Sunday, January 15, 2012
California Supreme Court Limits Certain Manufacturers' Asbestos Liability in O'Neil, Describes Navy's Conduct Leading to Asbestos Injury for Service Members
In O'Neil v. Crane Co., the California Supreme Court this past week rejected asbestos liability for manufacturers whose products are added by third parties to other products that contain asbestos. No. S177401, slip op. (Cal. Jan. 12, 2012) Download O'Neil v. Crane Co_Cal Supreme Court_2012. The plaintiffs had argued that the defendants should be held liable because of the foreseeability that their products would be combined with other asbestos-containing products to which plaintiff was exposed, but in its opinion the Court highlighted that the defendant's product did not require asbestos-containing products and in fact could have been with used in combination with non-asbestos-containing products. Id. at 1, 12.
In its analysis, the opinion quotes Professor Alan Calnan's and my introductory asbestos article for the 2008 asbestos symposium at Southwestern Law School that Professor Calnan and I co-chaired, and at which co-blog editor Howard Erichson also spoke. Id. at 17 n. 19 (noting that "[s]ome commentators have observed that, due to the bankruptcies of...major suppliers of asbestos-containing products, asbestos personal injury litigants have shifted their focus in the past decade to 'ever-more peripheral defendants'"); Download Calnan & Stier_Perspectives on Asbestos Litigation_Overview and Preview_2008.
The facts in O'Neil underscore the federal government's role in asbestos injury to those in military service. From 1965 to 1967, plaintiff O'Neil served in the boiler room on the USS Oriskany, a Navy aircraft carrier authorized in 1942 and launched in 1945. Id. at 5. The Court notes that "[a]s early as 1922, the Navy was aware that airborne asbestos could potentially cause lung diseases," and "[i]ts industrial hygienists conducted studies on the health effects of asbestos exposure from the prewar period until well into the 1960s." Id. Nevertheless, the "Navy preferred asbestos over other types of insulating materials because it was lightweight, strong, and effective"; "Navy specifications required the use of asbestos-containing insulation"; and the Navy even ordered the conservation of asbestos in 1942 for the war effort. Id. at 2-3. Even if asbestos was beneficial militarily, the Navy might still have taken safety precautions to protect seamen. But as the Court notes, "the Navy did not warn seamen about the hazards of working with asbestos-containing materials and did not advise them to wear respirators or take other precautions during dusty work." Id. at 5-6.
The Navy is immune from suit because of the discretionary function exception to waivers of sovereign immunity. Id. at 6 (citing Collins v. Plant Insulation Co., 110 Cal. Rptr. 3d 241 (Cal. Ct. App. 2010), and Sea-Land Service, Inc. v. United States, 919 F.2d 888, 892-93 (3d Cir. 1990)). But through the Department of Veterans Affairs, the federal government does provide healthcare benefits, disability compensation, and dependency and indemnity compensation for veterans whose death stems from a service-related injury or disease, and has information specifically tailored to servicemen exposed to asbestos. See Dep't of Veterans Affairs, Occupational and Environmental Exposures: Asbestos. Removing such claims from litigation may be well-advised for the Navy, but one wonders if the apparently small and rigidly determined amounts of compensation by the VA offered are consistent with a government that also fully funds the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund and demands a $20 billion Gulf Coast Claims Claims Facility from BP. To what degree has the low compensation offered by the federal government for its asbestos-related wrongs led to questionable claims against manufacturers, and the flooding of the courts with lawsuits?