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Willis v. Buffalo Pumps Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. California

August 1, 2014

BUFFALO PUMPS INC., et al. Defendants.



Defendant John Crane Inc. has moved for Summary Judgment against Plaintiff Viola Willis. (Doc. 230). For the following reasons, Defendant's motion is DENIED.


Plaintiff Donald Willis was allegedly exposed to asbestos while serving in the United States Navy between 1959 and 1980 as a result of his work with asbestos-containing products. (Doc. 291, First Amended Complaint ("FAC") ¶ 2; Exhibits A, C). Defendant purportedly manufactured and supplied asbestos-containing gasket material sheets and packing material to the United States Navy. (Doc. 260-4, Plaintiff's Exhibit C, Deposition of Donald Willis ("Willis Depo.") 146:6-147:7, 223:2-7, 444:15-20, 845:22-846:22, 866:1-13, 910:6-16).

In 2012, Donald Willis was diagnosed with Malignant Mesothelioma - a form of cancer caused by inhalation of asbestos particles. (FAC ¶¶ 1, 3, Exhibit B). Donald Willis and his wife, Viola Willis, brought suit advancing a number of claims including negligence, strict liability, false representation, intentional failure to warn, premises owner/contractor liability, and loss of consortium. (FAC ¶¶ 20-125).

Donald Willis died from Malignant Mesothelioma on May 5, 2013. (FAC ¶ 1, Exhibit B). Viola Willis subsequently amended the complaint to include a cause of action for wrongful death and was substituted in her deceased husband's place so that she could assert his original claims. (FAC ¶¶ 8-10, 86-121; Doc. 285, Order Granting Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint; Doc. 300, Order Granting Motion to Substitute). Defendant now moves for summary judgment. (Doc. 230).


A motion for summary judgment will be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of proof and "must produce either evidence negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim or defense or show that the nonmoving party does not have enough evidence of an essential element to carry its ultimate burden of persuasion at trial." Nissan Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. Fritz Cos. , 210 F.3d 1099, 1102 (9th Cir. 2000) (citing High Tech Gays v. Defense Indus. Sec. Clearance Office , 895 F.2d 563, 574 (9th Cir. 1990)); see also Cleotex Corp v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) ("[T]he plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment... against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.").

Finally, when ruling on a summary judgment motion, the court must view all inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (citing United States v. Diebold, Inc. , 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)).


Defendant advances several arguments in favor of summary judgment. First, Ms. Willis is not the real party in interest to Plaintiff's claims for negligence, strict liability, false representation, and intentional failure to warn. Second, Plaintiff cannot establish that Defendant's products caused Mr. Willis's mesothelioma. Third, Plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages. The Court will consider each of these arguments in turn.[1]

I. Real Party in Interest

Defendant argues that Viola Willis is not the Real Party in Interest, and thus cannot prosecute her deceased husband's claims against Defendant for negligence, strict liability, false representation, and intentional failure to warn.

Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(a), "[a]n action must be prosecuted in the name of the real party in interest." Generally, to meet this requirement, a plaintiff "must allege facts sufficient to reveal that he suffered an injury, that the injury was caused by the defendant's illegal conduct, and that his injury could be redressed by a favorable outcome to the lawsuit." Seckler v. Star Enterprise , 124 F.3d 1399 (11th Cir. 1997). As the Ninth Circuit has explained, "[t]he modern function of the rule... is simply to protect the defendant against a subsequent action by the party actually entitled to recover, and to insure generally that the judgment will have its proper effect as res judicata.'" U-Haul Intern., Inc. v. Jartran, Inc. , 793 F.2d 1034, 1039 (9th Cir. 1986) (quoting Note of Advisory Committee on 1966 Amendment to Fed.R.Civ.P. 17). However, Rule 17(a) recognizes that executors, among others, "may sue in their own names without joining the person for whose benefit the action is brought."

Plaintiff Viola Willis is the wife of decedent Donald Willis, who died on May 5, 2013. After this motion was filed, Plaintiff demonstrated to the Court's satisfaction that Donald Willis was deceased and Viola Willis had been named as the personal representative of his estate. The Court subsequently ordered that Viola Willis be substituted as Plaintiff and be allowed to pursue her deceased husband's claims in addition to her own claims against Defendant. (Doc. 300). Accordingly, Defendant's argument that Ms. Willis is not the real party in interest fails.

II. Causation

Defendant contends that Plaintiff cannot prove an essential element of her loss-of-consortium claim: that decedent worked with or around Defendant's products and that Defendant thereby caused him to inhale asbestos fibers and develop mesothelioma. Consistent with this Court's prior order allowing Plaintiff to amend her complaint and noting that Defendants' summary judgment motions would apply to all survivorship actions, the Court will extend Defendant's argument regarding causation to each of Plaintiff's claims. (Doc. 285).

A. Threshold Exposure

Plaintiff's claims require proof that Defendant caused or contributed to Donald Willis's exposure to asbestos. Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. , 16 Cal.4th 953, 975 (1997) ("[P]laintiffs [bear] the burden of proof on the issue of exposure to the defendant's product."); McGonnell v. Kaiser Gypsum Co. , 98 Cal.App.4th 1098, 1103 (2002) ("A threshold issue in asbestos litigation is exposure to the defendant's product. The plaintiff ...

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