Overview

On March 30, 2018, Judge Rya Zobel of the United States District Court (District of Massachusetts) issued a memorandum of decision on two Defendants’ (NSTAR Electric, formerly Boston Edison, and General Electric) Motions for Summary Judgment in an asbestos personal injury and wrongful death matter, June Stearns and Clifford Stearns as Co-Executors of the Estate of Wayne Oliver v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., et al., that addresses multiple issues, including statute of repose, strict liability and liability of a premises owner.

Background

Plaintiff’s decedent, Wayne Oliver, worked on the construction of two power plants, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (Massachusetts) and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant (Maryland), between 1971 and 1978 and his estate alleges that Mr. Oliver was exposed to asbestos-containing products present at those sites. Defendant NSTAR Electric (formerly Boston Edison)(“Boston Edison”) owned the Pilgrim premises.  Defendant General Electric (“GE”) allegedly designed, manufactured, and sold generators used at Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs.  Oliver worked as a pipe inspector for Bechtel, the architect-engineer on projects at both Pilgrim and Calvert Cliffs.

As the owner of Pilgrim, Boston Edison conducted safety audits while the construction proceeded, but primary responsibility for the site construction rested with GE and Bechtel: GE for the steam supply system, nuclear fuel system, and the generators themselves; and Bechtel for everything else. In that capacity, Bechtel hired and supervised all subcontractors on the project, including an insulation installer, New England Insulation (“NEI”). Although NEI reported to Bechtel, it installed the asbestos-containing insulation around the generators pursuant to directions from both Bechtel and GE, and pursuant to GE’s specifications that specifically required asbestos-containing insulation.  The Court also recognized that at both Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs, GE had rejected suggestions or proposals for an asbestos-free insulation alternative.

Oliver allegedly sustained exposure to asbestos at both sites while inspecting pipe near dusty thermal insulation as other subcontractors installed it around the generators. He was subsequently diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015 and died in 2016.  In denying summary judgment to GE and granting summary judgment to Boston Edison, the Court found that:  (1) while the construction work performed by GE met the definition of an improvement to real property for purposes of the statute of repose, public policy considerations necessitated an exception to the application of the statute in cases involving alleged asbestos-related disease; (2) the installation of asbestos insulation was not an abnormally dangerous activity; (3) Boston Edison did not exercise sufficient control over the work at issue to be held negligent; and (4) a premises owner, such as Boston Edison, has no duty to warn where the subcontractor has knowledge of the hazard which is equal to or greater than that of the premises owner.

Application of Statute of Repose

GE argued protection from Plaintiffs’ claims under Massachusetts’s six-year statute of repose, which bars claims concerning “improvements to real property.” Under Massachusetts law, this involves a “permanent addition” versus “ordinary repair.” Whether this statute applied to asbestos claims against manufacturers posed an
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For the first time since 1989[1], Connecticut’s Supreme Court addressed the plaintiff’s burden of proof in the asbestos context, in Wayne Bagley v. Adel Wiggins Group et al, SC 19835 (11/7/17).  In a win for defendants facing such claims, the court found that plaintiffs bringing claims pursuant to the Connecticut Product Liability Act (under both strict liability and negligence theories) require expert testimony to prove exposure at levels sufficient to cause their asbestos-related disease, and not merely general testimony that an asbestos-containing product generated an indefinite amount of dust in the plaintiff’s vicinity.

The decedent, Wayne Bagley (“Bagley”) worked at Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation (“Sikorsky”), and alleged exposure to an adhesive product used to bind interior components of helicopter blades. The material, an epoxy, came in the form of a sheet with strippable release paper, it contained 8.6 percent asbestos, and was manufactured by Wyeth Holdings’ predecessor. Employees removed any excess epoxy with chisels or by sanding. The Bagley estate called a former co-worker to testify that Bagley’s work area overlooked the blade shop, that Bagley’s daily responsibilities required him to enter the sanding room frequently, and that the sanding process created visible dust to which Bagley and he would have been exposed to.

At trial, the plaintiff presented causation expert testimony from Dr. Arnold Brody and Dr. Jerrold Abraham. Dr. Brody testified in detail regarding the process by which asbestos causes mesothelioma. However, he acknowledged on cross-examination that his testimony was based upon the assumption that a person has already been exposed to respirable asbestos fibers.

Dr. Abraham, a pulmonary pathologist testified that a proximate cause of the decedent’s mesothelioma was the exposure to asbestos fibers from the epoxy while the decedent passed through the sanding room of the blade shop. While discussing causation, Abraham was given a hypothetical scenario that reflected Bagley’s alleged exposure during his ten-month tenure as the manufacturing engineer. In response, Abraham testified that the scenario was a clear description of an exposure to asbestos fibers emitted from working with epoxy, and that the mere presence of dust indicated inadequate control of the product. On cross-examination, Abraham acknowledged that he never inspected the epoxy, that he did not speak with anyone at Sikorsky about the ventilation in the sanding room, and that he did not know of any studies concerning fiber release of the product when manipulated.

Once the plaintiff rested, Wyeth moved for a directed verdict, arguing that the estate failed to present any evidence of either a design defect or that asbestos dust from the epoxy caused the decedent’s death. Moreover, the defendant argued that expert testimony is required to prove the dangerousness of the epoxy, as it was a complex product for which an ordinary consumer could not form a safety expectation. The trial court denied the motion for directed verdict reasoning that the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence from which the jury could conclude that the epoxy was unreasonably dangerous and that the defendants were negligent in failing
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