Electrical Equipment Manufacturer’s Motions to Preclude Expert Testimony and for Summary Judgment Denied

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U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, March 28, 2022

In this asbestos action, plaintiff Arnold Pritt alleged that he was exposed to asbestos during his service in the U.S. Navy, and over the course of his career as a civilian electrician. Mr. Pritt was diagnosed with mesothelioma in September 2019. On October 10, 2019, he filed suit in New York State Supreme Court against a variety of defendants, including the General Electric Company (GE). The case was subsequently removed to federal court due to Mr. Pritt’s allegations stemming from his time in the U.S. Navy. Regarding GE, Mr. Pritt alleged that defendant General Electric Company designed and manufactured asbestos-containing products that caused his mesothelioma. GE moved (1) to preclude the testimony of the plaintiff’s expert witness, and (2) for summary judgment as to all claims asserted against it.

With respect to Mr. Pritt’s civilian electrician career, he worked as a union electrician for various electrical contractors between 1972 and 1980. He testified that he worked with asbestos-containing equipment manufactured by eight manufacturers, including GE. This equipment included switchgear, motor control centers, safety switches/disconnects, circuit breakers, breaker panels, relays, contactors, and arc chutes. Mr. Pritt testified that he encountered asbestos while working on GE equipment, and that he often used an air hose, wire brush, and cloth to keep GE equipment free of accumulated asbestos dust. He also testified that he drilled and cut into certain GE electrical equipment and that this resulted in the release of asbestos dust.

In response to the plaintiff’s claims, GE first moved to preclude the testimony of Dr. Candace Su-Junt Tsai, an industrial hygienist. Dr. Tsai’s report included an “exposure evaluation” which reviewed the tasks Mr. Pritt performed in his employment, and evaluated the type of asbestos-containing equipment involved in his daily tasks. GE argued that this report would not assist the jury because Dr. Tsai assumed that Mr. Pritt’s alleged exposure was significant. Additionally, GE argued that Dr. Tsai failed to address the issue before the jury, which is whether or not GE products were a substantial contributing factor in causing Mr. Pritt’s disease. The court disagreed with GE, noting that the plaintiffs may elicit testimony from Dr. Tsai that is dependent on separate evidence that will be introduced through other witnesses. Moreover, the court noted that the purpose of Dr. Tsai’s testimony was to opine about the amount of exposure to asbestos dust from particular types of work, and that GE may attempt to undermine the basis for these opinions at trial. As such, the court denied GE’s motion to preclude testimony from Dr. Tsai.

Next, GE argued that it was entitled to summary judgment because the plaintiffs had not shown that GE’s products or its failure to warn were substantial factors in causing Mr. Pritt’s mesothelioma, or that GE had a duty to warn Mr. Pritt of the risks of asbestos. Additionally, GE argued that it was shielded from liability as to Mr. Pritt’s alleged military exposure due to the government contractor defense. Regarding the plaintiff’s claims arising from Mr. Pritt’s time in the navy, the court applied maritime law to each claim and found no genuine dispute of material fact. As such, the court granted GE’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the naval claims.

On the other hand, the court concluded that a genuine dispute of fact existed as to Mr. Pritt’s asbestos exposure during is civilian career. GE pointed out that Mr. Pritt never “cut, drilled, ground, sanded, or otherwise manipulated an alleged asbestos-containing component in any GE electrical equipment,” and further noted that Dr. Tsai stated that she “did not quantify specific company’s product in terms of significant exposure or not.” However, the court found that Mr. Pritt did testify that the material located inside GE electrical panels would crack and fall apart, producing dust, and further found that the plaintiff’s showing of substantial exposure was not limited to Dr. Tsai’s testimony, but rather the testimony of other experts. As a result, the court denied GE’s motion for summary judgement on substantial factor grounds.

Finally, with respect to GE’s failure to warn argument, GE argued that that Mr. Pritt never read a GE manual, and thus a lack of warning on a GE manual could not have caused Mr. Pritt’s mesothelioma. Additionally, GE argued that even if it did provide warnings, the warnings would not have mattered because Mr. Pritt’s deposition testimony demonstrates that he would not have heeded these warnings. In response, Plaintiffs argued that Mr. Pritt testified to the fact that he relied on statements he had read in manuals and packaging on other GE equipment. Moreover, Plaintiffs pointed out that Mr. Pritt testified to his job responsibilities remaining the same, irrespective of a warning. The plaintiffs further argued that Mr. Pritt did not testify that he would not have changed the way he performed his job responsibilities if he read a warning. Based on the arguments raised by the plaintiffs, the court found that a genuine dispute existed as to causation under the failure to warn argument. As such, the court similarly denied GE’s motion for summary judgment on failure to warn grounds.

Read the full decision here.