Only Minimal Medical Evidence Sufficient to Grant Trial Preference by California Court of Appeal

California just made it easier for plaintiffs to get mandatory trial preference. Fox v. Metalclad Insulation LLC required that preference be granted based on a mere attorney declaration comprised of generic symptoms of an over-70 year old plaintiff, and even though plaintiff is in partial remission.

California allows plaintiffs to move for a preferential trial date in certain circumstances depending on the age or health of the plaintiff. If granted, the judge must set the matter for trial no more than 120 days from the date the motion was granted, with a maximum continuance of up to 15 days. The mandatory preference statute requires the granting of preference if three elements are satisfied: (1) plaintiff is over 70 years old; (2) he/she has a substantial interest in the action; and (3) “[t]he health of the party is such that preference is necessary to prevent prejudicing the party’s interest in the litigation.” The focus of the Fox decision was primarily on the third, more subjective requirement.

Trial Court
Ms. Fox sued eighteen defendants, alleging that she developed stage IV lung cancer, asbestosis, and asbestos-related pleural disease as a result of shaking and laundering her husband’s work clothing. Plaintiffs filed a motion for preference, almost a year after the initial filing of the case, supported solely by (1) an attorney declaration, with attached medical records, and (2) a declaration from Ms. Fox describing her recent medical history and current symptoms, including “fogginess in [her] thought process that impairs [her] ability to focus, concentrate and effectively communicate.” The defense opposition argued that 1) the two declarations failed to demonstrate that plaintiff’s health necessitates the granting of preference and 2) that the court should balance interests, including defendant’s due process rights, when ruling on this motion. Judge Ming-mei Lee of San Francisco Superior Court denied plaintiffs’ motion, noting that plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate that the health of Ardella Fox is such that preference is necessary to prevent prejudicing her interest in the litigation.” Plaintiffs sought a writ of mandate to compel the trial court to grant their motion.

Appellate Court
The appellate court granted the petition and issued the writ. The court extrapolated information about her current condition from her attorney’s declaration including that she is undergoing chemotherapy every three weeks, suffers from “chemo brain” leading to brain fog, and is getting increasingly weaker.

The court ruled that an attorney declaration relying on hearsay and conclusions suffices under the mandatory preference statute (although under a companion discretionary statute, “clear and convincing medical documentation” is required). Finally, the court addressed when a party’s health would make preference necessary. Here, the court found that plaintiff’s diagnoses, accompanied with her treatment, “constant discomfort,” and deteriorating mental state necessitated preference, despite her partial remission. “The absence of more specifics about Ms. Fox’s prognosis was insufficient reason to deny the Foxes’ request for calendar preference.” The court rejected defendant’s arguments that a balancing of interests must be conducted, concluding that no balancing of defendant’s due process rights or fundamental fairness was necessary. Finally, the court held that plaintiffs’ should not have to wait to file a preference motion until plaintiff “is clearly in her final days,” because this would subvert the legislative intent of granting preference to prevent prejudice.

After Fox, plaintiffs will have an easier time showing that their health makes it necessary to grant preference, as even a plaintiff in partial remission got preference granted.

As it points out, the bar for evidence to oppose (and win) this type of motion is very high. “If by way of opposition, [the defense] had submitted, say, a photograph of 81-year-old Ms. Fox scuba-diving in the Galapagos Islands just last fall, there might be some basis to expect more medical detail, but on this record we see no genuine dispute that Ms. Fox is very sick.” This decision is a win for asbestos plaintiffs in California and defendants should be aware of this decision and the high standard set for opposing preference motions.

Cleaning Products, Air Fresheners, and Automotive Products Sold In California Must Disclose Ingredients in 2020

California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act into state law in late 2017, making California the second state to require the disclosure of information about ingredients found in cleaning products. The Act contains two disclosure provisions; the first, an online compliance portion, is scheduled to go into effect in 2020. The second, a labeling requirement, will take effect a year later.

Pursuant to the Act, manufacturers of “general cleaning products,” “air care products,” and “automotive products” sold in California must disclose ingredients on their product labels and online. The definitions of applicable products are broad, and include soap, detergent, products intended to freshen the air, and products intended to maintain the appearance of a motor vehicle. Notably, automotive paint products and pesticides are excluded. In addition to the actual manufacturers of applicable products, the Act also applies to entities for which the products are manufactured or by which the product is distributed. The Act further prohibits California retailers from selling products that do not comply with the new disclosure requirements.

