Valve Manufacturer’s Motion for Summary Judgment Denied

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Providence, March 16, 2021

On June 17, 2011, The plaintiffs filed a complaint, alleging that the decedent, Walter Burdick, died as a result of exposure to asbestos or asbestos-containing products sold, manufactured, or distributed by the defendants, including NIBCO, Inc. during the decedent’s employment as a laborer, mechanic, maintenance man, boiler operator, pipefitter, machinist, and welder at various steam plants and construction sites throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey beginning in the mid-1940s. 

During discovery, NIBCO deposed the decedent, who testified to having worked at Scranton Steam Heat Company from 1956 to 1972. The decedent testified that during his time with Scranton Steam Heat Company, he installed new valves, some which were manufactured by NIBCO and NIBCO-Scott.

On May 7, 2013, NIBCO moved for summary judgment, contending that the plaintiffs failed to produce evidence that the decedent was exposed to any asbestos-containing product manufactured, sold, or distributed by NIBCO. In response, the plaintiffs argued that genuine issues of fact existed regarding the decedent’s exposure to NIBCO valves, and that, accordingly, summary judgment was not warranted.

“Summary judgment is appropriate when, viewing the facts and all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the court determines that there are no issues of material fact in dispute, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Quest Diagnostics, LLC. v. Pinnacle Consortium of Higher Education, 93 A.3d 949, 951 (R.I. 2014).

“In order to establish liability in an asbestos action, a plaintiff must provide both ‘identification of the specific the defendant responsible for the injury’ and evidence of the plaintiff’s exposure. See Gorman v. Abbott Laboratories, 599 A.2d 1364, 1364 (R.I. 1991). At summary judgment, the nonmoving party “must assert ‘sufficient facts to satisfy the necessary elements of his [or her] negligence claim’ and if a ‘the plaintiff fails to present evidence identifying the defendants’ negligence as the proximate cause of his [or her] injury or from which a reasonable inference of proximate cause may be drawn,’ then summary judgment becomes proper.” Splendorio v. Bilray Demolition Co., Inc., 682 A.2d 461, 467 (R.I. 1996).

Here, NIBCO argued that the decedent’s testimony was insufficient to establish that his work with or on NIBCO valves exposed him to asbestos, and the plaintiffs failed to prove a causal connection between NIBCO’s valves and the decedent’s injury. 

In contrast, the plaintiffs contended that genuine issues of material fact existed with respect to their claims against NIBCO. The plaintiffs asserted that there are facts and evidence showing that there were NIBCO valves in areas frequented by the decedent during his time working at Scranton Steam Heat Company and that these valves contained asbestos.

NIBCO acknowledged that The decedent did identify working with NIBCO valves and also admitted that some of the NIBCO valves used at Scranton Steam Heat Company during the time The decedent worked there may have contained asbestos; however, NIBCO argued, based upon the testimony given, The decedent did not come into contact with any asbestos-containing NIBCO valves during his tenure at Scranton Steam Heat Company. 

In support of its motion, NIBCO presented an affidavit detailing that the kinds of NIBCO valves the decedent testified to working on did not require packing or gaskets, and therefore, would not have contained any asbestos. The plaintiff countered by citing the decedent’s deposition testimony where he indicated he repacked NIBCO valves with packing material and scraped old gaskets off of NIBCO valves, both of which created dust.

Based on the above, the court here found an issue of fact existed regarding whether the decedent was or was not exposed to NIBCO valves containing asbestos. Therefore, in viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the court found that genuine issues of material fact remain with respect to whether the decedent was exposed to NIBCO and/or NIBCO-Scott products containing asbestos. Accordingly, the defendant’s motion was denied.

Read the full decision here.