“Insufficient evidence as a matter of law.” This language, contained in a brief one paragraph opinion in which New York’s highest court affirmed an appellate decision to set aside a jury verdict in favor of plaintiffs, describes the court’s rationale for determining that the plaintiff failed to prove her claims under the state’s jurisprudence. In Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Prods. Co., et al., Mary Juni pursued claims on behalf of her deceased husband, Arthur Juni, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Mr. Juni spent over 25 years working as a mechanic on automobiles manufactured by defendant Ford Motor Company, including work with brakes and clutches (“friction products”).

The plaintiff introduced evidence at trial that the chrysotile asbestos-containing automotive component parts utilized by Mr. Juni during the course of his automotive work was the cause of his mesothelioma. Ford, while not disputing the presence of chrysotile asbestos in its parts, submitted expert testimony that demonstrated the chrysotile asbestos contained in the friction products would have undergone a chemical transformation while subjected to high temperatures during the manufacture and use in vehicles, thus converting the asbestos into a benign substance called forsterite, which does not cause mesothelioma.

The jury found in favor of Mrs. Juni, but the trial court set aside the verdict against Ford, reasoning that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the verdict because plaintiff’s experts failed to refute testimony provided by Ford’s experts that chrysotile asbestos in friction products is converted to forsterite and rendered non-toxic.
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A March 22, 2018, denial of a defendant’s summary judgment motion in the New York City Asbestos Litigation (NYCAL) signals a drastic lowering of the product identification standards in that venue (and a possible strategic adjustment necessary in future defendants litigating there).

In Trumbull v. Adience, Inc., a former brewer sued Stavo Industries (“Stavo”) as a manufacturer of asbestos-containing products to which the plaintiff was allegedly exposed.  Stavo made, among other products, filters used in breweries. The plaintiff listed Stavo in his interrogatory responses, but not during his deposition testimony.  At his deposition, the plaintiff recalled exposure to filters generally, but only named one specific manufacturer—Cellulo.  However, the plaintiff also referred back, on the record, to his interrogatory responses for the list of filter brands that he supposedly encountered.

From Stavo’s perspective, the plaintiff’s general interrogatory mention of Stavo and reference back to those interrogatories during the deposition failed the requirement for product identification. Stavo moved for summary judgment.  Justice Manuel Mendez denied Stavo’s motion, and ruled that a reference back to the interrogatory responses during his deposition did “sufficiently identify” Stavo filters as an exposure source.  The Court found that Stavo’s liability could be inferred from the plaintiff’s testimony that he worked near filters being removed and replaced, considered with Stavo marketing materials from the time at issue claiming widespread usage of Stavo products in the brewing industry.  For the Court, this provided enough evidence to survive summary judgment.

After this decision, the bar for product identification in the NYCAL appears dangerously low.  This standard encourages plaintiffs to make blanket references to their vague interrogatory responses in depositions where actual recollection is impossible. It also forces prudent defendants to cross-examine during depositions with or without a specific mention of the defendant’s product occurring. If the NYCAL proceeds with this standard, the number of identifications stands to increase.
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