Molding Compound Defendant’s MSJ Denied as Federal Court Abandons Iowa’s Sole Proximate Cause Defense

U.S. District Court for Middle District of North Carolina, April 15, 2021

Plaintiff Marion Reed brings this case on behalf of his deceased wife, Barbara Reed, the decedent, who worked for a Square D manufacturing plant from 1972 to 1976, and died in 2017 from mesothelioma. Defendant Reichhold Liquidation, Inc. moved for summary judgment on all of the plaintiffs’ claims against it. Reichhold argued that the evidence established that the conduct of Square D was the sole proximate cause of the decedent’s injuries and that Reichhold is therefore insulated from any liability under Iowa law pursuant to the “sole cause of the employer” defense, as Square D failed to institute asbestos safety precautions, including respiratory protection.

The plaintiffs responded that the issue of sole proximate cause should be determined by the jury, that evidence of OSHA violations are not relevant to the sole proximate cause defense, and that Reichhold was at fault in a way that enhanced and contributed to the danger to the decedent, such that Square D could not have been the sole proximate cause of her injury. In their reply, Reichhold argued that the plaintiffs have not presented any evidence the decedent worked with or around any Reichhold products that contained asbestos, and that the fact-finder could conclude that a cause other than Reichhold’s products caused the decedent’s injury and death.

Historically, Iowa’s sole proximate cause defense was a complete bar to liability and has been applied in negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty cases. Although a plaintiff ordinarily “has the burden to prove the requisite causal connections between the defendant’s alleged negligence and the injury,” defendants have the burden of proof to establish the elements of the defense, which are that (1) the conduct of plaintiff’s employer occurred, and (2) that the conduct of plaintiff’s employer was the only proximate cause of plaintiff’s damages.

In 2009, in Thompson v. Kaczinski, the Iowa Supreme Court decided that it would no longer follow the approach of legal or proximate cause that was advocated by the Restatement (Second) of Torts and was instead adopting that of the Restatement (Third) of Torts. Under the new approach, proximate cause is now known as the “scope of liability,” and is addressed separately from factual causation. An actor’s “scope of liability” is “limited to those physical harms that result from the risks that made the actor’s conduct tortious.” Kaczinski, 714 N.W.2d at 838. The Iowa Supreme Court held that, in a negligence case, “the risks that make an actor negligent are limited to foreseeable ones, and the factfinder must determine whether the type of harm that occurred is among those reasonably foreseeable potential harms that made the actor’s conduct negligent.” Id. The state of Iowa developed jury instructions that indicate that a “harm is within the scope of a defendant’s liability if that harm arises from the same general types of danger that the defendant should have taken reasonable steps . . . to avoid.”

The court then examined Kaczinkski’s impact on the sole proximate cause defense. Reichhold argued, and Plaintiffs admitted, that this defense survived Kaczinksi, but the court found that the cited authorities were not persuasive and that the Iowa Supreme Court has neither directly nor indirectly addressed this issue. Given that, the court examined other authorities in an attempt to predict how the Iowa Supreme Court would determine this issue. The Iowa Court of Appeals did not provide instructive decisions on this matter, so the court looked to decisions of other federal courts in Iowa. Between 2009 and 2011, these courts assumed, without deciding, that the sole proximate cause defense persists even in light of Kaczinski. However, since 2011, only one federal district court in Iowa has dealt directly with this issue. That court decided not to submit this defense to the jury, holding that this defense preceded Iowa’s adoption of the Restatement (Third) of Torts in Kaczinski.

Given this decision, this court was persuaded that the Iowa Supreme Court, if presented with the issue, would abandon the sole proximate cause defense. Therefore, Reichhold had not met its burden of demonstrating that there is an absence of evidence to support the plaintiffs’ case, and the court denied Reichhold’s motion for summary judgment. The court went on to note that, even if the sole proximate cause defense were available to Reichhold, it would have denied Reichhold’s motion, as a genuine dispute of material facts would remain as to the sole proximate cause of the decedent’s death.

Read the full decision here.