Pump Manufacturer Granted Partial Summary Judgment in Maritime Case; Plaintiff’s Motion Denied

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U.S. District Court for the Central District of California

The plaintiff, Christopher Clarke, alleged he was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of his alleged exposure to asbestos while serving as a Machinist Mate for the United States Navy from 1962 to 1981. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that he was exposed to asbestos from replacing gaskets and packing on pumps manufactured by the defendant, Warren Pumps, LLC on numerous ships and submarines. The plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on Warren’s general contractor defense, and Warren moved for summary judgment on the issues of causation, loss of consortium, conspiracy, and punitive damages.

On the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment, he argued Warren should be precluded from offering evidence on its general contractor defense as a discovery sanction, and also that Warren’s evidence failed to create an issue of triable fact on the government contractor defense. The plaintiff argued that Warren failed to serve an initial disclosure pursuant to Rule 26(a) until the day that he filed his motion for summary judgment, and under Rule 37(c)(1), if a party fails to provide the information required by Rule 26(a), that party is precluded from using that information to support a motion, unless the failure was substantially justified or harmless. Ultimately, the court found that Warren had met its burden of establishing that its failure was harmless, and was therefore not precluded from using information or witnesses identified in its Rule 26(a) disclosure in support of its motion. Warren demonstrated that the plaintiff was on notice when the case was removed to federal court about the identity and testimony of witnesses that supported its government contractor defense, and the plaintiff also received all of the subject information over the following months of discovery and motion practice. On the plaintiff’s second argument, that Warren failed to create a triable issue of fact on the government contractor defense, the court found that Warren had provided expert testimony regarding the internal processes by which the Navy specifications were communicated to vendors and compliance was monitored, as well as expert testimony on the Navy’s knowledge of the medical effects of asbestos in the early 1940s, which  satisfied the first and third elements of the general contractor defense (i.e. that the United States approved reasonable precise specifications, and that the supplier warned the United States about dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to it, but not to the United States). The court also found that because the plaintiff had not brought a manufacturing defect claim or alleged that Warren’s product did not conform to the Navy’s specifications, that issue, which was the second element of the general contractor defense, did not appear contested (i.e. that the equipment confirmed to the specifications provided by the United States). Given this, the court denied the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment.

Turning to Warren’s motion for summary judgment, which first argued Choice of Law, the court held that maritime law applied to the plaintiff’s claim arising out of exposure aboard a naval vessel. As to causation, the court held the plaintiff had provided sufficient evidence of duration and exposure to survive summary judgment, citing to Mr. Clarke’s testimony that he worked on “a lot” of Warren pumps, and Warren’s interrogatory responses that indicated that it shipped pumps for use on ten vessels on which Mr. Clarke served. Mr. Clarke had also provided testimony that replacement packing and gaskets were supplied by the manufacturers, and testimony as to the amount of time that it took him to re-pack the pumps and replace gaskets. The plaintiff’s expert also provided a rough quantification of Mr. Clarke’s exposure and analyzed his relative risk of developing mesothelioma based on such exposure levels.

In addition to causation, however, Warren also argued that loss of consortium is unavailable under maritime law, and the court agreed, granting summary judgment on the plaintiff’s loss of consortium claim. The court also granted Warren’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s conspiracy claim, noting that there were no maritime law principles applicable, and instead turning to state law and rulings from other district courts. Ultimately, the court found that California law does not provide for a standalone claim for civil conspiracy, which was what the plaintiff had alleged. And finally, as to Warren’s motion for summary judgment on punitive damages, the court found the motion to be premature, and ruled that it would take up the topic as a question of structuring the trial at the pre-trial conference.