Co-authored by Brian Gross 

Navy ShipAfter years of inconsistent rulings in the trial and appellate courts, the California Supreme Court recently decided the issue of whether plaintiffs in asbestos litigation may pursue claims against equipment manufacturers for injuries caused by asbestos-containing replacement component parts they neither manufactured nor supplied. For the reasons below, the Court expressly rejected this theory of liability and affirmed judgment in favor of equipment manufacturers Crane Co. and Warren Pumps (O’Neil v. Crane Co., California Supreme Court Case No. S177401).

Procedural History of Case

This opinion originated from a wrongful death personal injury asbestos case first filed in Los Angeles Superior Court. Plaintiffs alleged that the Decedent was exposed to asbestos-containing gaskets, packing, and insulation materials found in or on the Defendants’ pump and valve products when Decedent served aboard ship in the United States Navy. Although the evidence demonstrated that Defendants’ products incorporated asbestos-containing component parts, it was undisputed that the Defendants did not manufacture or supply the asbestos-containing gaskets and packing actually found in or on the equipment at the time of Decedent’s exposure.

At trial, the Superior Court granted Defendants’ non-suit motions.  In doing so, the Superior Court ruled thatCalifornia’s strict liability and negligence law did not support imposition of liability for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product. The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision.

California Supreme Court Ruling

On final appeal, the California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal decision and affirmed the trial court judgment in favor of Defendants.  In so doing, the Court re-affirmed the general rules that a manufacturer cannot be held strictly liable for defects in another entity’s product, and that a manufacturer has no duty to warn of risks arising from another manufacturer’s products.

Impact of O’Neil Decision on California Asbestos Litigation Going Forward

The O’Neil decision will likely have a significant impact on asbestos litigation going forward. Although the decision does not entirely eliminate liability for all pump, valve, or other equipment manufacturers, it certainly limits the factual scenarios under which they may be held liable. Accordingly, California asbestos litigation counsel may anticipate the following:

  • An increased litigation focus on the remaining pool of asbestos replacement part manufacturers, such as gasket, packing and insulation manufacturer defendants
  • An increase in litigation against the direct suppliers of gasket, packing, and insulation materials (largely due to fact that many of the insulation, gasket, and packing defendants are now bankrupt)
  • Finally, because the O’Neil opinion leaves open the possibility that an equipment manufacturer may be held liable upon a showing that it “substantially participated” in creating a harmful combined use of its product with asbestos-containing replacement parts, equipment manufacturers should anticipate that certain Plaintiffs firms will pursue and develop this theory of liability against them through the pre-trial discovery process.