By David Yucht, J.D.
Although the jury instructions for negligence and failure to warn were similar, a finding that a maker of asbestos-containing products was not liable for negligence did not necessarily mean that it did not breach a duty to warn.
In an asbestos-exposure action brought by the estate of a worker who died from mesothelioma, a federal judge in North Carolina refused to dismiss a failure-to-warn claim on which a jury had been deadlocked. The court was not swayed by the asbestos-product manufacturer’s argument that because the same jury found for it on the estate’s negligence claim, the failure-to-warn claim was no longer viable under the doctrines of collateral estoppel and the law-of-the-case (Gore v. John Crane, Inc., March 5, 2020, Britt, W.).
A worker died from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos at his workplace. Prior to his death, he filed a suit against John Crane, Inc. based on theories of negligence and failure to warn. Following his death, his estate pursued the matter, which was tried before a jury. The verdict form submitted to the jury required the jury to determine three separate issues. The first was whether the worker was injured by John Crane’s negligence. The second issue was whether John Crane unreasonably failed to provide an adequate warning with its asbestos-containing gaskets and/or packing products that proximately caused the worker’s injury. The third issue, which the jury would consider if it answered issue one or two in the affirmative, read: "What amount is the estate entitled to recover for wrongful death?" The jury reached a unanimous decision finding no cause on the negligence issue but remained deadlocked on the failure-to-warn claim. The court accepted the jury’s verdict as to the negligence claim and declared a mistrial as to the failure-to-warn claim. Thereafter, John Crane moved for judgment as a matter of law based on the doctrines of collateral estoppel and the law-of-the-case.
Collateral estoppel—law-of-the-case. The court ruled that collateral estoppel did not bar the retrial of the estate’s failure-to-warn claim. Collateral estoppel prevents a fully litigated and decided claim from being retried by the same parties. Here, John Crane argued that the estate was collaterally estopped from maintaining its failure-to-warn claim because the jury’s negligence verdict was a final judgment, and two elements of the failure-to-warn claim—negligent conduct and proximate cause—were decided by the jury in its verdict on negligence. The court found that although the instructions for the two claims were similar, in determining that John Crane was not negligent, the jury did not necessarily decide whether the company had a duty to warn; nor did the jury decide whether John Crane breached that specific duty to warn. Consequently, the jury’s finding of no negligence did not bar the retrial of the failure-to-warn claim, and the doctrine of collateral estoppel did not apply. For the same reasons, John Crane’s argument based on the law-of-the-case doctrine—which "merely expresses the practice of courts generally to refuse to reopen what has been decided, not a limit to their power"—was found to be without merit.
The case is No. 5:16–CV–716–BR.
Attorneys: Audrey Snyder (Ward Black Law) for Faye Gore. Stephen D. Feldman (Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, P.A.) for John Crane, Inc.
Companies: John Crane, Inc.
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