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Grant of Summary Judgment to Brake Manufacturer Reversed on Appeal

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Court: Court of Appeal of Florida, First District 

The decedent, Joan Smith, died from mesothelioma allegedly caused by secondary exposure to asbestos through laundering her husband’s work clothing. From 1969 through 1993, Mr. Smith was employed as a mechanic and performed brake work on Mack heavy trucks. Mack did not manufacture its own brakes but rather purchased them from third-party suppliers, including Carlisle Industrial Brake & Friction. 

Carlisle acknowledged that it sold asbestos-containing brake linings to Mack from 1974 to 1979.  Mack, however, was only able to provide a list of approved sellers of brake linings and could not state which of the approved sellers sold brake linings to Mack during the 1970s.

Carlisle argued that the appellant’s product-identification witnesses failed to mention Carlisle by name and the evidence established only that “Carlisle was one of twelve suppliers” to Mack.  In opposition, the appellant argued that the evidence established that only Carlisle supplied brake linings from 1974 to 1979, and there was no evidence that all 12 approved suppliers simultaneously provided brakes to Mack. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of Carlisle.

The Court of Appeal described the product identification standard as “no different” than the causation standard pronounced by the Florida Supreme Court in Gooding v. University Hospital:

[T]he plaintiff . . . must introduce evidence which affords a reasonable basis for the conclusion that it is more likely than not that the conduct of the defendant was a substantial factor in bringing about the result. A mere possibility . . . is not enough; and when the matter remains one of pure speculation or conjecture, or the probabilities are at best evenly balanced, it becomes the duty of the Court to direct a verdict for the defendant.

The court determined that the following evidence put forth by the appellant was sufficient circumstantial evidence to defeat summary judgment: (1) Mrs. Smith was regularly exposed to dust from Mack-branded brake linings between 1974 and 1979; (2) Mack purchased brake linings from authorized suppliers and sold them as “Mack” brake linings; (3) Carlisle was an authorized supplier of brake linings to Mack; and (4) Carlisle sold asbestos-containing brake linings to Mack from 1974 to 1979. In addition, the court noted that Mr. Smith had numerous exposures involving multiple brake linings, and that “[w]ith every brake job, the probability that decedent was not exposed to Carlisle’s product grew smaller and smaller.”

The court concluded that the appellant established a genuine issue of material fact as to product identification. The question of whether the other approved suppliers may have supplied asbestos-containing brake linings to Mack will ultimately be for the jury to consider in determining whether the appellant “proved by a preponderance of the evidence that Carlisle’s products were a substantial contributing factor to Joan Smith’s fatal disease.” 

Read the full decision here.