Products Liability Law Daily Judgment in favor of manufacturer in asbestos exposure action overturned based on exception to duty to warn standard
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Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Judgment in favor of manufacturer in asbestos exposure action overturned based on exception to duty to warn standard

By Kathleen Bianco, J.D.

Summary judgment in favor of an equipment manufacturer was not warranted on product liability claims arising from exposure to asbestos under a general rule providing that a manufacturer does not have a duty to warn of the hazards of a product the manufacturer did not place in the stream of commerce, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled, overturning a lower court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of the manufacturer. In reaching this conclusion, the court opined that an exception to the general rule exists that creates a duty to warn in a manufacturer whose product either incorporated asbestos-containing components at the time they were supplied or required the use of an asbestos-containing component part (Woo v. General Electric Co., April 3, 2017, Schindler, A.).

The estate of a former U.S. Navy engineer, who died of mesothelioma, filed a wrongful death and personal injury suit against a number of companies, including General Electric Co. (GE), that manufactured turbines and other machinery used on Navy vessels during the time in which the decedent had served, alleging various theories of liability arising from the decedent’s alleged exposure to asbestos. A state trial court granted GE’s motion for summary judgment, finding that GE could not be held liable for asbestos exposure because it neither manufactured nor distributed any asbestos-containing equipment or component parts.

Duty to warn. Generally, a manufacturer does not have a duty to warn of risks caused by an asbestos-containing product that the manufacturer did not itself manufacture or distribute. The manufacturer here contended that it was entitled to summary judgment because there was no evidence that the decedent had come into contact with any asbestos-containing products supplied or installed by the manufacturer. A state trial court granted the summary judgment motion, concluding that as a matter of law, the manufacturer did not have a duty to warn about the hazards of asbestos-containing products it did not manufacture, sell, or supply. The estate appealed, arguing that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the manufacturer had a duty to warn of the hazards of asbestos-containing products necessary for the proper functioning of its steam turbines. The evidence presented established that the manufacturer had equipped its turbines with asbestos-containing gaskets and packing materials when they were initially installed on the Navy ships and may have required the use of asbestos-containing replacement parts. Therefore, the estate contended that the manufacturer could be liable under an exception to the general rule, which provides that the general rule is not applicable to a manufacturer who incorporates a defective component, such as asbestos, into its finished product. The appellate court agreed, finding that material issues of fact precluded summary judgment. Consequently, the dismissal of the claim was reversed and the action was remanded for trial.

Causation. In addition to establishing a possible duty to warn, the estate made a threshold showing that the decedent had been exposed to asbestos-containing products supplied by the manufacturer. The testimony provided by the estate showed that the decedent had worked in close proximity to the steam turbines and had been in areas containing dust and other debris from the asbestos insulation. Furthermore, evidence established that the GE equipment had been installed with asbestos gaskets when at least one of the ships was commissioned and that the decedent had been working on the ship at that time. This evidence created a reasonable inference that the decedent was exposed to asbestos insulation, packing, and gaskets supplied by the manufacturer.

The case is No. 74458-5-1.

Attorneys: William Joel Rutzick (Schroeter Goldmark & Bender) for Yeanna Woo. Christopher S. Marks (Sedgwick LLP) for General Electric Co.

Companies: General Electric Co.

MainStory: TopStory SCLIssuesNews WarningsNews EvidentiaryNews AsbestosNews WashingtonNews

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