Judge chamber with gavel

Motion for Summary Judgment of Gasket and Packing Manufacturer Granted in Part and Denied in Part

Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division

Plaintiffs Chloyde Pelton and Shirley Pelton sued Defendant John Crane Inc. for negligence, willful and wanton conduct, and strict liability, alleging that Pelton developed mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos-containing products, including gaskets and packing, in the United States Navy. Pelton served as a pipefitter and shipfitter aboard the U.S.S. Lyman K Swenson from1959 to 1961, the U.S.S. Pritchett from 1961 to 1962, and the U.S.S. Frontier for 10 months until 1963.

At his deposition, Pelton described the removal of gaskets and packing as “dirty work,” which required scraping and the use of a wire brush. He identified John Crane as the primary manufacturer of gaskets and packing that he encountered in the Navy.

Retired U.S. Navy Captain Bruce Woodruff provided an affidavit, in which he opined that Pelton “more likely than not” experienced “substantial exposure” to asbestos aboard the three ships. Further, he confirmed that John Crane was “a major supplier” of gaskets and packing to the Navy during the relevant time period, and “among the most significant equipment suppliers on these ships.”

John Crane moved for summary judgment and argued as follows: (1) as to all counts, plaintiffs cannot establish specific causation, (2) as to strict liability, the evidence is insufficient for a jury to balance the usefulness of products against the severity of harms posed, (3) as to strict liability – design defect, plaintiffs fail to present evidence of a safer alternative design, (4) as to willful and wanton conduct, it is not a cognizable cause of action pursuant to maritime law, and (5) to the extent claims are based upon a failure to test theory, maritime law does not recognize such a “freestanding” cause of action.

The court found that plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to conclude that Pelton was exposed to products manufactured by John Crane, and further, that those products were a substantial factor in causing his disease. Specifically, the record contained circumstantial evidence establishing “the amount of asbestos to which Pelton was exposed, the duration for which he was exposed, and evidence that such exposure is attributable to defendant’s products.” Thus, the court rejected John Crane’s causation argument. 

With respect to strict liability, because the Second Restatement controls, plaintiffs were not obligated to conduct a risk-utility analysis and were instead permitted to prove their claims by the consumer-expectations test. Nevertheless, application of the risk-utility test would still create a question of fact. Plaintiffs were also not obligated to provide a reasonable alternative design based on the court’s application of the Second Restatement. Therefore, the court denied John Crane’s arguments regarding strict liability.

As to “willful and wanton” conduct, plaintiffs do not contest John Crane’s argument that it is not a cognizable cause of action under maritime law, but instead claim that their complaint “operatively asserts a claim for punitive damages.” Although the court granted John Crane’s summary judgment motion as to “willful and wanton” conduct and acknowledged that “willful and wanton conduct” is “a prerequisite to recovery of punitive damages,” it nevertheless permitted plaintiffs to pursue punitive damages though not explicitly requested based on the historical availability of such damages and no applicable law eliminating their availability.

Lastly, the court denied John Crane’s final argument regarding the “failure to test” because plaintiffs did not assert it as an independent cause of action or theory of liability for any claim.

In sum, the court granted John Crane’s motion as to the willful and wanton claim, but noted the availability of punitive damages, and denied the motion as to negligence and strict liability.

Read the full decision here.