Wash. SC allows asbestos claim to proceed against Pfizer, adopts apparent manufacturer doctrine

By Charmaine Little | Nov 20, 2018

OLYMPIA, Wash. (Legal Newsline) – On Nov. 1, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington adopted the apparent manufacturer doctrine in a case concerning a man’s exposure to asbestos products that allegedly ultimately led to his sickness and passing.

"Applying the doctrine to the facts of this case, we hold that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether a reasonable consumer could believe that Pfizer was a manufacturer of the asbestos products that caused Vernon Rublee's illness and death," Justice Debra L. Stephens wrote in the opinion.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision to grant Pfizer Inc. and a number of other defendants summary judgment in a case filed by Margaret Rublee, the surviving spouse of Vernon Rublee. She and her late husband sued before Vernon died of mesothelioma in 2015 allegedly from being exposed to asbestos while working in a shipyard from 1966 to 1980. 

The ruling states Pfizer acquired Quigley’s capital shares back in 1968. Quigley manufactured, sold and distributed products containing asbestos. Pfizer said Quigley actually kept doing business as usual up until the asbestos products were discontinued in 1974. The only change was that Pfizer's name was added to the bags and invoices. As a result, Quigley was named in more than 160,000 asbestos-related lawsuits and Pfizer was named in many of these as well.

Justice Steven Gonzalez  

Quigley filed for bankruptcy in 2004. Nearly, 10 years later, a district court green-lighted the reorganization plan for Quigley, developing an asbestos injury trust to compensate claimants. It also distributed a channeling injunction that “requires asbestos claimants to seek relief solely from the trust” and stop them from suing Quigley for asbestos claims.'

Still, the injunction doesn’t block claimants from accusing Pfizer of being liable as an “apparent manufacturer.”

“We are disappointed by the Supreme Court’s narrow 5-4 ruling," the company said in a statement.

"The decision holds that a claim based on the apparent manufacturer theory might be viable against Pfizer -- contrary to the conclusion of every other court that has considered the question. Significantly, the decision notes that the ‘apparent manufacturer claim against Pfizer presents a close question that a trier of fact could decide either way.’"

Vernon Rublee filed a lawsuit in 2014 and named Pfizer as an apparent manufacturer since its name was on the products' bags. Pfizer filed for summary judgment citing apparent manufacturer liability, which was granted by the trial court. The Court of Appeals upheld this decision. Rublee then brought the case to the Supreme Court.

"The Court of Appeals erred in holding that objective reliance must be judged solely from the perspective of a sophisticated industrial purchaser of asbestos products," Stephens wrote. "Because Rublee presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether reasonable consumers could conclude that Pfizer was an apparent manufacturer of the asbestos products, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings."

Justice Mary Yu dissented and expressed concern with the adoption of the regulation. While Yu agreed the state should embrace the apparent manufacturer doctrine, Yu wasn’t a fan of how the test was applied in this case. She said she would uphold the Court of Appeals ruling.

“The apparent manufacturer doctrine is not intended to address when a parent company is liable for a subsidiary’s actions,” Yu pointed out. 

Yu added the objective reliance test should be applied from the point of the ordinary purchaser and added that summary judgment was a proper ruling. 

"The company agrees with the dissenting opinion and will continue to vigorously defend the case," Pfizer said. "Justice Yu wrote in the dissent that ‘where the ordinary consumer of a product is not the ordinary purchaser, the objective reliance test must consider the ordinary purchaser’s perspective. The perspective of consumers who play no role in purchasing the product cannot create a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment.’”

Justice Steven Gonzalez also dissented and said, “on the evidence presented, the ordinary purchaser of the refractory products at the time would not have believed Pfizer Inc. was the manufacturer.”

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