For the labeling requirement, the Act permits the manufacturer to choose one of two sets of information to disclose on the product’s label: (1) each fragrance allergen contained in the product that is included in Annex III of the EU Cosmetics Regulation Number 1223/2009 as required to be labeled by the EU Detergents Regulation Number 648/2004 (“Annex III”), when present in the product at a concentration of .01% or above (100 ppm), and intentionally added ingredients contained in the product that are included on a “designated list,” or (2) a list of all intentionally added ingredients contained in the product, unless the ingredient qualifies as confidential business information (“CBI”).

For the first option, the designated Annex III list includes chemicals found on twenty-two regulatory lists published by state governments, the European Union, the federal government, the Canadian government, and international agencies.

The second option requires the disclosure of all intentionally added ingredients, with the exception of ingredients that qualify as CBI. However, CBI is defined narrowly, and does not apply to ingredients found on the designated list, all nonfunctional constituents, and all fragrance allergens included in Annex III when present at a concentration of .01% or above. A manufacturer can list fragrance ingredients and colorants generally as such, but the label must also state that the product “[c]ontains fragrance allergen(s),” if it contains a fragrance allergen that is included on Annex III at .01% concentration or above.

In addition to the labeling requirements, a manufacturer must starting in 2020 disclose certain information on its website. The Act requires manufacturers to list every intentionally added ingredient in descending order of predominance (except for CBI and fragrance ingredients), state the purpose of each intentionally added ingredient, and provide links to the regulatory lists on which the ingredient appears. The manufacturer must also list all nonfunctional constituents that are found in the product at a concentration of .01% or more.

Interestingly, the Act does not create a mechanism for enforcement nor does it impose penalties for violations. California statutes without enforcement provisions are often enforced by private litigants and district attorneys under the state’s consumer protection laws. However, while private litigants may only seek injunctive relief under these laws, actions brought by government officials are eligible for the recovery of civil penalties up to $2,500 for each violation. It is anticipated that the Act will be enforced most often through this mechanism.

California’s Cleaning Product Right to Know Act goes further than current federal disclosure obligations, which simply require that consumer and industrial cleaning products provide warnings about the physical and health hazards, but do not require full ingredient lists. It is indicative of a nationwide trend of increased state regulation of chemicals found in consumer products in the absence of significant federal regulation.

California Court of Appeal Embraces Presence – Not Evidence – As Causation

Last month, a California court of appeal ruled that “a plaintiff has no obligation to prove asbestos exposure from a specific product on a specific date or time.” Rather, in Turley v. Familian Corp., the court found that exposure can be inferred if a defendant’s product was at a work site and “sufficiently prevalent to warrant an inference that plaintiff was exposed to it.” In other words, the court ruled that circumstantial evidence of a product’s mere presence is sufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment.

In Turley, defendant Familian moved for summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiffs could not show exposure to asbestos in a Familian-brand product. The plaintiffs’ opposition to the motion included a declaration from a third-party witness who had not been deposed, but who testified that defendant-supplied asbestos-containing gaskets were frequently used on the many high-pressure and/or high-temperature valves at the two compressor stations supervised by the plaintiff, and that the plaintiff was commonly present when the work of replacing the asbestos-containing valves was being done. The trial court ruled that this was speculative and granted summary judgment.

The court of appeal reversed. The court found that the co-worker’s testimony had adequate foundation and was not speculative. “For example, [the co-worker] testified that when he was ordering gaskets, he knew they were asbestos-containing based on PG&E’s codes and other vendor numbers … [and] that the PG&E codes were necessarily based on content, because certain applications required asbestos-containing gaskets.”

