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Premises and Contractor Defendants’ Summary Judgment Affirmed

Court of Appeals of Iowa, March 17, 2021

The decedent, Charles Beverage, was employed as an independent contractor at an aluminum plant between the 1950s and the mid-1970s. After his passing in October 2015, the decedent’s estate filed a products liability suit against several the defendants alleging the decedent was exposed to asbestos during his employment, and as a result contracted mesothelioma. Two defendants, the aluminum plant’s owner, Alcoa, Inc. and an installer of insulation, Iowa-Illinois Taylor Insulation, Inc. (IITI) filed motions for summary judgment arguing Iowa Code section 686B.7(5) provided them immunity. After careful consideration of the words of section 686B.7(5), the record before it, and the arguments of the parties, the district court concluded that because the asbestos products at issue were “made or sold by a third party,” section 686B.7(5) provided Alcoa and IITI immunity against the plaintiff’s asbestos-related claims. The plaintiff appealed.

Iowa Code section 686B.7(5) provides: “A the defendant in an asbestos action or silica action shall not be liable for exposures from a product or component part made or sold by a third party.”

“Summary judgment is appropriate ‘if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.’” In re Estate of Franken, 944 N.W.2d 853, 857 (Iowa 2020)(quoting Iowa R. Civ. P. 1.981(3)). Summary judgment is an important procedure in statutory immunity cases because a key purpose of the immunity is to avoid costly litigation, and that legislative goal is thwarted when claims subject to immunity proceed to trial. See Plumhoff v. Rickard, 572 U.S. 765, 772 (2014).

In their appellant brief, The plaintiff argued (1) the district court incorrectly interpreted section 686B.7(5); and (2) alternatively, section 686B.7(5) violates their due process rights under the United States and Iowa constitutions.

The plaintiff first argued the district court erred in determining that, in the context of section 686B.7(5), the word “defendant” unambiguously means “any entity sued in an asbestos suit.” Rather, the plaintiff asserts “a better interpretation is that a ‘the defendant’ is one that makes or sells an asbestos product.” The court disagreed because under the plain meaning of the word, since Alcoa and IITI were both sued in a civil proceeding, it was right for the district court to treat them as “defendants.”

Next, the plaintiff argued that “while not directly stated in the statute, the meaning and purpose of [s]ection 686B.7(5) is quite clearly the establishment of the ‘bare metal defense.'” The plaintiff stated because the “bare metal” defense “only applies to product manufacturers,” the district court should have interpreted section 686B.7(5) to only protect manufacturers. The court again disagreed finding that section 686B.7(5) does not limit its immunity to “manufacturers,” adding that while the section may provide similar protections as the bare metal defense, it is not a codification of the bare metal defense.

With regard to the plaintiff’s due process argument, the court noted that this was not preserved at the lower level, rather the plaintiff raised this issue for the first time in their reply brief. Further, the plaintiff provided no good reason as to why the court should consider the plaintiff’s unpreserved argument at this time. The court, therefore, rejected the plaintiff’s argument.

Accordingly, the court denied the plaintiff’s appeal and affirmed the lower court’s award of summary judgment.

Read the full decision here.