SAN FRANCISCO - (Mealey's) A manufacturer may not be held strictly liable or negligent for harm caused by another manufacturer's asbestos-containing product except where the defendant bears some direct responsibility for the resulting harm, the California Supreme Court held Jan. 12 in rejecting "an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability" (Barbara J. O'Neil, et al. v. Crane Co., et al., No. S177401, Calif. Sup.).
(Opinion. Document #01-120118-028Z.)
"In short, expansion of the duty of care as urged here would impose an obligation to compensate on those whose products caused the plaintiffs no harm. To do so would exceed the boundaries established over decades of product liability law," the court said.
After Patrick O'Neil died of mesothelioma in 2005, his widow, Barbara O'Neil, and their children filed suit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court against a number of companies whose conduct allegedly exposed the decedent to asbestos.
The plaintiffs alleged that Patrick O'Neil was exposed while serving on the USS Oriskany from June 1965 to August 1966. Among the claims were that he suffered exposure while replacing or removing third-party, asbestos-containing packing and insulation on the steam engines and pumps of Crane Co. and Warren Pumps. After 15 days of trial, Judge Elihu Berle granted nonsuit to Crane Co. and Warren Pumps.
On appeal, the Second District Court of Appeal held that "unlike the manufacturers in the component parts cases, who had no interaction with the user of the finished product, and no ability to warn, respondents supplied manuals with their products. They had the ability to warn the user of their products." The court acknowledged that its conclusion differed from Taylor v. Elliott Turbomachinery Company Inc. ( 171 Cal. App.4th 564). Crane Co. appealed.
In reversing, the California Supreme Court said state law holds manufacturers liable for injuries caused by a defect in their products. However, the law has never extended to products manufactured by others, even where those third-party products might foreseeably be used in conjunction with the product in question, the court said.
Foreseeability of harm alone is insufficient to impose strict liability for injuries arising from the use of another manufacturer's product, the court said. Manufacturers can be held liable for a defective component part supplied by another company, but there must be some way to trace the injury to the defendant's marketing or distribution of the product, the court concluded.
In addressing O'Neil's strict liability claims, the court said any design defect in the defendants' products was not the cause of the decedent's injuries and that the defendants had no duty to warn of risks arising from the use of other manufacturers' products.
"It is fundamental that the imposition of liability requires a showing that the plaintiff's injuries were caused by an act of the defendant or an instrumentality under the defendant's control," the court said.
Here, while the decedent suffered exposure to asbestos from insulation, gaskets and packing applied to the defendants' products, neither Crane Co. nor Warren Pumps manufactured, sold or required those products, the court said. Nor is there sufficient evidence that the defendants' products were "designed to be used" with asbestos-containing products, the court said. The asbestos-containing products met the Navy's specifications, and the Navy was free to choose non-asbestos-containing products, the court said.
Turning to the duty to warn, the court noted that neither Crane Co. nor Warren Pumps warned of the asbestos in the gaskets and packing supplied with their products. However, there is no dispute that the decedent's exposure came from replacement parts and that he never came into contact with these original products, the court said.
Jeffrey Essac Ehrlich of the Ehrlich Law Firm in Claremont, Calif., and Michael B. Gurien and Paul C. Cook of Waters, Kraus & Paul in El Segundo, Calif., represent the plaintiffs. Laurie J. Hepler, James Patrick Cunningham and Gonzalo C. Martinez of Carroll Burdick & McDonough in San Francisco represent Warren Pumps. David M. Axelrad, Jason R. Litt and Curt Cutting of Horvitz & Levy in Encino, Calif., and Raymond Lawrence Gill, Robert E. Feydor, Geoffrey M. Davis, Paul J. Lawrence and Nicholas P. Vari of K&L Gates in San Francisco represent Crane Co.
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