If my company sells a widget to the U.S. Navy with asbestos-containing components, the Navy replaces those components with new asbestos-containing components, and the friable fibers from the replacements make somebody sick, is my company liable? What if it’s foreseeable that the Navy is going to add the asbestos?
This has been a hot issue at the Courts of Appeal for a number of years now, with the issue being decided both ways by different courts. Cal Biz Lit blogged about the question here, here, here and here.
Today, in O’Neill v. Crane Co. (January 12, 2012) ___ Cal. 4th ___ (S177401), the California Supreme Court answered the question once and for all with a resounding “NO WAY.”
The Defendants made valves and pumps used in Navy warships. The valves and pumps required interior insulation -- gaskets and packing -- and came with asbestos-containing gaskets and packing specified by the Navy but not manufactured by the Defendants. The exteriors of the valves and pumps were insulated, but not by the Defendants.
In the course of overhauls and repairs, the exterior and interior insulation would be replaced, so there was no evidence that the gaskets and packing in the Defendants’ valves and pumps were the originals, and replacements were not provided by the Defendants.
The defendants were sued by the heirs of O'Neil, who was exposed to the replacement insulation, gaskets and packing twenty years after the pumps and valves were installed and who died from mesothelioma forty years later. The Supreme Court, reversing a Court of Appeal decision to the contrary, ruled that there was no duty owed and for and no duty to warn about defective products manufactured and sold by another, even if they were foreseeably used in the defendant's product.
Since the plaintiff in a product liability case has the duty of proving that at the time the injury was caused, the product was in substantially the same condition as it was when it left the defendant, this decision would seem to indicate that if the danger in a product comes from parts that are typically replaced in the lifetime of the product, and the plaintiff cannot prove either that there has been no replacement or that the replacement parts were the responsibility of the defendant, the plaintiff cannot recover.