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Barbara J. O'neil et al v. Crane Co. et al

January 12, 2012

BARBARA J. O'NEIL ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
CRANE CO. ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND RESPONDENTS.



Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC360274 Ct.App. 2/5 B208225 Judge: Elihu Berle

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

This case involves the limits of a manufacturer's duty to prevent foreseeable harm related to its product: When is a product manufacturer liable for injuries caused by adjacent products or replacement parts that were made by others and used in conjunction with the defendant's product? We hold that a product manufacturer may not be held liable in strict liability or negligence for harm caused by another manufacturer's product unless the defendant's own product contributed substantially to the harm, or the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.

Defendants Crane Co. (Crane) and Warren Pumps LLC (Warren) made valves and pumps used in Navy warships. They were sued here for a wrongful death allegedly caused by asbestos released from external insulation and internal gaskets and packing, all of which were made by third parties and added to the pumps and valves post sale. It is undisputed that defendants never manufactured or sold any of the asbestos-containing materials to which plaintiffs' decedent was exposed. Nevertheless, plaintiffs claim defendants should be held strictly liable and negligent because it was foreseeable workers would be exposed to and harmed by the asbestos in replacement parts and products used in conjunction with their pumps and valves.

Recognizing plaintiffs' claims would represent an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability. We decline to do so. California law has long provided that manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have a duty to ensure the safety of their products, and will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in their products. Yet, we have never held that these responsibilities extend to preventing injuries caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant's product. Nor have we held that manufacturers must warn about potential hazards in replacement parts made by others when, as here, the dangerous feature of these parts was not integral to the product's design. The broad rule plaintiffs urge would not further the purposes of strict liability. Nor would public policy be served by requiring manufacturers to warn about the dangerous propensities of products they do not design, make, or sell.

BACKGROUND

I. Defendants' Pump and Valve Products on Navy Warships

During World War II, defendants sold parts to the United States Navy for use in the steam propulsion systems of warships. These propulsion systems were vast and complex. Massive boilers generated steam from seawater. The steam flowed through a maze of interconnected pipes to power the ship's engines and provide energy for use throughout the vessel. A single ship contained several miles of piping. Because the steam flowing through this system was extremely hot and highly pressurized, the pipes and attached components required insulation to prevent heat loss and protect against accidental burns. Navy specifications required the use of asbestos-containing insulation on all external surfaces of the steam propulsion systems. Asbestos insulation was also used as an internal sealant within gaskets and other components of the propulsion system. The Navy preferred asbestos over other types of insulating materials because it was lightweight, strong, and effective. Indeed, asbestos was considered to be such an important resource that a 1942 federal regulation ordered its conservation for the war effort. (Conservation order No. M-123, 7 Fed.Reg. 2472 (Mar. 31, 1942).) Plaintiffs' expert admitted there was no acceptable substitute for asbestos until at least the late 1960's. Warships could not have been built without it.

The Navy's Bureau of Ships oversaw the design and construction of warships. Naval engineers created specifications that provided detailed design, material, and performance requirements for equipment to be used on board. Equipment that did not conform with the Navy's specifications was rejected. Product manufacturers were required to comply with naval specifications, including those mandating the use of asbestos.

Crane produced valves for Navy ships according to these strict military specifications. The steam propulsion system in a typical warship included hundreds of valves of different sizes and functions. In general, valves controlled the flow of steam from one point to another through the system. Packing materials inside valves were used as sealants, to protect against leakage of high-pressure steam or liquids. Although cotton packing was sometimes used for colder-temperature applications, the majority of packing used on Navy ships contained asbestos. Gaskets were also used inside the valves to seal the joints between metal surfaces. Although some gaskets were made of metal, the gaskets used in valves, flanges, or pump casings generally contained asbestos. During the early 1940's, Navy specifications required that the internal gaskets and packing materials in valves contain asbestos. At that time, asbestos was the only insulating material that could withstand the extremely high temperatures and pressures produced by a warship's steam propulsion system. Following mandated Navy specifications, Crane used asbestos in its valves and packing. However, no evidence was presented that asbestos, as opposed to some other type of insulation material, was needed in order for the valves to function properly. Indeed, Crane made some valves of corrugated iron, which contained no asbestos. Crane did not manufacture the asbestos packing or gaskets used in its valves. It purchased these components from Navy-approved vendors.