This evidence was held sufficient to defeat summary judgment, even without evidence of “exposure from a specific product on a specific date or time.” Turley relied heavily upon the 1995 decision Lineaweaver v. Plant Insulation Co., which reversed a nonsuit where “[w]hile there was no direct evidence that [plaintiff] was exposed to [defendant’s product], the circumstantial evidence was sufficient to support a reasonable inference of exposure.” The Turley court also discussed the more recent decision, Webb v. Special Electric Co., Inc. (2016) 63 Cal.4th 167, for the proposition that this kind of circumstantial evidence was sufficient in establishing causation. In Webb, the California Supreme Court rejected summary judgment where the plaintiff “was exposed to dust from Johns-Manville products containing trace amounts of crocidolite at roughly the same time Special Electric was supplying crocidolite asbestos to Johns-Manville. While evidence of the link could be stronger, it is nonetheless sufficient for the jury to have found that Special Electric’s asbestos was a substantial factor in causing [the plaintiff’s] mesothelioma.”

Turley v. Familian Corp. is yet another in a long line of California decisions that appear to expand liability by tempering the summary judgment standard. Unfortunately, the result may be opening the door for a rush of rather dubious asbestos cases.

Prenatal Injuries and California’s Statutes of Limitation

A growing number of cases allege that chemical exposures sustained by parents have resulted in birth defect injuries to their children. One case went to defense verdict in Southern California this year (Morales v. Well Pict, Ventura County) and additional cases have been filed both in California and elsewhere. Many of these cases are referred to as “clean room” cases, because the earliest of them involved workers claiming exposure to toxic chemicals used in “clean room” environments producing computer components. Two decisions in California have grappled with the application of two different statutes of limitations that might apply in such circumstances and have reached directly inconsistent conclusions. The Nguyen decision came first in 2014 from the Sixth District in California (covering Silicon Valley). The Lopez decision followed in 2016 in the Second District (covering Los Angeles and environs) and specifically disagreed with Nguyen.

The first statute is California Code of Civil Procedure section 340.4, which provides for a 6-year period of limitation for a minor to bring a claim for “personal injuries sustained before or in the course of … birth.” It is expressly provided that this period is not tolled while the plaintiff is a minor. The second is California Code of Civil Procedure section 340.8, which provides for a 2-year period for injuries caused by exposures to hazardous materials and toxic substances. Section 340.8 is, however, tolled while a plaintiff is a minor. One can easily see how the application of the statutes can be determinative. If section 340.4 applies, each child born with a birth defect must file not later than their 6th birthday. If 340.8 applies, a child can wait until their 20th birthday to file. So, which statute applies where the prenatal injury results from exposure to hazardous materials – the pre-natal statute of limitations, or the toxic tort statute of limitations?

Nguyen applied the toxic tort statute, section 340.8, and found that a complaint filed on behalf of a 16-year-old girl alleging injuries from her in vitro exposures to work place exposures was timely. The court found that the statute was tolled for the entire period of minority of Ms. Nguyen. Lopez acknowledged the holding in Nguyen, but decided to “depart from our colleagues in theSixth District” and held that the pre-natal statute, section 340.4, applied, so that 12-year-old Ms. Lopez was time barred from pursuing her action.

Both these decisions are lengthy and complicated. The Lopez decision drew a dissent. The California Supreme Court has accepted the Lopez decision for review. The matter has been fully briefed, with several amicus curiae briefs filed for the defense. A decision is likely sometime within the next 18-24 months.

In the meantime, just in recent weeks, the same District Court of Appeal that applied section 340.4 in Lopez to time bar an action by a 12-year-old published a decision sorting out the application of apparently conflicting statutes of limitation applying in the family law/probate arena and made some pronouncements that could be applicable to the Nguyen-Lopez disagreement. In Yeh v. Tai, the court stated: “When two statutes of limitation are applicable, the specific takes precedence over the general.”  But which statute is more specific in the clean room context? Section 340.4 applicable to injuries sustained during birth? Or section 340.8 applicable to injuries caused by exposure to toxins? There does not seem to be a clear answer.

The Yeh court went on to rule that “in the event two statutes conflict and cannot be reconciled, later enactments supersede earlier ones.” Section 340.4 was first effective in 1993. Section 340.8 was first effective in 2004. If one were to strictly adhere to the “later enactments supersede earlier ones” rule, then section 340.8 should apply, and a different panel in the Second District erred in deciding Lopez.

This remains a difficult and unclear area. We await the California Supreme Court’s decision in Lopez with great interest as it will have a substantial effect on this growing area of litigation.

