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Defendants in asbestos litigation will vigorously fight to have a case dismissed through summary judgment as a matter of law before it ever gets to the trial phase. There are various theories upon which they can be successful, and one of those involves insufficient evidence.
If a plaintiff cannot provide enough evidence prior to trial regarding causation – that is, that asbestos manufactured, distributed, or used by the defendant was a central cause of the plaintiff’s illness – the case will not make it to trial. This can be a tough burden of proof given that most lawsuits deal with records, facts, and witness testimony relating to decades-old occurrences.
It’s further complicated for military members, since there are hurdles to overcome with applicable maritime law and special defenses, such as the government contractor defense.
Plaintiff attorneys must be fully prepared to make their case prior to trial to avoid a judge granting summary judgment favoring the defendant.
In a recent case before a multi-district litigation judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, defendant Crane Co. argued for summary judgment by asserting the government contractor defense and maritime law. As our mesothelioma attorneys understand it, the plaintiff was a U.S. Navy fireman in the mid-1950s who alleged exposure to the toxic fibers while aboard the USS Mann.
According to a report from Legal Newsline, the issue was whether the plaintiff had presented enough evidence regarding the requirements for warning labels on asbestos products used by the military.
The judge ultimately denied the defendant’s request for summary judgment, finding the plaintiff had presented evidence that conflicted with the defendant’s assertion that it had no duty to warn about asbestos in components of its own products. The defendant did not manufacture the components but did later distribute products that contained those components, including gaskets and packing used in the valves that the defendant supplied to the Navy for use aboard ships.
The plaintiff alleged he was exposed to the asbestos dust while working on the ship and decades later was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of terminal cancer caused by breathing in toxic asbestos fibers.
In order to assert a government contractor defense in federal tort claims, a three-pronged test was established in 1988 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp. It holds that torts for design defects in military equipment are preempted when:
- The government approved reasonably precise specifications;
- The equipment conformed to those specifications; and
- The supplier warned the government about dangers in use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not the government.
The plaintiff argued the government contractor defense did not apply because specifications set forth by the Navy did not bar the defendant from offering additional warnings regarding its products, leaving the nature and provision of those warnings to the discretion of the defendant. The plaintiff argues this is where the defendant failed in its duty to warn and also that he offered sufficient evidence of causation necessary to survive a request for summary judgment.
The judge ruled that a reasonable jury could find from the plaintiff’s evidence that he was exposed to asbestos from the defendant’s products and furthermore that the exposure was a key factor in his later terminal diagnosis.
With regard to the warnings, the judge ruled that the evidence on this point was conflicting. The defendant will still be able to assert this defense, but it will be up to a jury to decide which side to believe.
Help for mesothelioma victims can be found at The Ferraro Law Firm by calling (888) 554-2030. Offices in Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
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