Warren supplied pumps. Navy ships contained hundreds of pumps used for various purposes. In the steam propulsion system of a warship, pumps moved liquids and condensed steam. Like Crane, Warren built its pumps for specific ships in accordance with stringent naval specifications. Most of these pumps had internal gaskets and packing that contained asbestos.*fn1 One Warren pump also had asbestos insulation around a valve stem, but it was covered with a layer of sheet metal. The pumps were not made or shipped with external insulation. As with Crane's valves, no evidence was presented that Warren's pumps required the use of internal components made with asbestos in order to operate.

Once the parts were received, shipbuilders integrated them into a complex steam-propulsion system. Pumps and valves were connected to other components, such as boilers and piping, with asbestos-containing flange gaskets. Neither Crane nor Warren produced these flange gaskets. All metal components of the steam-propulsion system, including miles of piping, were then covered in a layer of asbestos insulation. This insulation was made and sold by other companies, most notably Johns Manville. Neither Crane nor Warren produced the external insulation. The valves and pumps did not need external insulation in order to function.

The gaskets and packing inside Crane's valves and Warren's pumps were replaced during routine maintenance. No evidence was presented that Warren ever made or sold these replacement parts. Crane did not manufacture asbestos packing or gaskets. Although Crane did at one time sell replacement packing and gaskets for use in maintaining and repairing its valves, these products were generally shipped under the label of the packing or gasket manufacturer and often shipped directly from that manufacturer to the customer. There was no evidence that the Navy ever purchased replacement gaskets or packing materials from Crane.

II. Plaintiff's Exposure to Asbestos

Patrick O'Neil served on the USS Oriskany (Oriskany) from 1965 to 1967. The Oriskany was a large "Essex class" aircraft carrier carrying up to 4,000 crew members. The ship was authorized in 1942, launched in 1945, and commissioned to active service in 1950. Crane and Warren supplied equipment for the Oriskany's steam propulsion system in 1943 or earlier, at least 20 years before O'Neil worked aboard the ship.

Among his other duties on the Oriskany, O'Neil supervised the enlisted men who repaired equipment in the engine and boiler rooms. This work exposed him to airborne asbestos fibers. Asbestos-containing products are not dangerous when intact. The health hazard arises when the products are cut or damaged, releasing asbestos fibers that can be inhaled. (See San Francisco Unified School Dist. v. W.R. Grace & Co. (1995) 37 Cal.App.4th 1318, 1325.) To access a piece of equipment, repairmen first had to remove the outer layer of insulation, which generated large amounts of asbestos dust. Removal of the flange gaskets connecting pumps and valves to other components also produced asbestos dust, as did removal and replacement of the packing and gaskets inside pumps and valves. A co-worker testified that O'Neil encountered dust from all of these sources. As early as 1922, the Navy was aware that airborne asbestos could potentially cause lung diseases. Its industrial hygienists conducted studies on the health effects of asbestos exposure from the prewar period until well into the 1960's. Nevertheless, the Navy did not warn seamen about the hazards of working with asbestos-containing materials and did not advise them to wear respirators or take other precautions during dusty work.*fn2

To the extent O'Neil was exposed to dust generated during work on pumps and valves, no evidence was presented that any of the asbestos-containing dust came from a product made by Crane or Warren. Neither company manufactured or sold the external insulation or flange gaskets that repairmen removed. Although Crane's valves and Warren's pumps contained internal asbestos-containing gaskets and packing when the Oriskany was built, these original components had been replaced long before O'Neil boarded the ship 20 years later. There was no evidence that any of these replacement parts were made by Crane or Warren.

In 2004, nearly 40 years after he worked on the Oriskany, O'Neil developed mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lining of the lung caused by asbestos exposure. He died just over a year later, at age 62. In 2006, O'Neil's family filed a wrongful death complaint raising strict liability and negligence claims against several companies that had allegedly supplied asbestos-containing products to the Navy.

