Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, January 13, 2012


Page 1


S.C. Turns Back Bid to Expand Liability for Faulty Products




A manufacturer whose product did not cause injury may not be held liable for an injury caused by an adjacent or replacement part made by someone else, even if it was foreseeable that the combination of products would cause injury, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

Rejecting the “unprecedented expansion of strict products liability” proposed by the plaintiffs, the high court reversed this district’s Court of Appeal and reinstated a judgment in favor of Crane Co. and Warren Pumps LLC, companies that made components of steam propulsion systems used on ships during and after World War II.

The family of Patrick O’Neil, who served on an “Essex class” aircraft carrier as a member of the U.S. Navy from 1965 to 1967, sought to hold Crane, Warren, and several other companies liable for the ex-sailor’s 2005 death from mesothelioma. The plaintiffs’ evidence showed that when the carrier was built in the early 1940s, Warren pumps and Crane valves were connected to other components, such as boilers and piping, with asbestos-containing flange gaskets.

Suit Thrown Out

All of the metal components, including miles of piping, were covered in a layer of asbestos insulation, made and sold by Johns Manville and other companies. Neither Crane nor Warren produced the insulation, nor was insulation needed for their products to function.

After 15 days of trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle granted motions by Crane and Warren for nonsuit on all causes of action.

Berle said the plaintiffs failed to present evidence that the products were inherently dangerous, and that because the defendants did not participate in the process by which their products were integrated into the complex propulsion systems, they were shielded from liability by the component parts doctrine.

Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal reversed.

The panel said the component parts defense did not apply because the pumps and valves were not “multiuse or fungible products” designed to be altered and incorporated into another product.

Even though the defendants did not manufacture the asbestos-containing products that caused the cancer, the court said, strict liability may extend to “the dangerous components of [a manufacturer’s] products, and for dangerous products with which its product will necessarily be used.” 

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed that ruling yesterday, with Justice Carol Corrigan writing for the court:

“California law has long provided that manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have a duty to ensure the safety of their products, and will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in their products.  Yet, we have never held that these responsibilities extend to preventing injuries caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant’s product.  Nor have we held that manufacturers must warn about potential hazards in replacement parts made by others when, as here, the dangerous feature of these parts was not integral to the product’s design.  The broad rule plaintiffs urge would not further the purposes of strict liability.  Nor would public policy be served by requiring manufacturers to warn about the dangerous propensities of products they do not design, make, or sell.”

Court’s Reasoning

Strict products liability, Corrigan elaborated, requires proof of a manufacturing defect, a design defect, or a failure to warn. While theories of design defect and failure to warn were pled against Warren and Crane, she said, neither is liable because O’Neil was not injured by any defect in the design of those companies’ products, and the companies did not have a duty to warn of risks associated with products made by others.

There was, the justice acknowledged, evidence that Crane and Warren did not give warnings about the dangers of asbestos in the gaskets and packing originally included in their products.

The Navy required that asbestos be used for that purpose, Corrigan noted, because it was the only insulating material that could withstand the extremely high temperatures and pressures produced by a warship’s steam propulsion system. But it was undisputed that all of those asbestos-containing Crane and Warren products were replaced during routine maintenance before O’Neil ever came aboard the ship.

Corrigan distinguished cases in which liability was found based upon the creation of a danger through a combination of products, even though none of the products could be found defective by themselves. The defendants in those cases were all at fault in bringing the combinations about, which is not the case here, the justice explained.

“The asbestos dust that injured O’Neil came from thermal insulation and replacement gaskets and packing made by other manufacturers,” the jurist wrote. “Nothing about defendants’ pumps and valves caused or contributed to the release of this dust.”

Corrigan went on to say that the nonsuit was correct as to the negligence claims as well, because the defendants did not breach any duty to O’Neil.

The justice cited the general negligence factors set forth in Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, which include the foreseeability of injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury, the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty, and the availability and cost of insuring against the risk that the duty will be breached.

Here, Corrigan said, the relationship between the defendants’ conduct and the injury was “extremely remote,” given that the conduct occurred 20 years before O’Neil was exposed to asbestos-containing products and 40 years before he suffered adverse effects as a result.

The fact that the defendants did not manufacture the products to which he was exposed precludes a finding of moral blameworthiness, the justice said, and the social burden of imposing a duty to warn of dangers from products made by others would be great, as it “could lead to an overabundance of potentially conflicting product warnings.” And the extent of the risk is so unknowable as make it “doubtful” that it could be insured against, Corrigan said.

The case was argued on appeal by Jeffrey Isaac Ehrlich of The Ehrlich Law Firm in Claremont for the O’Neils, Nicholas Vari of K&L Gates in Los Angeles for Crane, and Laurie J. Hepler of Carroll, Burdick & McDonough in San Francisco for Warren.

The case is O’Neil v. Crane Co., 12 S.O.S. 168.


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