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Walton v. William Powell Co.

April 22, 2010


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Ralph W. Dau, Judge. Reversed and remanded with directions. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC361382.

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


Respondents Edward and Carol Walton asserted claims for negligence and strict liability against appellant The William Powell Company (Powell), alleging that asbestos-laden materials associated with valves made by Powell injured Edward Walton. After the jury returned a verdict in the Waltons' favor, a judgment was entered awarding them $5,660,624.39 in damages. We conclude that because Edward Walton's injuries stemmed entirely from exposure to asbestos-laden products for which Powell is not liable, we must reverse.


A. Pretrial Proceedings

Beginning in the late 1940's, Powell sold metal valves, together with asbestos gaskets and packing, to the United States Navy. Edward Walton served in the United States Navy from 1946 to 1968. During two periods of his service Walton repaired shipboard propulsion and heating systems, which used valves in conjunction with asbestos insulation and other asbestos-laden items. After leaving the Navy, Walton operated a painting business that brought him into contact with products containing asbestos. In November 2005, Walton was diagnosed as suffering from lung cancer.

On November 2, 2006, the Waltons filed their complaint for negligence and strict liability against Powell and approximately 45 other defendants.*fn1 The complaint alleged that Edward Walton's lung cancer and related medical conditions resulted from his exposure to asbestos in connection with the defendants' products. The Waltons sought compensatory and punitive damages.

Several defendants other than Powell sought summary judgment on the Waltons' claims, contending that the pumps, valves, and other items they had provided to the Navy did not, in fact, cause Edward Walton's injuries. These motions relied in part on the so-called component parts doctrine, which in some circumstances shields a component manufacturer from strict liability for a finished product that incorporates its component. (Taylor v. Elliot Turbomachinery Co. Inc. (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 564, 576 (Taylor).) In addition, Powell and other defendants joined in a motion in limine to exclude the Waltons' evidence on the basis of the doctrine. The trial court denied all but one of the motions for summary judgment and the in limine motion.*fn2

B. Trial

On February 20, 2008, at the commencement of jury selection, six defendants remained in the action, including Powell. The next day, when the Waltons made their opening statement to the jury, Powell and a pump manufacturer were the only defendants in the action. By midtrial, Powell was the sole defendant in the action.

At trial, evidence was presented that Powell manufactured metal valves for a large number of military and nonmilitary applications. The valves were of many types, and employed a variety of gaskets, some of which contained no asbestos. Although some of the valves used asbestos gaskets and packing, Powell made only the valves. The Navy was among Powell's customers for these valves. From the late 1940's to 1991, Powell provided asbestos gaskets and packing from other manufacturers with its valves; in addition, Powell sold replacement asbestos gaskets and packing, but received relatively few orders because the "end users" preferred to order directly from gasket and packing manufacturers, who sold the same items at lower prices. No warnings about asbestos were placed on the valves. According to Powell, it first became aware of the hazards of asbestos in the mid-1980's, and began phasing out the use of asbestos in its products in 1987.

Edward Walton testified as follows: He enlisted in the Navy in 1946, and served as deckhand prior to 1953, when he began working as a welder and metal smith. From 1953 to 1959, and from 1966 to 1968, Walton repaired shipboard heating and propulsion systems. During these periods, he served aboard destroyer tenders, vessels that provided maintenance services for destroyers. The shipboard systems on the destroyers that he serviced used asbestos insulation and other asbestos- laden items. Among his tasks was the maintenance of valves and pumps below deck in the engine and fire rooms, where the boilers and turbines were located. The valves and pumps were supplied by several manufacturers. He first encountered a Powell valve after June 1956.

In working on a valve, Walton removed asbestos insulation from the valve's exterior, removed the asbestos gaskets (if any) that sealed the valve to adjoining pipes, extracted asbestos packing from the valve's interior, and installed new asbestos packing and gaskets, as needed. The gaskets were often cut from sheets of asbestos, and the packing was fashioned from rolls of replacement packing. Walton also encountered asbestos insulation and gaskets when he worked on pumps. During these activities, the air that Walton breathed became dirty and dusty. He removed asbestos insulation from Powell valves "numerous times, many, many times," but saw no warnings about asbestos on the valves.

Walton attributed none of the asbestos products he contacted to Powell. He testified that he often serviced valves in destroyers built during or before World War II, and worked only on old valves "with many coats of paint." Walton believed that the valves' original gaskets and packing had been replaced before he worked on them.*fn3 According to Walton, most of the replacement packing and gaskets came from a source other than Powell, and he otherwise could not specify their sources. He knew neither the manufacturer of the valves' insulation nor the number of times that the insulation had been replaced.

Walton left the Navy in 1968 and operated a painting company until 1999. As a painter, he worked with asbestos-laden sheetrock, textured ceilings, and taping mud. In late 2005, he was diagnosed as suffering from lung cancer.

Dr. Edwin Crosby Holstein, a specialist in asbestos-related diseases, and Arnold R. Brody, a cell biologist and experimental pathologist, testified regarding Edward Walton's medical condition and its causes. Holstein opined that Walton's exposure to asbestos in connection with Powell valves was a significant contributing cause of Walton's lung cancer.*fn4 Brody testified that Walton's history of ...

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