Following the close of evidence, Crane moved for non-suit on all causes of action. Among other things, Crane argued there was no evidence O'Neil had been exposed to asbestos from any Crane product, and no evidence that any product defect or failure to warn by Crane was a substantial factor in causing O'Neil's mesothelioma. Warren joined Crane's motion and also sought non-suit on the ground that no evidence showed O'Neil had been exposed to any asbestos from the repair or maintenance of a Warren pump. In response, plaintiffs' counsel argued that even if O'Neil was not exposed to asbestos released from a Crane or Warren product, these manufacturers bore responsibility for his injuries because their products originally included asbestos-containing components, and it was foreseeable that these parts would wear and be replaced with other asbestos-containing components, and that these repair and maintenance procedures would release harmful asbestos dust.

The trial court granted the motions and dismissed all claims against Crane and Warren.*fn3 The court found there was no evidence defendants' products were inherently dangerous except for the undisturbed internal asbestos components some contained. Further, although the non-suit motions did not raise this ground, the court found that the component parts doctrine shielded defendants from liability because the Navy integrated defendants' non-defective products into a larger, sophisticated system, and defendants did not control or participate in this integration process. (See Artiglio v. General Electric Co. (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 830; Rest.3d Torts, Products Liability, § 5, p. 130.) On appeal, this decision was reversed.

The Court of Appeal held that the component parts defense applies only to manufacturers of "multiuse or fungible products" designed to be altered and incorporated into another product. It then concluded defendants' products did not meet these requirements. The Court of Appeal also rejected defendants' argument that they could not be found strictly liable because they did not manufacture or supply the asbestos-containing products that caused O'Neil's mesothelioma. The court announced a broad definition of strict products liability: "[A] manufacturer is liable in strict liability for the dangerous components of its products, and for dangerous products with which its product will necessarily be used." Even though it was replacement gaskets and packing that caused O'Neil's disease, the court concluded these replacement parts were "no different" from the asbestos-containing components originally included in defendants' products. The court remarked, "If respondents had warned the hypothetical original user, or protected that person by avoiding defective design, subsequent users, too, would have been protected." The Court of Appeal asserted defendants' products were defectively designed "because they required asbestos packing and insulation." This factual assertion is unsupported by the record. Trial evidence established that the requirement for asbestos derived from military specifications, not from any inherent aspect of defendants' pump and valve designs.*fn4

We granted review and now reverse.

DISCUSSION

In reviewing a judgment of non-suit, "we must view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. '[C]courts traditionally have taken a very restrictive view of the circumstances under which non-suit is proper. The rule is that a trial court may not grant a defendant's motion for non-suit if plaintiff's evidence would support a jury verdict in plaintiff's favor. [Citations.] [¶] In determining whether plaintiff's evidence is sufficient, the court may not weigh the evidence or consider the credibility of witnesses. Instead, the evidence most favorable to plaintiff must be accepted as true and conflicting evidence must be disregarded. The court must give "to the plaintiff['s] evidence all the value to which it is legally entitled, . . . indulging every legitimate inference which may be drawn from the evidence in plaintiff['s] favor . . . ." ' [Citation.] The same rule applies on appeal from the grant of a non-suit. [Citation.]" (Castaneda v. Olsher (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1205, 1214-1215.)

I. Strict Liability

Strict liability has been imposed for three types of product defects: manufacturing defects, design defects, and " 'warning defects.' " (Anderson v. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. (1991) 53 Cal.3d 987, 995.) The third category describes "products that are dangerous because they lack adequate warnings or instructions." (Barker v. Lull Engineering Co. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 413, 428.) A bedrock principle in strict liability law requires that "the plaintiff's injury must have been caused by a 'defect' in the [defendant's] product." (Daly v. General Motors Corp. (1978) 20 Cal.3d 725, 733.)

Plaintiffs argue defendants' products were defective because they included and were used in connection with asbestos-containing parts. They also contend defendants should be held strictly liable for failing to warn O'Neil about the potential health consequences of breathing asbestos dust released from the products used in connection with their pumps and valves. These claims lack merit. We conclude that defendants were not strictly liable for O'Neil's injuries because (a) any design defect in defendants' products ...


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