Landmark Lead Paint Ruling Imposes Nuisance Liability Because Defendants “Must Have Known” Product Dangers, and Even If Their Product Not Used

The California Court of Appeal in People v. ConAgra Grocery Prods. Co. has upheld in part and reversed in part a decision that put the three defendants, ConAgra Grocery Products Company, NL Industries, and the Sherwin-Williams Company, on the hook for a $1.15 billion fund for the abatement of residential lead paint in parts of California. While the amount of the abatement fund will be reduced on remand, the decision stands as the first major lead paint public nuisance award, with implications for other companies that market products considered “defective” in hindsight.

Plaintiff, the State of California, representing 10 jurisdictions throughout the state, filed suit in 2011 alleging that the defendants created a public nuisance through their manufacture, promotion, and sale of lead pigment and lead paint for use in California homes. The trial court found that the defendants had actual knowledge of lead paint hazards when they promoted their products for residential use for decades before the sale of lead paint was eventually banned in 1978.

Defendants appealed the trial court judgment on multiple grounds. The appellate court agreed with defendants that there was insufficient evidence demonstrating that defendants promoted lead paint for residential use after 1951, and remanded the matter to the trial court to recalculate the amount of the fund so that it covered remediation only in pre-1951 homes. The rest of the trial court’s decision, however, was affirmed, with costs awarded to plaintiff.

An important takeaway from this decision is that the appellate court was satisfied that “must have known” was an adequate replacement for actual knowledge. The decision opined that it was neither speculation nor conjecture to infer that because the defendants were leaders in the paint industry at the time, they “must have”been aware of potential hazards of lead paint. “Indeed,” the panel stated, “it would be unreasonable to infer that, notwithstanding general knowledge of the hazard of their products within the industry, defendants somehow managed to avoid learning of this hazard.” Evidence that the defendants received information from a trade group in the 1930s on lead’s dangers of and children’s susceptibility was among what was found to constitute “substantial support” for the trial court’s actual knowledge findings. Acknowledging that the evidence presented by plaintiff on this point was circumstantial, the appellate court essentially all but admitted that its hands were tied under the deferential standard of review and it had no choice but to uphold the trial court’s actual knowledge findings.

Another startling portion of this opinion was the rejection of the defendants’ argument that they should not be held liable because plaintiff could not establish that their products were in any of the homes in the 10 jurisdictions. The court ruled that this “contention misconstrues the basis for defendants’ liability. Defendants are liable for promoting lead paint for interior residential use. To the extent that this promotion caused lead paint to be used on residential interiors, the identity of the manufacturer of that lead paint is irrelevant.” The court found that while the evidence plaintiff presented consisted of “generic” promotions that didn’t refer to any specific manufacturer, it nonetheless was a substantial factor which resulted in “the use of lead paint on residential interiors,” and that the evidence supported the court’s finding of causation on that basis.

Perhaps the greatest significance of this decision is that plaintiff prevailed on a public nuisance theory. Public nuisance claims in other contexts traditionally reserved for product liability (including asbestos abatement, MTBE, and firearms) have proven largely unsuccessful in part because of the difficulty of establishing the link between the alleged injury to a public rig ht and the manufacturer’s conduct, two occurrences often temporally separated by decades. In fact, many earlier lead paint cases filed in other jurisdictions under various theories of public nuisance often failed because the plaintiffs could not establish, among other things, the requisite proximate cause.

It is of stark importance that the ConAgra court rejected defendants’ arguments concerning actual knowledge and causation in this public nuisance claim. Plaintiff prevailed despite the absence of direct evidence that defendants had actual knowledge of the hazards of interior lead paint at the time they were promoting it, and without having to show that any of defendants’ products were present in any of the homes. Will courts begin to construe other “industry leaders” as having knowledge of all risks for all purposes? Can participation in trade groups which promoted the use of generic categories of products like asbestos-containing brake pads or herbicides expose specific companies to future liability? Could the reasoning that defendants were liable regardless of whether their paint was in fact used in any of the homes seep into the product liability arena, where such tenuous evidence would be insufficient to establish duty? This decision will likely have a short term impact on pending high-profile public nuisance cases, like opioids and climate change. We may also see long term ripples across industries in California where companies may face liability years—or even decades—down the road for a future, but presently unknown, harm in the form of public nuisance claims with vague legal standards and the potential for massive awards.

