Required Use of Asbestos Products for Proper Functioning of Steam Turbines Created Genuine Issue of Material Fact Regarding Duty to Warn

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The decedent served in the Navy from 1943-46 and served as a machinist on the USS George K. MacKenzie during World War II. After the war, he joined the Military Sea Transportation Service and worked as an engineer until 1952. His representatives filed a wrongful death lawsuit after he died from mesothelioma, suing, among others, General Electric. The trial court granted GE’s motion for summary judgment, and the appellate court reversed.

GE designed, manufactured, and supplied the steam turbines that were on board the decedent’s three ships in the 1940s and 1950s. GE argued it did not have a duty to warn about the hazards of asbestos-containing products that it did not manufacture, sell, or supply. GE’s corporate representative testified that there was no indication that GE procured, designed, or installed thermal insulation on the turbines and GE did not provide any insulation. Further, the standard practice was that insulation was the shipyard’s responsibility. The plaintiff argued that GE had a duty to warn about the hazards of asbestos products that had to be used with the steam turbines. The plaintiff submitted various documents showing that the decedent was exposed to asbestos-containing products, and that these products had to be used for proper functioning of the steam turbines.

The court analyzed the cases cited by the plaintiffs and GE in support of their respective arguments. Ultimately, the court concluded that general issues of material fact precluded summary judgment on whether GE had a duty to warn. Unlike the cases cited by GE, in this case, the evidence showed that asbestos-containing insulation, gaskets, and packing products were necessary for the steam turbines to function as designed. Like the case cited by the plaintiff, asbestos products were required for proper functioning of the turbines.

GE also argued that even if it had a duty to warn, the plaintiffs could not prove causation because there was no evidence decedent was exposed to asbestos used in conjunction with GE turbines. However, the record did not support this argument. Plaintiffs may establish exposure through circumstantial evidence, and the factors outlined by the Washington Supreme Court to determine evidence of causation were satisfied in this case.

Read the full decision here.