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Scott v. Ford Motor Co.

California Court of Appeals, First District, First Division

March 26, 2014

PATRICK SCOTT et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendant and Appellant.

[As Modified on April 23, 2014.]


Trial Court: Alameda County, No. RG12613671 Superior Court Hon. George C. Hernandez, Jr.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Kazan, McClain, Satterley, Lyons, Greenwood & Oberman, Joseph D. Satterley, Dianna Lyons, Justin A. Bosl, Ted W. Pelletier, and Michael T. Stewart for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Nixon Peabody, Ronald Frank Lopez, David A. Pereda, Ross M. Petty; Munger, Tolles & Olson, Daniel P. Collins, Nicholas C. Soltman; Dykema Gossett, and Eric C. Tew for Defendant and Appellant.

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The Product Liability Advisory Council, Inc., Hugh F. Young, Jr.; Snell & Wilmer and Mary-Christine Sungaila as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendant and Appellant.


Margulies, Acting P.J.

Plaintiff Patrick Scott (Scott) owned and operated vehicle service stations for over 40 years, during which he was periodically exposed to asbestos from brake and clutch repair. He eventually developed mesothelioma, a form of cancer uniquely linked to asbestos. Scott and his wife Sharon (plaintiffs) filed suit against a wide variety of corporate defendants, alleging several causes of action for negligence and products liability.

The lawsuit ultimately proceeded to trial against only one defendant, Ford Motor Co. (Ford). During plaintiffs’ case, the trial court effectively struck plaintiffs’ demand for punitive damages, finding Michigan law, which does not permit punitive damages unless specifically authorized by statute, applicable to this issue. The jury rendered a plaintiffs’ verdict on the negligence and products liability claims, finding Ford proportionately liable for Scott’s disease. Following entry of judgment, Ford unsuccessfully moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV).

Ford raises a number of challenges to the trial court’s denial of its JNOV motion, among them that Scott, as a service station owner and mechanic, should have qualified as a “sophisticated user” of automotive parts and must be deemed to have been aware of the risks of asbestos exposure from the repair of brakes and clutches. We conclude the sophisticated user doctrine did not constitute a complete defense to plaintiffs’ failure to warn claims because Ford failed to prove the risks of automotive asbestos exposure should have been known by mechanics in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when Scott began his career. Because we affirm the judgment on the basis of the failure to warn claims, we do not reach Ford’s challenges to the other causes of action.

In a cross-appeal, plaintiffs challenge the trial court’s decision to invoke Michigan law to strike their demand for punitive damages. Michigan decisional law denies punitive damages on the principle that the award of civil damages for the purpose of punishment, rather than compensation, is inappropriate. Applying California’s “governmental interest” conflict of laws analysis, we conclude that Michigan courts have no interest in seeing the application of this principle in the courts of California, which apply a contrary principle in allowing punitive damages. Accordingly, we remand for a new trial on the issue of punitive damages.

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Plaintiffs filed suit against more than 30 defendants, among them Ford, alleging Scott, an auto mechanic, had developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos in defendants’ products. The complaint asserted causes of action for negligence, breach of implied warranty, product liability, fraud, and others. Plaintiffs settled or otherwise resolved their claims against all other defendants, and the case proceeded to jury trial against Ford. The trial was a long one, and we summarize only the evidence directly pertinent to the arguments we consider in this appeal.

A. Scott’s Career

Scott worked as a mechanic for over 40 years. He began working on cars as a young teenager. After he joined the United States Air Force in 1961, he was trained at a technical school and served as a mechanic for four years. After his discharge, he worked for eight months at a shipyard, where he suffered significant exposure to a particularly harmful form of asbestos. With a friend, Scott opened his first service station in 1966. He owned and operated four different service stations over the succeeding years, at one time employing as many as 17 workers. While operating the service stations, Scott became a member of an automotive trade association and earned certification in electrical systems, engine performance, and advanced engine performance from Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), and he received some professional training. In the course of his work, Scott was exposed to asbestos while servicing brakes and clutches supplied by a wide variety of manufacturers and merchants, including Ford.

B. Knowledge of the Risks of Automotive Asbestos Exposure

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lining of the lung particularly associated with asbestos exposure. Exposure to asbestos does not cause the immediate appearance of cancer. Instead, the disease has a long latency period; an exposure can result in the development of cancer from 20 to as many as 70 years later. Exposure that occurs earlier in a person’s life has greater potential to contribute to the development of mesothelioma than later exposure.

The dangers of asbestos exposure began to be recognized by the scientific community in the late 1920’s. Consciousness of the connection to cancer grew during subsequent decades, with the connection firmly established by 1955. The causation of mesothelioma, in particular, by asbestos was recognized by 1960.

This general knowledge did not necessarily translate to the vehicle service industry, however, because the type of ...

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