California Court Rejects Plaintiff’s Claim of ‘Possible’ Exposure to Asbestos

Defendants in California asbestos injury lawsuits cannot be held liable where plaintiffs can only prove a ‘possibility’ of exposure to defendants’ asbestos-containing products.  The California Court of Appeal in Billy S. Johnson v. ArvinMeritor, et al., No. A131975 (Cal. Ct. App. February 2, 2017) (“Johnson”) affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants, ruling that despite an expert declaration, sworn discovery responses, and numerous internal corporate documents, plaintiff’s evidence fell short of the required showing of a ‘likely’ or ‘probable’ exposure to defendants’ products.

In Johnson, plaintiff alleged he was exposed to asbestos from defendants’ products when his father replaced brakes on trucks at Bekins Van Lines, when he visited his father at work and when his father wore work clothes home.  Plaintiff claimed he developed asbestosis and had an increased risk of contracting serious disease, including mesothelioma.  Defendants ArvinMeritor, Inc., Maremont Corp. and Carlisle Motion Control Industries, Inc. each brought summary judgment motions claiming plaintiff did not have, and could not obtain, evidence that he or his father were exposed to asbestos from their products.

Plaintiff produced documents showing Bekins had six different Ford and International moving trucks, and during the years his father worked at Bekins, Rockwell supplied asbestos-containing parts to International, that Carlisle was one of three or four suppliers of asbestos-containing brake linings to Rockwell, and ArvinMeritor manufactured and sold asbestos-containing brake linings to International.  Plaintiff testified his father used International brand replacement parts when working on Bekins trucks.  Plaintiff also had evidence that Rockwell brake assemblies were used as factory original equipment in all four International trucks, and produced an expert declaration from a mechanical engineer stating that Carlisle brake linings were original equipment in three of the trucks and that Carlisle was the only source of International brand replacement brake linings for those three trucks.

Construing all the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiff, the court nevertheless affirmed summary judgment in defendants’ favor.  The court found plaintiff produced no evidence to support an inference that the replacement brake linings his father actually handled were probably supplied by one of the defendants; that one of the defendants was the primary or majority supplier of linings for International brand replacement brake parts; that defendants were likely to be the suppliers of brake linings for replacement parts for the models of International trucks owned by Bekins; that sellers of International brand replacement parts to Bekins’s main warehouse in Stockton were more likely to carry replacement parts containing defendants’ products than replacement parts containing other suppliers’ products. Absent this or similar evidence supporting an inference of probability that the replacement brake linings came from one of the defendants, the court found Johnson’s evidence simply establishes the possibility his Father was exposed to asbestos from a defendant’s product.  A ‘possibility’ of exposure is insufficient to withstand summary judgment in California, and plaintiff must produce evidence showing a probability or likelihood of exposure, the court found.

The court’s holding also addressed a previously unanswered question in asbestos-product cases:  whether a manufacturer can be held liable for third-party replacement parts where the manufacturer specified the use of asbestos-containing replacement parts.  In O’Neil v. Crane Co. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 335, the California Supreme Court previously held a manufacturer cannot be liable for third-party replacement parts used on its products that it did not place into the stream of commerce, but left open possible liability where a manufacturer specified or required use of asbestos-containing products, or a product required an asbestos component to operate.  The court in Johnson, interpreting O’Neil, affirmed summary judgment, even where plaintiff produced evidence that ArvinMeritor specified the inclusion of asbestos-containing brake linings into its products.  The holding in Johnson will be critical in defending against future claims of liability where plaintiffs have evidence manufacturers specified the use of asbestos-containing components into its products.

For more information, please contact Scott Goldberg or Edward Martinovich.