Coffee – a health risk or a health promoter? “Private attorneys general” or the British Journal of Medicine?

There have been a variety of media reports of late regarding the health effects of coffee. Two almost simultaneous news articles demonstrate how our regulatory environment can lead to puzzling contradictions. These same articles illuminate the vast reach and potential impact of California’s Prop. 65.

For those not familiar with Prop. 65, it is a California regulatory scheme whereby producers and distributors of any products and foods used or consumed in California must apply a cancer/birth defect warning on their products if they contain any of 800 different identified substances in levels that might lead to an exposure in excess of the mandated permissible levels. The regulations allow any attorney in California to act as a “private attorney general” to bring suit against anyone who has not properly warned. These suits can lead to injunctive relief, fines and penalties, and perhaps most importantly, an award of plaintiff’s (but not defendant’s) attorneys’ fees.

As a habitual coffee drinker, I was pleased to see that Sam Meredith of CNBC reported on November 23rd about a study from the University of Southampton, published in the British Journal of Medicine, that a review of some 200 previously published medical studies led the authors to conclude that drinking 3 to 4 cups of coffee each day was “more often associated with benefit than harm” from a health perspective. Consuming coffee can reduce the risk of numerous ailments from heart disease to dementia, and even some cancers it is reported.

Yet literally the next day, Bob Egelko in the San Francisco Chronicle reported that 7- Eleven had just obtained court approval of a settlement of a case brought against it alleging that their sale of prepared coffee without warnings was a violation of Proposition 65 as coffee contains an unsafe level of acrylamide, a substance identified as a human carcinogen by the State of California. 7-Eleven had apparently decided that it was wiser to settle this case for $900,000 than risk a court trial on the issue of whether or not consuming coffee truly presents a cancer risk to consumers in the Golden State. No doubt much of the settlement will go to Raphael Metzger, plaintiffs’ counsel in this matter.

The settlement will thus have the effect of giving Mr. Metzger more resources to continue prosecuting the same case against Starbucks and many other defendants that have been sued in the same case. If Starbucks wins its case, presumably customers will not see a Prop. 65 warning plaque on the wall behind their favorite barista, nor a Prop. 65 warning on the new Holiday Season cups. If Starbucks loses its case, those warnings may join the legions of other such warnings that have proliferated across the state. One would be left to wonder whether the citizens of California would be rendered more safe by such warnings, or instead as the University of Southampton and the British Journal of Medicine seem to feel, safer by drinking more coffee?

California Limits Take-Home Claims and Affirms That “Substantial Factor” Means More than “Possible”

A California appellate court has sided with the defendants in an alleged take-home asbestos exposure case. Petitpas v. Ford Motor Company (July 5, 2017, B245027) —Cal.App.5th—presents many strong arguments for defendants, including what is required to show that an asbestos product was a substantial factor in causing asbestos disease.

Plaintiffs Joseph and Marline Petitpas alleged that Joseph Petitpas’ work at a gas station owned by Exxon and at various construction sites brought home asbestos which injured Ms. Petitpas.

I.  Take Home Exposures – Duty Not Extended

While the appeal was pending, the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Kesner v. Sup. Ct. (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132. Kesner allowed take home cases to be brought in California. However, it limited those cases to household members, reasoning that “persons who live with the worker and are thus foreseeably in close and sustained contact with the worker over a significant period of time” are protected. (Id. at 1154-1155.) In Kesner, the injured person was the nephew of a worker who lived for periods of time with his uncle, who manufactured brake linings. In Petipas, Plaintiffs conceded that the parties did not live together when Mr. Petitpas worked at the Exxon station (they were married later). The court in Petipas declined Plaintiffs’ invitation to extend the duty in take home cases to non-household members. “Inviting a trial to determine whether a non-household member’s contact with the employee was ‘similar to the status of a household member’ appears to be exactly what the Supreme Court was attempting to avoid with this bright-line rule.”

