California Supreme Court Declines to Expand Scope of Strict Products Liability, Holds Manufacturers Not Liable for Harm Caused by Another Manufacturer’s Products
In a notable decision, the California Supreme Court recently ruled that “a product 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, or the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.”
In O’Neil, v. Crane Co., et al,S177401, slip op. (Cal. Jan. 12, 2012), defendant component manufacturers, Crane Company (“Crane”) and Warren Pumps LLC (“Warren”) were sued for the wrongful death of Patrick O’Neil (“O’Neil”), a United States Navy officer who served on the USS Oriskanyfrom 1965 to 1967. O’Neil supervised repairs of equipment in the engine and boiler rooms of the naval warship and was exposed to airborne asbestos fibers released during repairs. In 2004, O’Neil developed mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs caused by asbestos exposure. Following his death in 2006, his family asserted strict liability and negligence claims against several companies that had allegedly supplied products to the Navy that contained asbestos.
Crane produced valves, and Warren supplied pumps, that were purchased by the Navy for use in the steam propulsion systems of warships. The Navy required that the internal gaskets and packing materials in the valves and pumps contain asbestos. Neither Crane nor Warren manufactured the asbestos packing or gaskets.
The internal gaskets and packing materials needed to be replaced regularly by the Navy. O’Neil was exposed to asbestos from replacement gaskets and packing inside these valves and pumps. The replacement packing and insulation were purchased from other sources.
Once the valves and pumps were received by the Navy, they were connected to other components, such as boilers and piping, with asbestos-containing flange gaskets. Neither Crane nor Warren produced these flange gaskets. All metal components of the steam propulsion system were then covered in a layer of asbestos insulation. This insulation was manufactured and sold by other companies. The valves and pumps did not require external insulation to function. Nevertheless, plaintiff argued that defendants should be liable for O’Neil’s death because it was foreseeable that workers would be exposed to and harmed by the asbestos in replacement parts and other products used in conjunction with defendants’ pumps and valves.
At the close of evidence, Crane moved for nonsuit on the grounds that there was no evidence that O’Neil has been exposed to asbestos from any Crane product, and there was no evidence that a product defect or failure to warn by Crane was a substantial factor in causing O’Neil’s mesothelioma. Warren joined Crane’s motion and also sought nonsuit on the grounds that no evidence showed O’Neil had been exposed to asbestos from the repair or maintenance of a Warren pump.
The trial court granted the motions and dismissed all claims against Crane and Warren. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that “a manufacturer is liable in strict liability for the dangerous components of its products, and for dangerous products with which its product will necessarily be used.” Further, even though O’Neil was injured by replacement gaskets and packing, the Court of Appeals concluded that replacement parts were “no different” from the asbestos-containing components originally included in defendants’ products, and asserted that defendants’ products were “defectively designed because they required asbestos packing and insulation.”
The California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding this conclusion was unsupported by the trial record. The evidence at trial established that the asbestos packing and insulation was required by the Navy’s strict specifications, and not from “any inherent aspect of defendants’ pump and valve designs.” Moreover, it was undisputed that O’Neil was exposed to no asbestos from a product made by the defendants, and that the replacement packing and insulation were purchased from another source.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court of California held that “a product manufacturer may not be held strictly liable for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product” unless “the defendant bears some direct responsibility for the harm, either because the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm . . . or because the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.”