Trailer Manufacturer Awarded Summary Judgment on Component Parts Defense

Supreme Court of the State of New York, New York County

The plaintiff’s decedent, James Martinez, alleged that he was exposed to asbestos from, among other things, performing mechanical work, and specifically brake work, on a fleet of delivery trailers and vehicles from 1974 to 1976. During his discovery deposition, Martinez identified “East” as one of the manufacturers of trailers on which he performed this work. However, he was unable to identify the manufacturer of the old brakes that he removed from the trailers or the new brakes that he installed onto the trailers during his brake work. East Manufacturer never designed, manufactured, distributed, or sold brakes, and as such, East Manufacturing moved for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence that Martinez was exposed to any asbestos-containing materials manufactured by East Manufacturing.

East Manufacturing argued that it had no control over the composition of any third-party manufactured aftermarket replacement brakes installed onto its trailers, and therefore had no duty to warn of the potential hazards arising from the removal of same. In support of its motion, East Manufacturing offered an affidavit from its president of finance, who affirmed that the company never engaged in the manufacture, sale, or distribution of any type of brake pad, and did not specify or require the use of asbestos-containing brakes with any of its trailers.

At the outset, the court held that East Manufacturing had demonstrated that the case was analogous to Rastelli v. Goodyear, a New York Court of Appeals case from 1992, finding that Goodyear had no duty to warn regarding the use of its tires with defective rims manufactured by another company. The court found that “East Manufacturing demonstrated that it had no connection to, control over, or interest in the third-party-manufactured aftermarket replacement brakes and friction material at issue …” As such, East Manufacturing owed no duty to warn Martinez of any potential hazards of such products, and could not be held liable for Martinez’s alleged asbestos exposure from his work with same. This satisfied East Manufacturing’s prima facie burden on summary judgment, and the burden shifted to the plaintiffs.

In opposition, the plaintiffs first argued that East Manufacturing’s motion was improper because it failed to respond to discovery. East Manufacturing’s reply papers affirmed that it had indeed answered the only set of discovery that it received from the plaintiffs. Upon review of the answers, the court held the discovery produced to be sufficient. The plaintiffs further argued that East Manufacturing had not satisfied its initial burden of proof to put forward a prima facie case precluding issues of fact regarding Martinez’s exposure to asbestos from brake work performed on its trailers, and failed to demonstrate unequivocally that its product did not contribute to Martinez’s injury. That is, the plaintiffs argued that Martinez was exposed to asbestos dust generated from the brake work that he performed, and East Manufacturing facilitated the foreseeable use of asbestos-containing brakes on its trailers. The plaintiffs argued that “Mr. Martinez’s use of asbestos-containing brakes on East trailers was foreseeable as asbestos was a key component of most, if not all, brake linings during the relevant years, and, as a matter of design, brakes with high heat resistant lining, such as asbestos, were essential for East tractors to function properly.”

Notwithstanding, citing to Rastelli, the court held that “[d]efendant’s knowledge of potentially dangerous products produced by another manufacturer did not create duty [sic] to warn about the use of its trailers with potentially dangerous products produced by another where East Manufacturing did not contribute to the alleged defect in asbestos containing brakes, had no control over it, and did not produce it.” The court further noted that the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that East Manufacturing’s trailers could not be operated safely without asbestos brakes, and East Manufacturing had demonstrated that its vehicles were designed without asbestos brakes. “The mere possibility that a party could replace East Manufacturing’s brakes with a third-party manufactured asbestos brake does not expose defendant to liability.” Given this, the court found that there was no evidence that Martinez was exposed to asbestos from a product manufactured by East Manufacturing or a product for which East Manufacturing was responsible, and granted the motion for summary judgment.