II.  Substantial Factor – Probable vs. Possible

To meet their burden in an asbestos case, plaintiffs must show that there is exposure to a defendant’s product that was “in reasonable medical probability” a substantial factor in bringing about the injury. (Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, 982.) Many factors are considered to determine if the exposures are substantial factors, including frequency, proximity and duration of the exposures. The evidence in this case merely suggested it was possible that Mr. Petitpas brought asbestos dust home on his clothing from his inspection of construction jobs. He only did this for an hour a day and returned to his office for the remainder. Neither Plaintiff testified that Ms. Petitpas shook out his clothes when washing them. Further, it was merely possible she was exposed when visiting the construction sites, because there was no active construction occurring and there was no visible dust. Mere presence of asbestos at a site was simply not sufficient to show that asbestos-containing products used at these sites was a substantial factor in causing Ms. Petitpas’ mesothelioma.

III.  Replacement Parts Doctrine – Applies to Defect as Well as Failure to Warn Claims

Ford submitted a jury instruction which stated that it was not liable for exposure to replacement brakes, clutches and gaskets on Ford vehiclesthat were manufactured by parties other than Ford. This instruction was based upon O’Neil v. Crane Co. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 335. The O’Neil decision established that a product manufacturer cannot be held liable in strict liability or negligence for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product “unless the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm, or the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.” Plaintiffs objected that O’Neil only applied to failure to warn cases, and that Ford’s design was defective because “it is a Ford design that called for the installation and inclusion of asbestos-containing brake products, whether or not they were made by Ford or anyone else.” The court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument because they did not present any evidence that the Ford cars were unable to use non-asbestos parts or were somehow incompatible with non-asbestos parts.

IV.  Jury Instructions in Asbestos Cases

Plaintiffs also argued that the trial court committed error by allowing jury instructions CACI Nos. 430 and 435 to be read to the jury. Both of these instructions give the jury direction on what a “substantial factor” is under California law.  CACI No. 430, the generally applicable instruction, defines “substantial factor” as a factor that “contributed to the harm.” This Use Notes for this instruction state that it should not be read in asbestos related cancer cases.  However, Exxon argued that CACI No. 430 was applicable to it because it was a premises liability defendant, not a product manufacturer or supplier. CACI No. 435 is the instruction for asbestos cancer cases.

CACI No. 435, applicable in asbestos cases only, defines “substantial factor” as one that “contributed to the risk,” not just the harm. Plaintiffs argued that using CACI No. 430 confused the jury and imposed a greater burden on them.

The court allowed both instructions to be read. “That the Use Notes caution against giving the more general CACI No. 430 in a mesothelioma case, when the more specific instruction CACI No. 435 is more applicable, does not support a conclusion that it was error to give both instructions. CACI No. 430 is a correct statement of the law relating to substantial factor causation, even though, as Rutherford noted, more specific instructions also must be given in a mesothelioma case.”

V.  No Studies Show Take-Home Hazards from Brake Repair

The jury found that Exxon did not know, and should not have reasonably known, that Mr. Petitpas’ work at the gas station put Ms. Petitpas at unreasonable risk.

Plaintiffs argued that because the management at Exxon refineries knew about the hazards of asbestos, their agents at service stations also knew. The court did not agree with this argument. Since the jury only heard evidence that conditions at other locations posed a risk to other classes of employees (which Exxon knew about), the jury properly found that Exxon did not know about the risks at its service stations.

The Petitpas court went so far as to suggest that had the jury found otherwise, it would have to be reversed. Dr. Castleman admitted that there were no studies “of any statistical power…that speak of the mesothelioma risk of mechanics that do brake repair work” and that no such studies exist today. Plaintiff’s expert Dr. Horn also conceded this fact. Therefore, the court reasoned, “There was no evidence linking asbestos exposure to occasional bystanders who were near automotive workers as they did brake work.” The court’s conclusion in Petitpas can and should be used as an argument in all brake take-home repair cases.

This decision bodes well for defendants challenging plaintiffs’ often broad and sweeping allegations in asbestos cases.

California Court Concludes Sarcastic Comment Sufficient For Punitive Damages

Earlier this month, a California appellate court ruled that an offhand remark by a corporate employee may be sufficient to award punitive damages. The court also addressed issues related to the “every-exposure” theory, without wading directly into the every-exposure debate.

