Valve-maker not liable in asbestos case

Jessica M. Karmasek Aug. 31, 2011, 8:37am

LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) - California's Second District Court of Appeals last week upheld a ruling in favor a valve manufacturer sued by a man who alleged the company's products gave him cancer.

From 1961 to 1965, plaintiff Dennis H. Woodard served on board two Navy vessels built between 1943 and 1945: the USS Rogers, a steam-operated destroyer, and the USS Salisbury Sound, a steam-operated sea plane tender.

The propulsion systems of both vessels contained metal valves that defendant Crane Co. had manufactured and supplied to the Navy in the 1940s.

All of the asbestos-containing gaskets and packing materials on both vessels were manufactured by others, and any asbestos-containing materials supplied by Crane in the 1940s were replaced with similar products manufactured and supplied by third parties prior to Woodard's service in the 1960s.

After being diagnosed in 2007 with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, Woodard sued Crane for negligence and strict product liability.

Recovery in strict product liability is permitted for three types of defects: manufacturing defects, design defects and failure to warn.

In his complaint, Woodard alleged that Crane's valves were defective based on theories of defective design and failure to warn.

Although a jury found there was no design defect, it found that the valves were defective as a result of Crane's failure to warn the Navy of the dangers of asbestos products manufactured and supplied by third parties.

Based solely on a theory of failure to warn, the jury returned a strict liability verdict against Crane. Of the damages award of $14.4 million to Woodard and $2.5 million to his wife, the jury assessed Crane's liability at 0.5 percent.

Crane moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict based on a prior ruling, which affirmed a summary judgment for Crane on the ground that it had no duty to warn the Navy of the dangers of asbestos products manufactured and supplied by third parties.

The trial court in this case granted Crane's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, saying it reviewed the prior case and agreed with the defendant; it is controlling precedent.

In its ruling Thursday, the appeals court agreed.

"There is no evidence in this case that Crane manufactured or supplied an asbestos-containing product or defective valve that caused Woodard's injury. Woodard did not allege in his complaint a manufacturing defect claim, and he does not challenge on appeal the jury's rejection of the design defect claim," Justice Steven C. Suzukawa wrote for the court.

"On this record, Woodard's injury could not have been caused by a defect in any product manufactured or supplied by Crane."

The appeals court also shot down Woodard's assertion that Crane cannot avoid liability under the component part doctrine.

"When Crane supplied the Navy with asbestos-containing gaskets and packing materials in the 1940s, it did so in compliance with the Navy's specifications. In designing the propulsion systems of its vessels, the Navy specified the addition of asbestos-containing insulation, packing and gaskets to the valves so that steam and superheated fluids could be transported through the system," it wrote.

"The fact that asbestos-containing materials were supplied by Crane pursuant to the Navy's specifications does not mean that the valves were defective in manufacture or design, or that the valves did not perform their intended function."

California law makes the liability of a component part manufacturer dependent on two factors: whether the component itself was defective when it left the factory and whether these defects caused injury.

Neither factor is present in this case, the appeals court said.

"There was no claim of a manufacturing defect and the jury rejected the design defect claim. There was no claim that Crane's valves released the asbestos that caused Woodard's injuries," it wrote.

Crane was awarded costs on appeal.

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