• Two similar asbestos cases, two completely dissimilar decisions Wednesday, November 18, 2009

    How could two seemingly identical cases lead to two completely different results?  Two cases filed in different California state courts by widows of asbestos victims have resulted in opposite rulings from the bench.

    Both plaintiffs were married to men who died from asbestos exposure after working in the engine rooms of aircraft carriers while serving in the Navy in the 1960.  The case filed by Vickie Taylor was dismissed before trial in the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco early this year.  But in September the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles sided with Barbara O’Neal in the suit she filed after her husband’s death.

    The 1st District Court of Appeal said companies that made products used in the engine rooms, such as valves and pumps, couldn’t be held liable because their products had no asbestos.  The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled the manufacturers should be held accountable because they knew their products would be wrapped in asbestos to protect them from the heat produced by the ship’s boiler.

    “The two diametrically opposed appellate opinions have thrown thousands of asbestos cases into a state of confusion,” Los Angeles Daily Journal reporter Laura Ernde writes.  “Trial court judges are essentially forced to pick one point of view or the other.”

    Ernde quotes advocates for both points of view who use food analogies to explain their reasoning.

    [Mark] Behrens [counsel for an insurance company non-profit that files friend-of-the-court briefs in asbestos cases] uses the example of a peanut butter sandwich. You wouldn’t hold a bread manufacturer liable for hurting someone who had a peanut allergy, Behrens said.

    But plaintiffs’ lawyer Jeffrey I. Ehrlich of Claremont said the better food analogy in this case is a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

    “It wouldn’t matter who manufactured that peanut butter,” he said. “You have the chocolate and the peanut butter. They’re bound together in one product.”

    Likewise, asbestos gaskets were essential in connecting the valves and pumps to other equipment in the engine room. When the equipment wore out, the manufacturers knew that the asbestos gaskets would have to be scraped, creating hazardous dust, and then replaced with more asbestos, said Ehrlich, who worked on O’Neil’s appeal.

    Asbestos manufacturers have gone bankrupt, so victims of asbestos exposure are looking for negligence by solvent companies in seeking compensation for their injuries.  O’Neil filed suit against Crane Co., while Taylor sued Elliott Turbomachinery Co. Inc.

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