Boiler Manufacturer Granted Summary Judgment Based on Lack of Product Nexus

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence, October 27, 2020

The decedent, Gerard Wallace, and his wife, Ruth (the plaintiff) filed a complaint on November 16, 2016 after the decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma in September 2016. The plaintiff alleged that the decedent worked as a plumbing-heating installer-repairer from 1949 to 1985. Specifically, the plaintiff argued while the decedent worked in Maine, Crane Co. (the defendant) boilers exposed him to asbestos. Due to the exposures occurring in Maine, the parties agreed that Maine substantive law should apply.

During his deposition, the decedent testified to installing “a few” Crane boilers, as well as doing service and overhaul work that could disturb the sealant around the smoke hood, though he did not remove the boilers. However, the decedent could not testify as to how many Crane boilers he installed, when he installed them, nor could he recall the make or model of any of the boilers. He further identified applying Johns-Manville cement to the Crane boilers.

In the motion for summary judgment, the defendant argued the plaintiff failed to produce evidence showing the decedent worked with or around a Crane boiler utilizing asbestos-containing components manufactured, sold, or supplied by Crane. The defendant further argued the plaintiff did not offer evidence showing that the decedent had contact with asbestos through Crane sealant materials (either those made by the company or sold by it). The plaintiff argued that material issues of fact exist, and summary judgment is not warranted.

Initially, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has said that “[w]e apply our own procedural law’ even if a foreign state’s substantive law is applicable.'” DeFontes v. Dell, Inc., 984 A.2d 1061, 1067 (R.I. 2009). This court will grant summary judgment “when no genuine issue of material fact is evident from ‘the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,’ and the motion justice finds that the moving party is entitled to prevail as a matter of law.” Swain v. Estate of Tyre ex rel. Reilly, 57 A.3d 283, 288 (R.I. 2012). The moving party “bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of fact.” McGovern v. Bank of America, N.A., 91 A.3d 853, 858 (R.I. 2014) (citation omitted). The court “views the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party[,]” Mruk v.Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems, Inc., 82 A.3d 527, 532 (R.I. 2013), and “does not pass upon the weight or the credibility of the evidence[,]” Palmisciano v. Burrillville RacingAssociation, 603 A.2d 317, 320 (R.I. 1992). Thereafter, “‘the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving by competent evidence the existence of a disputed issue of material fact and cannot rest upon mere allegations or denials in the pleadings, mere conclusions or mere legal opinions.'” Mruk, 82 A.3d at 532.

A claim for negligence under Maine law requires proof of causation as a main element. See Mastriano v. Blyer, 779 A.2d 951, 954 (Me. 2001). Consequently, a plaintiff must prove that their injury was proximately caused by a breach of duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant. Id. Therefore, to establish a case in personal injury asbestos litigation, a plaintiff must demonstrate not only product nexus-that the decedent was exposed to the defendant’s asbestos-containing product-but also medical causationi.e., that such exposure was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s injury. Grant v. Foster Wheeler, LLC, 140 A.3d 1242, 1248 (Me. 2016).

The Grant court held that the necessary showing of product nexus means, at minimum, evidence of 1) a defendant’s asbestos-containing product, 2) at the site where the plaintiff worked or was present, and 3) where the plaintiff was in proximity to that product at the time it was being used.

The decedent stated that his work included installation of a “few” boilers, though he could not state how many were Crane boilers or when he installed them. Consequently, the plaintiff did not established that the decedent installed a new Crane boiler that contained asbestos when it arrived.

Additionally, although the decedent also used asbestos-containing cement on Crane boilers, the plaintiff did not offer evidence that Crane sold the actual asbestos-containing products used by the decedent on the Crane boilers. The plaintiff’s evidence has failed to adequately link his exposure to “asbestos that originated with [Defendant].” 

The plaintiff did not establish that the decedent was exposed to an asbestos-containing product that originated with the defendant. Accordingly, the court found that the defendant met its summary judgment burden and that the plaintiff failed to produce sufficient evidence of product nexus.