In Phillips v. Honeywell International Inc. (March 17, 2017. Case F070761) — Cal.App.5th –, the court held that the trial court properly admitted a 1966 letter from an employee who was not an officer, director, or managing agent. The letter is well known (described in the opinion as “infamous”) in asbestos litigation as “the E.A. Martin letter,” and is the frequent subject of in limine motions. Martin was a purchasing director, and he was writing to one of his asbestos suppliers, sarcastically addressing an article in Chemical Week magazine: “[I]f you have enjoyed a good life while working with asbestos products why not die from it. There’s got to be some cause.”

The court held that the letter served as circumstantial evidence that the company was aware that asbestos could be a potential health hazard years before it ceased using asbestos, and was sufficient to support an award of $3.5 million in punitive damages (of a total $5.8 million award).

The admittance of the letter has broad implications, suggesting that any stray remark – even a sarcastic expression of confidence in a product ingredient by a corporate employee who was not in the upper echelon – can serve to support a finding of massive punitive damages.

As the California court noted, the same letter has been both admitted and rejected by multiple other courts. For example, an Illinois appellate court pronounced the letter “a revealing historical anecdote that may give us insight into the thinking within the asbestos industry in 1966, but it was irrelevant. A persuasive argument can also be made that even if it had some modest relevance, it was inflammatory, and whatever probative value it had was outweighed by its prejudicial effect.” (Dukes v. Pneumo Abex Corp. (2008) 386 Ill.App.3d 425, 439.)

In an unpublished portion of the decision (meaning it may not be cited as precedent in California, though it may be citable elsewhere), Phillips also addressed the split in authority regarding the “every-exposure” (a.k.a. “no safe dose”) theory versus the “every-identified-exposure” theory in asbestos litigation. Under the every-exposure theory of causation, “every exposure to asbestos fibers is a substantial factor in causing disease, regardless of fiber type or dose, so long as the fibers are traceable to a product and are not merely ‘background’ fibers found in the ambient air.” The same defendant lost a challenge to that theory in Davis v. Honeywell International Inc. (2016) 245 Cal.App.4th 477, and sought to have the Phillips court part ways with Davis. Instead, the Phillips court found that the expert had espoused the subtly different “every-identified-exposure” theory.

In reaching this conclusion, the Phillips court quoted an Ohio decision approvingly: “Although some courts have rejected the ‘each and every exposure’ theory, others have distinguished testimony suggesting a de minimis exposure to asbestos could cause mesothelioma from testimony that each significant exposure to asbestos could be a cause.” The California court found that this theory was “consistent with California law addressing proof of causation in asbestos-related cancer cases,” in that it considered only significant and identifiable exposures in determining the risk of the disease.

California Supreme Court Finds Duty in Take Home Exposure Cases

12-5On December 1, 2016, the California Supreme Court ruled that premises owners and employers owed a duty to prevent take-home asbestos exposure to those in an employee’s household. The court declined to carve out an exception to the general duty imposed by California statute (Civ. Code, § 1714) on every person to exercise reasonable care for the safety of others. While the decision does not specifically cover take-home claims against product manufacturers, the rationale of the decision suggests that they too will be subject to take-home liability. Recognizing a duty to bystanders will expand the class of persons who may pursue employers and premises owners for asbestos exposure claims. The court found no inconsistency with its opinion and a number of other jurisdictions that have a “no duty” rule. One  distinguishing fact is that by the time exposure is alleged to have occurred in the 1970’s information and regulations regarding the dangers of take-home exposure would have been generally known to employers and premises owners, as the result of 1972 OSHA regulations and otherwise.

The court’s ruling came in two consolidated companion cases. In Kesner, plaintiff alleged he was exposed to asbestos when he spent an average of three nights per week at his uncle’s house in the 1970’s. His uncle, an employee of Pneumo Abex, LLC (“Abex”), worked in a plant where brake shoes were manufactured with asbestos fibers that were released during the manufacturing process, and it was alleged that the uncle brought the fibers home on his work clothes. Plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma and he sued Abex. The Kesner appellate court reversed Abex’ nonsuit based upon prior California holding (Campbell v. Ford Motor Co.) that the employer had no duty to a bystander. In the companion case Haver, the decedent’s heirs claimed decedent was exposed to asbestos by her former husband, who was allegedly exposed to asbestos from pipe insulation and other tools while employed as a fireman and hostler in the early 1970’s. Decedent was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The Haver appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining defendant’s demurrer, relying upon Campbell and distinguishing Kesner on the ground that Kesner sounded in negligence whereas the Havers’ claims rested on a premises liability theory.

