Calif. SC rules against theory in asbestos lawsuit

John O'Brien Jan. 12, 2012, 1:20pm


SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - The California Supreme Court says it will not expand products liability law to include an asbestos lawsuit against two companies that did not use asbestos in their products.

The court ruled Thursday in a lawsuit brought against Crane Co. and Warren Pumps, two companies that supplied valves and pumps used in Navy warships. Asbestos insulation made by other companies was placed on the products, though the lawsuit claimed Crane and Warren were partly responsible for the asbestos-related death of Patrick O'Neil.

"Recognizing plaintiffs' claims would represent an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability," Justice Carol Corrigan wrote. "We decline to do so.

"California law has long provided that manufacturers, distributors and retailers have a duty to ensure the safety of their products and will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in their products. Yet, we have never held that these responsibilities extend to preventing injuries caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant's product."

Corrigan added that manufacturers have no responsibility to warn about hazards in replacement parts made by others when the dangerous feature of the parts was not integral to the product's design.

Patrick O'Neil was responsible for repairs and maintenance of equipment in the boiler rooms, engine rooms and machine room on a Navy aircraft carrier and died from lung cancer in 2005. The valves and pumps made by the defendants were covered with an asbestos insulation and contained asbestos packing on the inside.

When the packing and insulation were replaced, it created asbestos dust.

The O'Neil case has been before the court for nearly two years. Briefing in a related case was deferred pending the decision.

After a trial court ruled for the defendants, the state's Second District Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiffs, saying Crane and Warren should have known their products would be insulated with asbestos to protect them from heat. The Navy is immune from liability.

"(E)xpansion of the duty of care as urged here would impose an obligation to compensate on those whose products caused the plaintiffs no harm," Corrigan wrote. "To do so would exceed the boundaries established over decades of product liability law."

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