Shipyard Defendant’s MSJ Granted as Plaintiffs Failed to Establish the Amount and Duration of Decedent’s Exposure

U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, March 4, 2021

Defendant Puget Sound Commerce Center, Inc. formerly known as Todd Shipyards Corporation filed an amended motion for summary judgment/partial summary judgment. The plaintiffs allege the decedent John Dale Wineland worked at Todd Shipyards in 1974, where he was negligently exposed to asbestos, including asbestos-containing insulation supplied by Todd Shipyards, and that this exposure caused the decedent’s mesothelioma and death. Todd Shipyards seeks dismissal of both the negligence and strict liability claims asserted against it, arguing that there is no triable issue of fact.

The plaintiffs concede, and the court agrees after applying the location and connection tests, that maritime law applies to this case and governs the analysis of the plaintiffs’ claims for negligence and strict liability. However, the court acknowledged that state law may supplement where maritime law is silent or where a local matter is at issue, so long as it does not conflict with federal maritime law. As Washington and maritime law diverge regarding the showing that must be made concerning causation of the plaintiffs’ claims, maritime law governs this issue.

Todd Shipyards argued that the plaintiffs’ negligence claim fails as a matter of law because there is no evidence from which the jury could conclude (a) that Todd Shipyards failed to exercise reasonable cause when overhauling the USS Tuscaloosa, or (b) that any exposure that the decedent may have had while at Todd Shipyards was of an amount and duration sufficient to have been a substantial factor in his subsequent illness and death. The parties agreed that Todd Shipyards was aware of the dangers aboard ships and had a duty to ensure that its work and the work of its subcontractors were performed safely, and the issue before the court was whether the plaintiffs have raised a triable issue of fact regarding a breach of that duty.

The plaintiffs argued that Todd Shipyards breached its duty by allowing the decedent to be exposed to asbestos dust, which it knew to be harmful. However, the court found that the evidence did not support such a conclusion. There was no evidence in the record regarding the actual conditions at the shipyard or aboard the USS Tuscaloosa during the relevant time periods, and it was established that Todd Shipyards had policies and protocols in place to protect workers from asbestos dust, with no evidence of any violation of those policies during the decedent’s time at Todd Shipyards.

The evidence in this case is such that the jury would have to speculate regarding Todd Shipyards’ actions and how those actions impacted the decedent. Further, the plaintiffs failed to show that the decedent’s exposure to asbestos at Todd Shipyards was a substantial contributing factor in causing his injuries. Evidence of only minimal exposure to asbestos dust attributable to each defendant is insufficient; a plaintiff must provide evidence regarding the amount and duration of such exposure related to a defendant to make the inference that such exposure was a substantial factor in the injury more than conjectural. Because the plaintiffs have not produced evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Todd Shipyards, its employees or its subcontractors exposure the decedent to asbestos dust, the court held the plaintiffs have failed to raise a triable issue of fact regarding their negligence claim, and so Todd Shipyards was entitled to summary judgment.

Read the full decision here.