The Supreme Court held that in both instances, a reasonable employer should have known that asbestos presented risk of harm in the workplace and that it was foreseeable its employees would travel outside the workplace, particularly to their homes. “The relevant intervening conduct here – that workers returned home at the end of the day and, without adequate precautions, would bring asbestos dust home – is entirely foreseeable.” Thus, the exposure was foreseeable and duty attached.

The court did, however, limit the duty to “household” members, and not just anyone with whom a worker might come into contact (e.g. carpools, restaurant workers, or bus passengers). “We hold that an employer’s or property owner’s duty to prevent take-home exposure extends only to members of a worker’s household, i.e., persons who live with the worker and are thus foreseeably in close and sustained contact with the worker over a significant period of time.” The court stopped short of limiting the duty to “immediate family members” and instead applied it to “household members”, an acknowledgement of bonds which may be found in non-traditional and quasi-familial living arrangements. The court also explicitly acknowledged that “… a finding of duty is not a finding of liability. To obtain a judgment, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached its duty of ordinary care and that the breach proximately caused the plaintiff’s injury and the defendant may assert defenses and submit contrary evidence on each of these elements.”

Government Contractor Defense Victory in California

A recent California decision describes a set of facts in which the government contractor defense can be successfully applied. Such circumstances have been few and far between.

In Kase v. Metalclad Insulation Corp., the appeal was from an order by San Francisco’s soon-to-be Presiding Judge Teri Jackson granting summary judgment to defendant.

12-2Mr. Kase claimed exposure to asbestos-containing insulation products while working on US Navy nuclear submarines in the 1970’s. The court pointed out that unlike other defendants who have in the past unsuccessfully attempted to assert the defense, Metalclad did not design or produce a piece of hardware or equipment. Instead, Metalclad was a broker of Unibestos. The court finds the government contractor defense was properly asserted for Metalclad while simultaneously acknowledging other decisions that have denied its application for equipment manufacturers. We are left with the predicament wherein a broker who distributes Unibestos can assert the government contractor defense, whereas an equipment manufacturer who has its products insulated with Unibestos cannot. The court notes that the record demonstrated that the Unibestos product at issue was never in the possession of Metalclad. Instead, Metalclad had only arranged for its delivery to the shipyard.

The opinion is lengthy, 28 pages, and includes several points benefitting potential government contractor defendants, including:

  • There is no “off the shelf” limitation to the application of the defense.
  • Products “incidentally sold commercially” may still qualify as military equipment.
  • Insulation specifications required, first explicitly and later impliedly, the use of asbestos. The court ruled that that if only asbestos will fulfill the performance requirements, then it is not necessary that the government specifications explicitly use the word asbestos. “Performance requirements can mandate a design choice, and the uncontroverted evidence is that it did so in this case.”
  • There was no duty to warn as the Navy “was well aware of the potential hazards of asbestos.”
  • Similarly, although this case did not involve “back and forth” negotiations characteristic of other successful government contractor defenses, that not necessary. “We recognize this is not a case involving substantial “back and forth” between a government agency and a contractor designing a unique piece of equipment, such as an aircraft or transport vehicle. [Citations omitted] No case involving that scenario, however, has involved the decades of naval studies and investigations, and the history of naval specifications, unique to the universe of asbestos cases.”
  • Unibestos had asbestos warnings on its insulation products not later than 1968.

While this decision is certainly good news for Metalclad and other similarly situated defendants, other courts may limit it to the specific facts of this case. It seems odd that a company that arranges for the delivery of boxes of Unibestos to the shipyard is protected from liability, while the company that ships its pumps to the same shipyard with comparatively miniscule rings of asbestos containing packing inside their pumps nevertheless is frequently denied the same defense. Perhaps arguing this inconsistency will gain some traction for government contractor equipment manufacturers in the future.