Numerous Entries of Summary Judgment Reversed in Consolidated Appeal

TENNESSEE – The plaintiff Donald Coffman worked at the Tennessee Eastman chemical plant from 1968 until 1997, mostly as a mechanic. In that capacity, he was responsible for repairing and replacing pumps, valves, steam traps and piping. Repairs were quite frequent due to the corrosive nature of the acid being used at the plant. The plaintiff developed mesothelioma and sued an insulation contractor, Daniel International Corp., along with a number of equipment and product manufacturers, claiming exposure to asbestos from insulation, gaskets and packing.

All of the defendants filed motions for summary judgment. Daniel argued that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by Tennessee’s four-year construction statute of repose, while several other defendants argued that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by Tennessee’s general 10-year statute of repose. Several equipment manufacturers also argued that they had affirmatively negated their alleged duty to warn, while others also argued that the plaintiff’s evidence was insufficient to establish causation. The trial court granted summary judgment for each of the defendants on the grounds they had raised. The appeals of those orders were consolidated.

The trial court held that Daniel’s construction work, which was completed in 1990, was an improvement to real property under the construction statute of repose, but the court of appeals disagreed. While the initial construction of a property constitutes as such, the removal and installation of insulation performed by Daniel did not. Accordingly, the court of appeals reversed the entry of judgment in favor of Daniel.

The court of appeals also reversed the entry of partial summary judgment in favor of one product manufacturer on the 10-year statute of repose, and disagreed that summary judgment had been entered in favor of other defendants on the same grounds. The Tennessee statute of repose was enacted in 1978, and a year later was amended to exclude actions resulting from exposure to asbestos. Only where there was evidence that a defendant had ceased supplying asbestos-containing products to Tennessee Eastman by July 1, 1969 could summary judgment be entered in favor of that defendant. Citing questions of fact on this issue with regard to several defendants, the court of appeals reversed the entry of summary judgment for each defendant.

The court of appeals also overturned the entry of summary judgment on the basis that the defendants negated their duty to warn. Following a lengthy analysis of Tennessee product liability law, the court held that the defendants did have a duty to warn because the degree of foreseeable harm and the gravity of potential harm outweighed the burden that the equipment the defendants would have suffered by warning about the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing insulation, flange gaskets, internal replacement gaskets, and replacement packing. Finally, the court reversed the entry of summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff had failed to prove causation, holding that the plaintiff had successfully raised genuine issues of fact as to whether his mesothelioma had been caused by his exposure to the defendants’ products.

Read the case decision here.