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Multiple Defendants Obtain Summary Judgment on Claims of Take-Home Plaintiff

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, May 27, 2022

In this matter, the plaintiffs allege that decedent Shirley Hilster was exposed to asbestos from contact with her husband’s work clothes and person from laundering his work clothes and spending time in his vehicle. Defendant Eckel Industries, Inc. filed motions for summary judgment and to exclude the plaintiffs’ expert, Dr. Edwin Holstein. In its motion for summary judgment, Eckel argues that the plaintiffs’ claims against it must be dismissed because there is no evidence that the decedent’s husband was exposed to asbestos from a product sold or supplied by Eckel. Further, Eckel argues that, as a supplier of products, it had no reason to know in 1960 that bystander exposure to asbestos might cause disease, and so it had no duty to warn the decedent.

According to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, a court must grant summary judgment where the moving party “shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact” and the moving party “is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Eckel argues that the plaintiffs have insufficient evidence to establish that the decedent was exposed and inhaled asbestos fibers from a product sold or supplied by Eckel, and that the plaintiffs must produce evidence that the decedent’s husband worked around asbestos-containing products sold or supplied by Eckel.

The Court considered two purchase orders, which the plaintiffs argue prove that Eckel supplied asbestos-containing materials to certain submarines on which the decedent’s husband allegedly worked. Eckel argued that, despite the plaintiffs’ contentions, the record does not support that the decedent’s husband worked with, encountered, or was exposed to any of the asbestos-containing materials described in the purchase orders, and that a jury would have to engage in impermissible speculation in attempting to connect the products referenced in the purchase orders to Mr. Hilster.

The parties agreed that Connecticut law applies to the plaintiffs’ claims against Eckel. Under Connecticut law, a plaintiff asserting a claim for asbestos-related injuries must 1) identify an asbestos-containing product for which a defendant is responsible, 2) prove that he has suffered damages, and 3) prove that the defendant’s asbestos-containing product was a substantial factor in causing his damages. After considering the purchase orders and the testimony of the decedent’s husband, the court determined that there was no evidence or testimony to connect any Eckel-supplied asbestos-containing product to the decedent’s husband without speculation. Without direct or even circumstantial evidence that Mr. Hilster was definitively in the presence of an Eckel product that contained asbestos, the jury would have to improperly speculate. Therefore, the court held that Eckel’s motion to exclude the plaintiffs’ expert is moot, and granted summary judgment in Eckel’s favor.

Defendant The William Powell Company also moved for summary judgment based on similar arguments. The plaintiffs maintain that Mr. Hilster testified that he worked on asbestos-containing valves supplied by Powell. In response, Powell contends that Mr. Hilster’s testimony does not establish that he worked with or around Powell valves on a regular or frequent basis, but that Mr. Hilster only testified that he recalled seeing the name Powell on a valve or in a plan or Navy specification. Powell argued that Mr. Hilster could not recall a specific submarine where he installed or repaired a Powell valve, could not recall a specific application for Powell valves; could not recall their size, color, or type; and could not recall where on the valve he would have seen the name “Powell.” Powell maintains that this testimony is insufficient to create an issue of material fact as to the decedent’s exposure to a Powell valve to survive summary judgment. Based on Mr. Hilster’s testimony and that of the plaintiffs’ naval expert, the court held that there was not sufficient evidence to connect any Powell-supplied asbestos-containing product to Mr. Hilster without speculation, granting Powell’s motion for summary judgment due to lack of causation evidence.

Defendant Air & Liquid Systems Corporation, successor-by-merger to Buffalo Pumps, Inc. (collectively Buffalo), also moved for summary judgment, arguing that it is not liable under applicable maritime law, that the plaintiffs have not established any causal connection between any Buffalo product and the decedent’s disease, and because it is immune under the government contractor defense.

The plaintiffs and Buffalo dispute whether maritime or Connecticut law applies to the plaintiffs’ claims against Buffalo. After reviewing the record, the court found that it did not need to resolve that matter, as both maritime and Connecticut substantive law provide the same conclusion to resolve Buffalo’s liability arguments.

Buffalo argues that it cannot be liable for third-party external gaskets affixed to its pumps. The record was devoid of any evidence that Buffalo required that external asbestos gaskets be applied for its pumps to function. The court held the record does not establish any genuine issues of material fact, under a maritime analysis, that (i) Buffalo specified or directed the use of the external gaskets; that (ii) Buffalo incorporated an asbestos-containing external gasket on its equipment, knowing that it would be necessary to replace the gasket with an identical or similar asbestos-containing product; or that (iii) Buffalo’s pump could not function without the use of an asbestos-containing external gasket. Likewise, under a Connecticut law analysis, the record does not support that the use of external gaskets made from asbestos (1) was in accordance with the instructions or specifications of Buffalo; or (2) was made with the consent of Buffalo; or (3) was the result of conduct that reasonably should have been anticipated by Buffalo. Therefore, regardless of whether Connecticut or maritime law applied, the court granted Buffalo’s motion for summary judgment with regard to liability for any asbestos exposure from external gaskets produced by third parties.

The court turned to liability for internal gaskets within Buffalo pumps. Buffalo maintains that the plaintiffs have not produced sufficient evidence that the decedent’s husband encountered any Buffalo pumps that contained internal asbestos gaskets, which the plaintiffs dispute. Once again, the court determined that Connecticut and maritime law both lead to the same conclusion: that the record established no question of material fact regarding whether the decedent’s husband worked on any Buffalo pump or internal components thereof that contained asbestos.

Next, the court turned to Buffalo’s government contractor defense. Buffalo argues that it had to comply with military specifications in order for its product to be purchased and accepted by the Navy, and the plaintiffs contend that Buffalo should have provided warnings to the Navy regarding asbestos components. The Supreme Court first articulated the government contractor defense in Boyle v. United Technologies Corporation, 487 U.S. 500, 512, 108 S. Ct. 2510, 101 L. Ed. 2d 442 (1987). In order to protect the governmental interests it identified, the court held that contractors must be exempted from liability, under state law, for design defects in military equipment when (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.

The court considered the testimony of three witnesses regarding the Navy procurement process for pumps on the submarines where Mr. Hilster worked. Specifications for any equipment intended for use aboard Navy ships was drafted, approved, and maintained by the Navy, and only the Navy could change or modify those specifications. Further, the record established that the Navy has been aware of the hazards of asbestos since the 1920s, while Buffalo had no such documented awareness during the timeframe of Mr. Hilster’s alleged exposure. The court determined that Buffalo met all the factors under Boyle, and in addition to granting Buffalo’s summary judgment against the plaintiffs’ claims for liability, Buffalo is also entitled to summary judgment by virtue of the government contractor defense.

Lastly, the court considered the motion for summary judgment of defendant Warren Pumps, LLC. Warren argues that it is not liable under maritime law for after-applied external insulation and flange gaskets; that it had no duty to warn the decedent as a “take-home” plaintiff; and that it is entitled to the government contractor defense on the plaintiffs’ product defect and failure to warn claims. Just as it did with respect to Buffalo pumps, the court again found that both Connecticut and maritime law lead to the conclusion that Warren has no liability for any asbestos exposure from external flange gaskets or external insulation produced by third parties, nor for any internal components based on the record. The court also found that Warren was shielded by the government contractor defense for the same reasons as Buffalo, and granted Warren’s motion for summary judgment.

Read the full decision here…

Eckel’s Motion

Powell’s Motion

Buffalo’s Motion

Warren’s Motion