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Merrill v. Leslie Controls

November 17, 2009

RICHARD MERRILL ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
LESLIE CONTROLS, INC., DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT;
ELLIOTT COMPANY, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



APPEALS from orders and a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Ernest M. Hiroshige and Robert H. O'Brien, Judges. Affirmed in part, reversed in part. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC352170).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kitching, J.

Opinion following rehearing

CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION*fn1

I. INTRODUCTION

In this products liability lawsuit, plaintiffs Richard Merrill and Tamara Merrill sued defendants Leslie Controls, Inc. (Leslie Controls) and Elliott Company for Richard Merrill's injuries caused by exposure to asbestos-containing products. Leslie Controls appeals from a judgment for plaintiffs. We conclude that plaintiffs have not shown that Leslie Controls manufactured, supplied, or distributed the products which caused his exposure to asbestos. Therefore under Taylor v. Elliott Turbomachinery Co., Inc. (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 564 (Taylor), Leslie Controls is not liable in strict liability for failing to warn of the dangerous properties of those products or for a design defect in those products. We reverse the judgment.*fn2

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On May 10, 2006, plaintiffs Richard Merrill and Tamara Merrill filed a complaint for personal injury arising from Richard Merrill's exposure to asbestos from defendants' asbestos and/or asbestos- containing products aboard United States Navy vessels. The complaint named more than 30 defendants, including Leslie Controls and Elliott Company. The complaint alleged causes of action for strict liability and negligence and a claim under Civil Code section 3294 for exemplary damages because of defendants' alleged malice and oppression. Tamara Merrill alleged a cause of action for loss of consortium.

Leslie Controls and Elliott Company filed motions for summary judgment and for summary adjudication of Tamara Merrill's cause of action for loss of consortium. The trial court denied Leslie Controls's motion for summary judgment, but granted its motion for summary adjudication of Tamara Merrill's loss of consortium cause of action. The trial court granted Elliott Company's motion for summary judgment, and also granted Elliott Company's motion for summary adjudication of Tamara Merrill's loss of consortium cause of action.

Before the verdict, plaintiffs and 16 defendants settled, with the settling defendants agreeing to pay plaintiffs $5,518,000. After a trial, the jury by special verdict found in favor of three remaining defendants, but found against defendant Leslie Controls. The jury found that there was a defect in Leslie Controls valves because of a failure to warn of potential risks that were known or knowable in light of generally recognized and prevailing best medical and scientific knowledge at the time of manufacture and distribution, and that there was a defect in the design of Leslie Controls valves. The jury also found that Leslie Controls was negligent. The jury found that the failure-to-warn and design defects, and the negligence, of Leslie Controls were a substantial contributing factor in causing Richard Merrill's malignant mesothelioma, and found total damages suffered by Merrill to be $5,691,124. The jury allocated 15 percent of the total fault that caused Richard Merrill's injury to Leslie Controls. The judgment on special verdict entered on March 23, 2007, ordered that Richard Merrill recover $1,218,565 from Leslie Controls.

On May 16, 2007, the trial court denied the motions by Leslie Controls for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial. In a notice of appeal filed on June 14, 2007, plaintiff Tamara Merrill appealed from the order granting summary adjudication for Leslie Controls on Tamara Merrill's loss of consortium cause of action, and she and Richard Merrill appealed from the order granting summary judgment to Elliott Company.

On July 5, 2007, defendant Leslie Controls filed a notice of appeal from the March 23, 2007, judgment.

III. FACTS

Plaintiff Richard Merrill served in the United States Navy from 1959 to 1979. He enlisted in the Navy three days after graduating from high school, underwent recruit training, and then attended Machinist's Mate "A" School in Great Lakes, Illinois. A Machinist's Mate works with mechanical, hydraulic, and steam systems, repair operations, maintenance of equipment in engine rooms on board ships, and repair and maintenance of refrigeration, laundry, and galley equipment. After training, he worked as a Machinist's Mate Fireman Apprentice on cruisers which had been decommissioned after World War II and were being updated with missile systems and being brought back into service.

During his naval service, Merrill served on four U.S. Navy ships. All of the ships had Leslie Controls valves, and could not operate without them. Later in his naval career Merrill became an instructor in the Naval Engineering Officer's School in San Diego, where he taught junior officers the principles of a steam system. At the time he was honorably discharged, he was a Senior Chief Machinist's Mate. Merrill testified that during his United States Navy service, he never saw a warning concerning the hazards of asbestos on the equipment he worked on, and the Navy never gave any warning that he knew of.

On two of the ships Merrill worked on, the boiler room and engine room were separate; on two other ships he worked on, the boiler and engine were in one room. These rooms were below decks and had no natural light. The equipment in those rooms were boilers, turbines, and pumps. Each of the engine rooms and boiler rooms had several Leslie Controls pressure-reducing valves. Each ship had 25 to 35 controls or valves manufactured by Leslie Controls, and Merrill estimated that he personally worked on 100 Leslie Controls valves during his naval career. Ships are powered by steam from boilers heated by fuel oil or JP-5 aviation fuel. High-pressure steam travels to turbines, which are connected through a reduction gear to a shaft that turns propellers to move the ship. Steam from boilers also powers generators that provide electricity for the ship, pumps that move fluids around the ship, and auxiliary systems such as heaters, airjectors, laundry steam presses, and galley steam tables. Leslie Controls valves controlled the movement and pressure of steam to turbines and other steam-powered equipment. Leslie Controls valves required frequent maintenance.

