Asbestos Exposure, Summary Judgment and Replacement Parts

Just this past Monday, in Massachusetts, that state’s appellate court released an asbestos causation opinion. In most states, to prove causation in an asbestos case, the plaintiff must establish (1) that the defendant’s product contained asbestos (product identification), (2) that the victim was exposed to the asbestos in the defendant’s product (exposure), and (3) that such exposure was a substantial contributing factor in causing harm to the victim (substantial factor). Whether or not the plaintiff had established these three elements was the issue in Morin v. AutoZone Northeast, Inc., — N.E.2d —, 2011 WL 834160 (Mass. Ct. App. March 14, 2011).

From 1952 to 1991, Geraldina Medeiros and her husband Anthony Medeiros ran Bedford Fruit Company. Fifteen years later, Ms. Madeiros died of malignant mesothelioma. Her daughter, as the administratrix of her estate, sued approximately forty (yes, that’s 40) defendants, mostly brake manufacturers which the plaintiff asserted had exposed the decedent to asbestos fibers in the course and scope of her work around the delivery truck and trailer. Although some defendants settled with the estate, many defendants moved for summary judgment on the issue of causation. After the motions were granted, the plaintiff appealed the ruling as to three defendants: AutoZone Northeast, Inc., Great Dane Trailers, Inc., and Orleans Auto Supply, Inc.

As the Court of Appeals pointed out, the main issue before it was that of causation:

Several characteristics of the generation of disease and death by asbestos inhalation have moved courts to adapt the standard of proof of causation. Those characteristics are the prolonged latency of the induced disease, the multiple points of exposure of the victim, and the indistinguishability of contributory exposures. Because the resulting injury may not emerge for years or decades after exposure, the law does not require the plaintiff or his or her witnesses to establish the precise brand names of the asbestos-bearing products, the particular occasions of exposure, or the specific allocation of causation among multiple defendants’ products. Evidence will be sufficient to reach the fact finder if it permits the reasonable inference of the presence at a work site of both the plaintiff and the defendant’s asbestos-containing product for an appreciable period of exposure.

So, the crux of any asbestos suit is this: the level of exposure to asbestos in a particular product, and the duration of the exposure. The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment for Great Dane Trailers, but reversed as to Orleans and AutoZone.

The case itself is pretty straightforward in terms of its analysis, but it highlights one of the hot topics in asbestos litigation right now. (Yes, apparently there are still “hot” topics in asbestos law, after more than thirty years!) The decedent’s exposure to asbestos brake pads and linings from these three defendants occurred during brake jobs where the asbestos-containing parts were replaced. What liability does an original manufacturer have for replacement parts? If we assume that the manufacturer knew that the brake parts on the truck and the trailer used to transport fruit would have to be changed, and would likely be replaced with parts containing asbestos, what liability does that manufacturer have? Watch this issue to be raised again and again in your state.

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