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Gasket/Packing Manufacturer Fails Government Contractor Defense

United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, October 21, 2022

In this case, the plaintiffs Arnold and Ruth Pritt allege that Arnold Pritt (“Plaintiff”) was exposed to asbestos while serving in the U.S. Navy in the 1960s. Among other products, the plaintiff alleges that he was exposed to asbestos from John Crane packing and gaskets. Defendant John Crane filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiffs’ claims for failure to warn and design defect are barred by the government contractor defense outlined in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500, 512, 108 S. Ct. 2510, 101 L. Ed. 2d 442 (1988). Boyle set forth a three-prong test for design defect cases, and as it is an affirmative defense, John Crane bears the burden of proof.

A defendant asserting the government contractor immunity defense in a failure to warn case must satisfy three criteria: (1) the government exercised its discretion and approved certain warnings; (2) the contractor provided the warnings required by the government; and (3) the contractor warned the government about dangers in the equipment’s use that were known to the contractor but not to the government. Moore v. Elec. Boat Corp., 25 F.4th 30, 37 (1st Cir. 2022). While John Crane satisfied the first prong in that the Navy had been aware of the dangers of asbestos since the 1920s, the Court found that genuine issues of material fact existed as to the first two prongs. Therefore, John Crane’s motion for summary judgment with respect to the failure to warn claim was denied.

Turning to the design defect claim, the defendant must demonstrate that: (1) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (3) 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. Boyle, 487 U.S. at 512. The Court again found that John Crane satisfied the third prong of the Boyle test. However, the parties’ experts dispute whether the military specifications for gaskets and packing explicitly required asbestos. In light of such factual disputes, the Court denied John Crane’s motion for summary judgment on the design defect claim.

Finally, John Crane  asserts that it is entitled to derivative sovereign immunity under Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18, 60 S. Ct. 413, 84 L. Ed. 554 (1940). According to that doctrine, government contractors cannot be sued if: (1) the government authorized the contractor’s actions, and (2) the government validly conferred that authorization, meaning it acted within its constitutional power. Moore, 25 F.4th at 37. However, subsequent Supreme Court cases have imposed limits on Yearsley. The Supreme Court clarified that derivative sovereign immunity is not absolute, noting that “the liability of an agent for his own negligence has long been embedded in the law.” Brady v. Roosevelt S.S. Co., 317 U.S. 575, 580, 63 S. Ct. 425, 87 L. Ed. 471 (1943); see also Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 577 U.S. 153, 166, 136 S. Ct. 663, 193 L. Ed. 2d 571 (2016). Therefore, the doctrine of derivative sovereign immunity is not a viable defense to government contractors whose own negligence caused the harm. Hilbert v. Aeroquip, Inc., 486 F. Supp. 2d 135, 148 (D. Mass. 2007). Without resolving the negligence claim, the Court cannot enter summary judgment for defendant under that defense. The Court therefore denied John Crane’s motion for summary judgment on all grounds.

Read the full decision here