The law concept background.

Gasket Manufacturer’s Motions for Summary Judgment Granted, in part, Pursuant to Maritime Law

Court: United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff’s decedent, Joseph Pine, served as a fireman aboard the USS Constellation from 1965-1967. After he died from mesothelioma a month after his diagnosis, his widow Lydia Pine (plaintiff) brought suit against defendant John Crane Inc. and a number of other asbestos manufacturers. As the final remaining defendant, Crane moved for summary judgment and to strike plaintiff’s jury demand.

According to the pleadings, the decedent worked on auxiliary equipment including pumps, gaskets, valves, generators, and steam-driven machinery during his service. Plaintiff initiated the case in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, however, Westinghouse Electric Corp. removed the case to federal court. There, the Pennsylvania Eastern District Court determined that maritime law governed the case because the decedent “was a sea-based Navy worker, and the allegedly defective product…was produced for use on a sea vessel.”  Pine v. John Crane Inc., 2023 US Dist LEXIS 197093, at *3 (E.D. Pa Oct. 24, 2023, No. 18-927); see e.g., Nelson v. A.W. Chesterton Co., No. 10-00065, 2012 WL 7761243, at *1, n.1 (E.D. Pa Oct 19, 2012). To establish causation under maritime law, a plaintiff must show “(1) he was exposed to the defendant’s product; (2) the product was a substantial factor in causing the injury he suffered; and (3) the defendant manufactured or distributed the asbestos-containing product to which exposure is alleged.” Lindstrom v. A-C Prod. Liab. Trust, 424 F.3d 488, 492 (6th Cir. 2005). 

Further, the court held that substantial factor causation is determined with respect to each individual defendant. A plaintiff cannot rely on “minimal exposure” or “a mere showing that [a] defendant’s product was present somewhere” in his workplace.  See Lindstrom, 424 F.3d at 492.  Instead, a 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 conjectural.”  Id.  Crucially, “The question of ‘substantiality is best left to the jury.” RedlandSoccer Club, Inc. v. Dep’t of Army, 55 F.3d 827, 851 (3d Cir. 1995). In the case of Crane, the decedent’s coworkers’ testimony of “products and the work [the decedent] performed on such products and the dust to which he was exposed, [was] sufficient to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether asbestos attributable to defendant was a substantial factor in causing his mesothelioma.”  Pine, 2023 US Dist LEXIS 197093, at *4. As a result, the court found plaintiff satisfied the Lindstrom factors and denied Crane’s motion for summary judgment as to causation.

Nevertheless, Crane also moved for summary judgment on non-pecuniary and punitive damages, arguing such damages were not recoverable under maritime law and the Death on the High Seas Act (DOHSA). Crane further contended Pennsylvania state law did not apply. The court agreed, finding there is no “clear historical pattern of awarding survival damages [or non-pecuniary damages] in general maritime negligence or wrongful death actions.”  Id. at *6; Mullinex v. John Crane, Inc., 606 F. Supp. 3d, 239, 294-97 (E.D. Va. 2022) (citing Miles v. Apex Marine Corp., 498 U.S. 19, 29-33 (1990). Likewise, it held that general maritime law remedies could not be supplemented by applicable state law remedies because the decedent indeed was a seaman. Subsequently, it granted Crane’s motion as to non-pecuniary and punitive damages.

Finally, the court denied Crane’s motion to strike jury. Although Rule 38(e) states there is no right to a jury trial in cases sounding solely in admiralty, plaintiff’s amended complaint after removal to federal court incorporated Pennsylvania claims. As such, an independent ground for jurisdiction existed, thus negating the effect of Rule 38(e) and permitting plaintiff’s jury demand.

Read the full decision here.