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Manufacturers of products containing asbestos may be liable for mesothelioma or other injuries caused by the asbestos in those products. The liability of manufacturers of products that do not contain asbestos but release asbestos fibers from other products is not as clear. California courts have previously addressed the issue of liability for “adjacent” products that are used in conjunction with another product. Under California law, a manufacturer will generally not be liable in either strict liability or negligence for injuries caused by a product it did not manufacture. There is an exception to this rule when the manufacturer’s own product substantially contributed to the injury.
There must be a special relationship between the defendant’s product and the alleged harm for the exception to apply. In determining if there is a special relationship, the court should consider whether the manufacturer’s product is necessarily used with another product and whether the use of the products together creates a danger. A duty may be imposed when the product’s intended use “inevitably creates a hazardous situation.”
The California Court of Appeal considered this issue in Sherman v. Hennessy Industries, Inc. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant’s predecessor designed and sold an arcing machine with the “sole function” of abrading brake linings that contained asbestos. They alleged that the decedent was exposed to asbestos in the asbestos dust her husband brought home after using the machine. They further alleged that this exposure caused the decedent to develop mesothelioma.
The defendant sought summary judgment, arguing that the machine did not contain asbestos. The defendant further argued that it could not be held liable in strict liability for an injury from a product that it did not make or distribute unless the machine’s sole intended purpose had been to abrade brake linings that contained asbestos. The defendant argued that the plaintiffs could not make this showing because the machine was capable of abrading brake linings that did not contain asbestos, which the defendant argued were available in the 1960s and 1970s. The plaintiffs provided evidence that the machine was designed to grind a certain type of brake linings, which at the time in question “almost universally” contained asbestos. The trial court granted summary judgment.
The court found that the machine was designed to abrade drum brake linings for cars and light trucks, and the overwhelming majority of such brake linings contained asbestos at the time in question. Although it was possible to use the machine with brake linings that did not contain asbestos, the defendant focused on machine users who were working with asbestos-containing linings. The company started offering an asbestos dust collection system for the machine in 1973. The court noted that drum brake linings that contained asbestos were “near universal” and found that it would be “virtually inevitable” for an average user to be exposed to asbestos dust.
The court further determined that the relationship between the machine and the injury was sufficient to satisfy the factors of the exception. The plaintiff’s evidence had shown that the machine was necessarily used with drum brake linings and that the combined use created asbestos dust. The court found that the machine was intended to be used with brake linings for the activity that created the asbestos dust. The court further found that the creation of asbestos dust was inevitable and not just foreseeable. The court stated that the issue was not whether brake linings containing asbestos were necessary to operate the machine, but whether a person using the machine as intended at the relevant time “would invariably have been subjected to asbestos dust.” The court found that he would.
The appeals court reversed the judgment and remanded.
This case was decided under California law, but our knowledgeable mesothelioma attorneys understand that other states may address this issue differently. It is important to analyze the facts of a case under the relevant state law to determine the potential liability of a particular defendant.
Help for mesothelioma victims can be found at The Ferraro Law Firm by calling (888) 554-2030. Offices in Miami and Washington, D.C.
Sherman v. Hennessy Industries, Inc., June 18, 2015, Court of Appeal of the State of California Second Appellate District, Division Four
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