Products Liability Law Daily No liability verdict for Ford Motor Company in asbestos exposure case survives appeal
Thursday, July 16, 2020

No liability verdict for Ford Motor Company in asbestos exposure case survives appeal

By David Yucht, J.D.

A previous trial in this case, the results of which were reversed on appeal, resulted in a finding of liability against Ford for negligent failure to warn and a $5 million award.

A state appeals panel in Maryland upheld a jury verdict of no liability for Ford Motor Company in the re-trial of a brake-pad-asbestos exposure case brought by the estate of a construction company driver who helped out in the company’s garage. The trial court, which also had presided over the first trial, did not err in denying the estate’s summary judgment motion. Moreover, there was ample evidence for a jury to decide that the deceased driver was not exposed to the asbestos fibers released from Ford brakes. Additionally, res judicata and collateral estoppel did not apply in this case, the appellate court ruled (Coates v. Ford Motor Co., July 15, 2020, Shaw Geter, M.).

A Maryland construction company maintained a fleet of approximately 15 Ford trucks. A driver for the company spent time in the company’s mechanic shop almost every workday socializing with the mechanics. He also would help the mechanics in the shop on the days he was not driving. For instance, he would assist with servicing Ford brakes by using a wire brush to clean off the brake shoes prior to replacement and then using compressed air to blow dust out of the drums. At one point in time, he asserted that he had assisted with hundreds of brake replacements. He later was diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. The driver maintained that Ford never warned him about the dangers of asbestos, and that had he been warned, he would have gotten a different job.

A trial against defendants Ford and Mack Trucks, Inc. was held that resulted in a finding of liability against the defendants for negligent failure to warn. The jury, however, found Ford and Mack Trucks not liable for strict liability failure to warn. The driver was awarded $5 million in non-economic damages and $72,000 for past medical expenses. The appellate court reversed [see Products Liability Law Daily’s May 15, 2018 analysis], finding that the lower court mistakenly gave a negligence jury instruction that was not based on the evidence. Moreover, "the verdicts were illogical"—the jury finding negligence but not strict liability—likely due to the improper instruction. The appellate court remanded the case for a new trial. Prior to the retrial, the trial court denied a motion for partial summary judgment as well as several motions filed by the driver’s estate seeking issue preclusion for issues of liability determined during the prior trial. The estate resolved its claims against Mack Trucks before the start of the retrial. The retrial concluded in a jury verdict in favor of Ford, finding that the driver was not exposed to asbestos by products manufactured or sold by Ford. The estate appealed.

Summary judgment. The appellate court found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion when it denied the estate’s partial summary judgment motion. Before the retrial, the estate sought partial summary judgment on the issues of asbestos exposure and substantial factor causation. The estate claimed that the judge erred in denying summary judgment because Ford’s opposition papers were defective. Moreover, the estate asserted that the trial court failed to explain its reasons for denial. The appellate court noted that the trial court had presided over the previous trial, was familiar with the evidence, the procedural posture of the case, and the appellate rulings. Given this history, the appellate court would not find that the lower court’s decision to allow the case to be re-tried was "manifestly unreasonable or exercised on untenable grounds or for untenable reasons."

Mesothelioma—causation. The appellate court also was not convinced by the estate’s argument that the verdict in Ford’s favor was against the weight of the evidence. Ford presented evidence that the deceased was not a mechanic and had spent years prior to his work at the construction company as a driver performing other jobs that potentially could have exposed him to asbestos, such as brick and pipe laying. Ford also produced evidence that the deceased had believed his exposure to asbestos was a result of his work as a pipe fitter. Additionally, despite testimony that he had replaced hundreds of brakes, at one point, the deceased had testified that his time in the shop when brakes were replaced on Ford dump trucks was limited to five or six times a year over a course of four or five years. Moreover, Ford produced expert testimony at trial that the deceased was not at increased risk of mesothelioma based on his exposure to Ford’s brake pads. The appellate court found that a jury reasonably could have found that the decedent was not exposed to the asbestos fibers released from Ford brakes. There was substantial evidence on both sides to support the theories and positions argued. The jury was free to believe Ford’s evidence. Therefore, the appeals court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying the motion for new trial and it was not required to set forth its reasoning.

Issue preclusion. Finally, the appellate court also found that the lower court did not err in determining the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel did not bar retrial of the issues of exposure and substantial factor causation. The appellate court refused to consider the estate’s collateral estoppel argument because collateral estoppel was not plainly raised before the trial court. Concerning res judicata, the estate could not establish that there was a valid final judgment adjudicating rights between the parties. Following the first trial, a judgment was entered in favor of the deceased on his negligence claim. However when it was reversed on appeal, there was no longer a valid final judgment for purposes of res judicata. As such, the trial court did not err in determining that the retrial should include all elements of the negligence count.

The case is No. 659.

Attorneys: Thomas P. Kelly (Law Offices of Peter G. Angelos, PC) for Christopher Coates. Warren N. Weaver (Whiteford Taylor Preston, LLP) Alina Alonso Rodriguez (Bowman and Brooke LLP) for Ford Motor Co.

Companies: Ford Motor Co.

MainStory: TopStory CausationNews WarningsNews DefensesLiabilityNews EvidentiaryNews JuryVerdictsNewsStory AsbestosNews MarylandNews

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