Products Liability Law Daily Admiralty jurisdiction satisfied in suit alleging Navy worker was exposed to asbestos-containing products onboard ships in navigable waters
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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Admiralty jurisdiction satisfied in suit alleging Navy worker was exposed to asbestos-containing products onboard ships in navigable waters

By Nicholas Kaster, J.D.

Because the alleged tort feasor was accused of selling asbestos-containing gaskets to the Navy and the worker had been exposed to those products while aboard ships on navigable waters, the alleged conduct had a substantial relationship to maritime activity.

Admiralty jurisdiction applied in a product liability lawsuit where it was alleged that a Navy worker was exposed to asbestos on board ships in navigable waters, according to a federal district court in Virginia. While it is true that "asbestos work" in general is not inherently related to the traditional application of admiralty law, the sale of an asbestos-containing product geared toward the proper functioning of Navy ships placed the allegations in the suit squarely in a context that interests admiralty law, the court held (Mullinex v. John Crane, Inc., April 27, 2020, Jackson, R.).

The case involved a Navy worker who was a machinist mate aboard several different ships, which docked in Norfolk, Virginia, and in other locations around the world. His duties included shipbuilding and repair. It was alleged that he was exposed to asbestos during his naval service, which led him to contract malignant mesothelioma in 2016. It was not alleged that this exposure had occurred on the high seas. Thus, the actionable asbestos exposure was limited to times when his ship was docked on navigable waters or in the shipyard.

A lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court for the City of Newport News, alleging that John Crane, Inc. (JCI) failed to warn the Navy worker about the dangers of its products that contain asbestos. The suit asserted claims arising under the law of Virginia and within federal admiralty and maritime jurisdiction. JCI conceded that the court had jurisdiction over the claims but argued that the absence of admiralty jurisdiction required the application of Virginia law.

Admiralty jurisdiction. A federal court’s authority to hear cases in admiralty flows from the U.S. Constitution, which extends judicial power to "all [c]ases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction." However, a party seeking to invoke federal admiralty jurisdiction must satisfy the location and connection tests. A court applying the location test must determine whether the tort occurred on navigable water or whether injury suffered on land was caused by a vessel on navigable water. The connection test requires a court to address two issues: (1) the general features of the type of incident involved to determine whether the incident has a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce; and (2) whether the general character of the activity giving rise to the incident shows a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.

Connection with maritime activity. Because the Navy worker had been exposed to asbestos on navigable waters aboard several ships during his service in the Navy, the court found that the location test was easily satisfied. However, JCI contended that the claims against it did not satisfy the connection test. The first prong of the connection test requires a court to examine the potential effects, and not the particular facts of the incident, in order to determine whether the general features of the incident were likely to disrupt commercial activity. Here, the incident at issue was properly described as "one of ‘injury to workers on Navy ships on navigable waters allegedly caused by defective parts’ or ‘exposure to allegedly defective products on or around Navy ships on navigable waters.’ "Clearly, the sale of defective parts causing injury on Navy ships on navigable waters is likely to disrupt commercial activity, the court stated, finding that the first prong of the connection test was satisfied.

In applying the second prong of the connection test, the salient inquiry is "whether a tort feasor’s activity on navigable waters is so closely related to activity traditionally subject to admiralty law that the reasons for applying special admiralty rules would apply in the suit at hand." Hypergeneralizations of the tort feasor’s activity so as to eliminate a hint of maritime connection should not be used as a vehicle for eliminating admiralty jurisdiction, the court noted.

Exposure occurred on navigable waters. In this case, JCI was accused of selling the Navy asbestos-containing products, which led to the worker’s exposure to asbestos on navigable waters and subsequent development of mesothelioma. The record demonstrated that much of his work in the Navy "involved replacing asbestos gaskets and packing." Gaskets are essential for the proper functioning of ships and are made for that purpose. Further, the repairs that led to the worker’s alleged exposure to JCI’s asbestos-containing gaskets occurred on navigable waters. Because JCI was accused of selling asbestos-containing gaskets to the Navy and the worker was exposed to those products while aboard ships on navigable waters, JCI’s alleged conduct had a substantial relationship to maritime activity, the court said.

In seeking to avoid admiralty jurisdiction, the court noted that JCI "hypergeneralized" its alleged conduct by framing it as "asbestos work," necessarily omitting two key details: (1) JCI sold gaskets—a product necessary for naval operations—specifically to the Navy; and (2) the worker allegedly had been exposed to the asbestos in the gaskets aboard naval vessels on navigable waters. While it is true that "asbestos work" in general is not inherently related to the traditional application of admiralty law, the sale of an asbestos-containing product geared toward the proper functioning of Navy ships placed the allegations in the case squarely in a context that interests admiralty law, according to the court.

Exclusively land-based asbestos exposure cannot satisfy the requirements for admiralty jurisdiction, the court advised. In contrast, the Navy worker’s alleged exposure to JCI’s asbestos containing products came in part on navigable waters. Therefore, the second prong of the connection test was satisfied, the court reasoned.

Accordingly, the court found that admiralty jurisdiction arose out of the allegations presented in this case and denied JCI’s motion to dismiss.

This case is Civil No. 4:18-cv-33.

Attorneys: Robert Randolph Hatten (Patten, Wornom, Hatten, & Diamonstein, L.C.) for Herbert H. Mullinex, Jr and Patricia E. Mullinex. Eric George Reeves (Moran Reeves & Conn PC) for John Crane Inc.

Companies: John Crane Inc.

MainStory: TopStory JurisdictionNews AsbestosNews VirginiaNews

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