Escape from liability: California Supreme Court allows manufacturers to hide behind component parts
Imagine for a moment that a company produces a product that includes a deadly, cancer-causing material. This producer makes millions of dollars in profits selling the product but doesn’t notify those using it that it includes dangerous material, even though the producer– knows full well it causes cancer. In fact, studies showing the material causes cancer have existed for decades. Also, imagine that the product won’t work properly without the cancer-causing material, which means the user must replace it with more cancer-causing material to keep the product working. Finally, imagine that a user, unaware of the cancer-causing material in the product, develops cancer only the material could cause after working with the product throughout his career. Many people would agree that the producer should be held accountable for the worker’s cancer and for putting profits before the health of society as a whole, right?
Well, apparently not. The highest courts in a couple of states do not agree. On Jan. 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court ruled in O’Neil v. Crane Co. that a manufacturer may not be held liable for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product (the cancer-causing material).
The general facts of the case are as follows: Patrick O’Neil served in the U.S. Navy and was exposed to asbestos between 1965 and 1966 while supervising enlisted men who repaired equipment, including valves and pumps, in the engine and boiler rooms on a naval ship. Crane Co. and Warren Pumps, LLC, manufactured some of the asbestos-containing valves and pumps used on the naval ship. In 2005, Mr. O’Neil died from mesothelioma he developed as a result of his asbestos exposure. His family filed a wrongful death complaint claiming that Crane Co. and Warren Pumps, LLC, were strictly liable and negligent based on the companies’ supply of asbestos-containing products to the Navy.
The California Supreme Court ruled in O’Neil v. Crane Co., 53 Cal. 4th 335, 342-43 (2012): Recognizing plaintiffs’ claims would represent an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability. We decline to do so … 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.
Essentially, the court allowed the manufacturer to escape liability based on two very unremarkable facts. First, the court noted that, while the manufacturer originally included asbestos-containing material in the product, those parts had likely been replaced with other asbestos-containing replacement parts years before Mr. O’Neil was exposed. Second, a different company manufactured the asbestos-containing replacement parts. Because it was alleged that Mr. O’Neil’s mesothelioma resulted from exposure to replacement asbestos-containing gaskets and packing, which were made by other companies and added to the equipment post sale, the California Supreme Court let the original valves and pumps’ manufacturers off the hook.
With its decision in O’Neil v. Crane Co., the California Supreme Court is going down what some believe to be a very slippery slope. The defendants’ valves and pumps not only originally included asbestos-containing materials, but they were also designed to be used with asbestos-containing parts such as gaskets and packing (which everyone knew had to be replaced for optimal performance). There may not have been a written specification that asbestos be used, but allegedly known that asbestos packing, rather another material such as cotton packing, would be used because of its ability to withstand the extremely hot temperatures encountered aboard navy ships without igniting in flames. Thus, the suit alleged that these valves and pumps were defectively designed and that the manufacturers should be held accountable. Moreover, because the asbestos gaskets and packing had to be replaced for optimal performance, the suit also alleged that the original equipment manufacturer of the valves and pumps also had a duty to warn the user of the dangers associated with asbestos exposure.
Until every company that has knowingly exposed people to dangerous substances has been held accountable, people like Mr. O’Neil and his family will continue to needlessly suffer.