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Calif. SC asbestos decision wrong, Motley Rice attorney says

By John O'Brien | Jan 26, 2012



WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) - A recent California Supreme Court decision in an asbestos case isn't good news for plaintiffs firms like Motley Rice.

The court ruled earlier this month that holding a valve-maker and a pump-maker liable for asbestos-related injuries when they never made a product that contained asbestos would be an unfair expansion of products liability law. Plaintiffs in the case argued that Crane Co. and Warren Pumps knew their products would be insulated with asbestos.

"I think the California Supreme Court got it wrong," said Nathan Finch, an attorney in Motley Rice's Washington, D.C., office.

Some argue that asbestos attorneys are looking to expand the law because of a lack of solvent defendants. More than 90 companies have filed for bankruptcy as a result of asbestos litigation, and at least 60 bankruptcy trusts have been created to pay claimants in a system independent of the civil courts system.

Finch, though, says attorneys are merely trying to hold the companies that allowed the asbestos public health hazard to continue.

He likened the theory used in the California case to a hypothetical involving gasoline. He said that if gasoline were declared as dangerous as asbestos, then automakers would be liable if they were found to have negligently designed their gas tanks.

"It wouldn't matter whose gas it was that caused the injury," Finch said. "It's the same situation."

Justice Carol Corrigan disagreed in the majority opinion.

"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.

Finch said the debate has come up in a variety of courts, with mixed results for the plaintiffs' side, and that every asbestos firm has cases like it.

"I think the California Supreme Court got it wrong, but I'm not the California Supreme Court," he said.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien by e-mail at jobrienwv@gmail.com.

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