was a proximate cause in causing decedent’s illness by showing through expert testimony that there was a . . . reasonable medical probability that the exposure was a proximate cause contributing to . . . decedent’s risk of developing cancer.”

The appellate court concluded this instruction improperly reflected California causation law, which is less stringent than the Michigan standard for causation. The court found this instructional error warranted reversal as there was a reasonable probability that in the absence of an error, a result more favorable to the appealing party would have been reached. 

Read the full decision here.