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Pump Manufacturer Obtains Summary Judgment on Causation

Jurisdiction: United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina

Marshall E. Pike worked in the farm-equipment manufacturing and maintenance field for the duration of his 55-year career. This included performing maintenance on fertilizer spreader and sprayer pumps at multiple companies. In September 2021, Pike was diagnosed with mesothelioma and commenced this action. His estate continued the action and added a wrongful death claim following his June 2023 death. Plaintiffs alleged the decedent’s handling of asbestos gasket material on Defco pumps contributed to his illness. Defco moved for summary judgment, arguing the decedent’s interactions with its pumps were limited in evidence and did not satisfy the Lohrmann standard.

Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgement as a matter of law.”  Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). North Carolina law states a plaintiff must establish that he was “actually exposed to the alleged offending products.” See Wilder v. Amatex Corp., 336 S.Ed.2d 66, 68 (N.C. 1985). A plaintiff can accomplish this by introducing “evidence of exposure to a specific product on a regular basis over some extended period of time in proximity to where the plaintiff actually worked.” Lohrmann v. Pittsburgh Corning Corp., 782 F.2d 1156, 1162-63 (4th Cir. 1986). Known as the “Lohrmann test,” federal courts evaluate frequency, regularity, and proximity to evaluate proximate causation in asbestos cases under North Carolina law. In Lohrmann, the Fourth Circuit held the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden when they introduced testimony that the afflicted employee experience exposure “on ten to fifteen occasions of between one and eight hours duration during the time of his employment.”  782 F.2d at 1163.

Plaintiffs asserted the decedent’s repeated exposure to asbestos while working as a parts manager, purchasing agent, and repair technician on fertilizer metering and pressure and associated pumps from 1966 to 2021 caused his illness. Moreover, they alleged his job duties including pump maintenance and repair work, including the handling of asbestos gaskets on Defco’s pump. However, the court found the decedent only worked on six Defco pumps in a three-year period. In fact, the decedent personally testified he worked on no more than six Defco pumps total throughout his 55-year career. 

The court ruled the plaintiffs could not satisfy their burden under Lohrmann through “evidence of the mesothelioma disease process and the amount of exposure that can cause this disease via expert reports or scientific literature.” Pike v. Dempster Indus., Inc. 2024 US Dist. LEXIS 5001, at *12 (MDNC Mar. 21, 2024, No. 1:21CV921). Critically, “[t]he question is not whether [the decedent’s] mesothelioma was caused by exposure to some source of asbestos; rather…whether the evidence would permit a reasonable jury to conclude that Defco products, specifically, were a substantial cause of his disease.”  Pike, 2024 US Dist. LEXIS 5001, at *12.

In Lohrmann, the Fourth Circuit determined exposure “on ten to fifteen occasions” over four decades was insufficient to show causation. Likewise, the court determined a reasonable jury could not conclude the decedent’s illness was caused by infrequent and nonregular exposure to Defco pumps. Thus, the court granted Defco’s motion for summary judgment.

Read the full decision here.