Steam Trap Manufacturer Granted Summary Judgment; No Liability for Third-Party Component Parts

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, May 20, 2021

In this asbestos action, the plaintiffs allege that Mr. Toy (the decedent) worked with asbestos-containing steam traps and strainers manufactured by Armstrong from 1974 until 1980. Defendant Armstrong moved for summary judgment on the causation issue, and the plaintiffs opposed the motion. Of relevance to this motion, the decedent testified that he did not open the steam traps to perform maintenance on the internal components. Instead, he removed flange gasket material from between flanges to remove the steam trap. In order to do this, the decedent cleaned the flanges with a scraper and mechanical wire brush. He also removed insulation from water lines on occasion. The decedent did not know the manufacturer or supplier of the insulation or gaskets.

The first issue before the court is if an issue of material fact remained as to whether the plaintiff was exposed to asbestos from an Armstrong product. The plaintiffs point to deposition testimony from Armstrong’s most knowledgeable corporate witness, who testified that some Armstrong steam traps contained asbestos-containing gaskets. In addition, Armstrong sold asbestos-containing replacement gaskets. Further, Armstrong’s handbooks and catalogs showed “compressed asbestos gaskets” for sale in connection with their steam traps. However, Judge Gilliam points out that these transcripts and document excerpts do not refer to external flange gaskets. Instead, Armstrong’s most knowledgeable corporate witness testified as to an internal gasket. Further, the catalog did not list the sale of external flange gaskets. As such, the only piece of evidence with regard to the external flange gasket is the decedent’s testimony. The decedent did not know the manufacturer or supplier of the existing or new gasket material, and on occasion made his own gaskets from sheet gasket material. The court held that there was “insufficient evidence that Defendant manufactured or supplied asbestos-containing flange gaskets … and it would thus be unreasonable for a jury to infer from this evidence that [Decedent] was exposed to asbestos-containing products manufactured or supplied by [Armstrong].     

The second issue before the court is if an issue of material fact remained as to whether Armstrong is liable for third-party component parts not manufactured, specified, or supplied by Armstrong. The court cited to O’Neil v. Crane Co., which set forth that:

[a] plaintiff must have ‘proof that [he] suffered injury caused by a defect in the defendant’s own product’ … Thus, a “product manufacturer generally may not be held strictly liable for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product. Similarly, ‘California law does not impose a duty to warn about dangers arising entirely from another manufacturer’s product, even if it is foreseeable that the products will be used together. (internal citations and emphasis omitted).

The court found that this matter was similar to O’Neil. Here, the court noted that the plaintiff had not proffered evidence which set forth that Armstrong specified or recommended the use of asbestos-containing external flange gaskets or insulation. The court instructed that “[t]he mere foreseeability that someone would have to remove old flange gasket material is not a sufficient basis for imposing liability on the manufacturer of a product that did not directly cause the decedent harm.” In addition, there was no evidence which set forth the necessity of insulation on Armstrong steam traps to function. As such, there was no genuine dispute of material fact as to Armstrong’s liability for third-party external flange gaskets or insulation. Therefore, the court granted Armstrong’s motion for summary judgment.

Read the full decision here.