Maritime Defendants’ Motions for Summary Judgment under Government Contractor Defense Denied

Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of California

This asbestos-related lawsuit alleges that the decedent, Roberto Elorreaga, developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos-containing products while working aboard the USS Rupertus (DD-851) from October 1959 to January 1960 as a machinist mate, and the USS Cowell (DD-547) from October 1960 until February 1963 as a fireman’s apprentice and then as an electrician’s mate.

Several defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that the Government Contractor Defense precluded the plaintiffs’ claims.  Plaintiffs opposed the motions arguing that the Government Contractor Defense did not apply.

Summary judgment is proper when a “movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). And a dispute is “genuine” if there is evidence in the record sufficient for a reasonable trier of fact to decide in favor of the nonmoving party. Id. But in deciding if a dispute is genuine, the court must view the inferences reasonably drawn from the materials in the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88 (1986). If a court finds that there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to only a single claim or defense, or as to part of a claim or defense, it may enter partial summary judgment. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a).

The Government Contractor Defense “protects government contractors from tort liability that arises as a result of the contractor’s ‘compli[ance] with the specifications of a federal government contract.'” Getz v. Boeing Co., 654 F.3d 852, 860 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting In re Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litig., 534 F.3d 986, 1000 (9th Cir. 2008)). The defense “precludes state claims where the imposition of liability would undermine or frustrate federal interests.” Yearsley v. W.A. Ross Construction Co., 309 U.S. 18 (1940); see also Nielsen v. George Diamond Vogel Paint Co., 892 F.2d 1450, 1454 (9th Cir. 1990).

To establish the defense, a contractor must show: (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 v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988). The defendant bears the burden of establishing this affirmative defense, and at the summary judgment stage, the defendant must do so in a way that “no reasonable jury could fail to find that the defense ha[s] been established.” Snell v. Bell Helicopter Textron, 107 F.3d 744, 746 (9th Cir. 1997).

In this case, the plaintiffs’ claims were brought under federal law. In the absence of more direct authority, the court was persuaded by the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation that Boyle is premised on preemption concerns that do not exist in such a case as this. Cf. United States v. Montero-Camargo, 208 F.3d 1122, 1132, n.17 (9th Cir. 2000). The court accordingly found that the Government Contractor Defense under Boyle did not apply, because the plaintiffs’ claims arose under federal maritime law. As such, the defendants’ motions were denied.

Read the full decision here.