The California Supreme Court issued an opinion last week in O'Neil v. Crane Co., a closely-watched products liability case that raised the question of whether a manufacturer could be held liable for a wrongful death caused by asbestos release from a third-party component part.
In a unanimous decision, the state’s highest court headed off a flood of litigation, ruling that a manufacturer may not be held liable in strict liability or negligence for harm caused by another manufacturer's product, unless the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm.
That decision reverses a 2009 appellate court ruling that applied strict liability to an injury caused by dust emanating from replacement asbestos.
Defendants Crane Co. (Crane) and Warren Pumps LLC (Warren) made valves and pumps used in Navy warships. Patrick O'Neil served on one of those ships between 1965 and 1967, where he was exposed to airborne asbestos fibers. In 2004, O'Neil developed mesothelioma as a result of the asbestos exposure. He died a year later.
In 2006, O'Neil's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against several companies, including Crane and Warren, that had allegedly supplied asbestos-containing products to the Navy. (Crane produced valves for Navy ships according to strict military specifications, and Warren supplied pumps.) The family alleged that O'Neil's illness was caused by asbestos released from external insulation and internal gaskets and packing, all of which were made by third parties and added to the pumps and valves post sale.
It is undisputed that the defendants never manufactured or sold any of the asbestos-containing materials. Nevertheless, the O'Neil family claimed that Crane and Warren should be held strictly liable and negligent because it was foreseeable workers would be exposed to, and harmed by, the asbestos in replacement parts and products used in conjunction with their pumps and valves.
Recognizing that the plaintiffs' theory would result in an "unprecedented expansion" of products liability cases, the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendants.
The court acknowledged that "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," but refused to extend those responsibilities to preventing injuries "caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant's product."