Leslie Controls is based in Tampa, Florida. Since the early 1900's to the 1980's, Leslie Controls manufactured pressure-reducing valves with internal asbestos-containing gaskets. In the 1940's, Leslie Controls introduced control valves; the control valves used on steam applications contained one or two internal asbestos-containing gaskets. Leslie Controls sold these control valves to the United States Navy for installation on naval vessels. Leslie Controls did not manufacture the internal asbestos-containing gaskets used in its valves, but instead purchased them from another supplier and installed them into its products. When Leslie Controls shipped valves and pressure regulators to customers, they already contained asbestos-containing component parts, in the form of internal gaskets and packing material.

Leslie Controls also sold asbestos-containing internal gaskets and packing as replacement parts, although Leslie Controls did not manufacture the gaskets and packing. The asbestos in Leslie Controls's products was chrysotile, purchased from outside vendors, and was contained in gaskets, packing, and whistles. Leslie Controls sold these products to the U.S. government for use on military ships and to commercial customers. The valves were manufactured according to military specifications, including packets and gaskets contained in the valve. Those specifications required use of asbestos.

Leslie Controls instructed purchasers of its pressure reducing valves: "Insulate all pipe before and after reducing valve to minimize condensation." Leslie Controls, however, did not provide that insulation. A defense witness, retired Admiral Roger Horn, Jr., testified that Leslie Controls would expect that its steam valves would be insulated. Leslie Controls also employed field engineers during the 1960's when the Navy was engaged in overhauling ships and in sea trials. As early as 1962 and continuing into the 1980's, the Leslie Controls field service engineers were present when amosite insulating pads were removed, valves were unbolted and disassembled, internal parts were changed and internal surfaces cleaned, and as the valve was reinstalled and put in service. The Leslie Controls field service engineers were aware that amosite asbestos insulation was applied to and removed from Leslie Controls valves.

Leslie Controls supplied purchasers of valves with technical manuals containing instructions on repairing and maintaining Leslie Controls valves. Leslie Controls did not place warnings or cautions in brochures or technical manuals which advised customers about dangers or hazards of asbestos, or of asbestos-containing component parts such as gaskets or packing material. From the 1940's through the 1970's, Leslie Controls understood that asbestos packing material would have to be removed during maintenance of a piece of equipment, or that additional packing would be added. Leslie Controls also understood that there would be workers working around steam piping systems and pressure regulators on board naval vessels. Leslie Controls did not place warnings about the dangers or hazards of asbestos on any of their products containing asbestos-containing component parts which it sold to the Navy.

Merrill was exposed to asbestos in three ways. First, Leslie Controls-manufactured valves had internal packing and internal gaskets within the metal housing of the valve. This internal packing and gaskets, which contained asbestos, prevented leaks of steam from the movable valve stem. The internal packing material and internal gaskets would have to be removed, added to, or replaced during maintenance of the valve. We will refer to this internal packing and gaskets as "Category #1." On Leslie Controls-manufactured valves with flanges protruding from each side, Merrill repacked the valve wheel and removed flanges to which pipe was bolted. This involved pulling the old packing out of the Leslie Controls valve, using a corkscrew-like packing puller, and blowing air at low pressure to clean out debris. Then Merrill would cut new packing and install it. This exposed him to asbestos. When Merrill was required to take the valve apart he had to remove asbestos- containing internal gaskets from inside of the valve, which exposed him to airborne asbestos.

Second, Merrill was exposed to asbestos when removing gaskets on the exterior of Leslie Control valves. We will refer to these external flange gaskets as "Category #2." A gasket is placed between two metal surfaces, which are bolted together to compress the gasket material to form a seal between the valve flange and the steam line pipe flange. Merrill removed gaskets from the Leslie Controls valves when those valves were sent to the machine shop for maintenance. The gaskets contained asbestos. Sheet gaskets had to be scraped off in places and then wire brushed, because sheet material had a tendency to deteriorate or stick to hot metal surfaces. Taking the valve apart to remove asbestos gaskets from the inside would expose Merrill to asbestos. Leslie Controls did not design, manufacture, supply, or install the flange gaskets attached to the exterior of its valves.

Third, asbestos insulation pads covered the body of the Leslie Controls valve and surrounding pipe connected to it, in order to protect workers from being burned. We will refer to the asbestos insulation as "Category #3." Asbestos insulation also improved efficiency of the system by preventing steam from condensing into water and reducing energy costs necessary to keep steam at the proper temperature. When a valve needed repair, Merrill had to remove the insulation pad and to reinstall it after the repair was completed. The insulating pads contained amosite asbestos. Removing and manipulating the insulating pad produced asbestos dust and visible airborne particulate. In this manner Merrill was exposed to airborne asbestos particulate. Similarly, a Leslie Controls regulator for a turbine-driven pump had two valves, one for a steam inlet coming off the auxiliary steam system, and a second on the other side for a steam outlet from the reducer. Asbestos insulation was on these pipes. It had to be removed when the valve was sent for repair. When asbestos insulating pads were removed, at times there would be dust. Leslie Controls did not supply the asbestos insulation for the exterior of valves; that asbestos insulation was installed by the shipyard that built the ship.

Additionally, asbestos insulation was found on much of the equipment in boiler rooms and engine rooms on Navy ships. As much as 95 percent of the asbestos insulation on a ship was installed on piping. Depending on the size of a ship, this could range from 22 tons to 400 tons of asbestos insulation.

IV. ISSUES

The main issue in this appeal is whether Leslie Controls could be held liable in strict liability for failing to warn about hazards posed by asbestos-containing products, or for a design defect in asbestos- containing products, which Leslie Controls ...


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