On June 11, 2009, the California Supreme Court declined to review Taylor v. Elliott Turbomachinery Co. (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 564, leaving the Second District of California's appellate decision delivered in February 2009 in place. The long-awaited Taylor appellate decision – which, simply put, held that a defendant is only liable for products that it manufactured or supplied – has left California trial judges and attorneys scrambling to map out the new playing field in asbestos litigation.
Plaintiffs alleged that decedent Reginald Taylor was exposed to asbestos-containing products while working in the U.S. Navy during the 1960s. Multiple defendant corporations supplied the U.S. Navy with various pieces of equipment utilized in ship propulsion systems, and some of the equipment had asbestos-containing parts. The asbestos-containing products to which Mr. Taylor was exposed (such as insulation and some replacement gaskets and packing) were used on or near the defendant’s equipment, but were manufactured and supplied by third parties, not by the defendants. Plaintiffs argued that because the use of these other products was foreseeable, defendants should be liable. Several defendants, including Crane Co., Elliot Turbomachinery, Inc., IMO Industries, Inc., Ingersoll-Rand Company and Leslie Controls, Inc., argued that liability should be limited to those in the chain of distribution of the products that contained asbestos.
Agreeing with this position, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants and the court of appeal affirmed. Recognizing the “bright-line legal distinction tied to the injury-producing product in the stream of commerce,” Taylor held that “[i]t is a plaintiff's burden to produce evidence ... linking the injury-producing product with a particular entity in the stream of commerce of that product.” “[A] manufacturer has no duty to warn of defects in products supplied by others unless the manufacturer's product itself causes or creates the risk of harm.”
Taylor held that foreseeability was "not synonymous with duty, nor is it a substitute,” and that in any event, foreseeability had to be considered more narrowly than plaintiffs argued. The proper foreseeability focus was not whether the products would be used together, but whether “the harm to [this] plaintiff” was foreseeable, which was not shown here given the decades of time between providing the equipment and the time the plaintiff/decedent had been exposed.
For now, plaintiffs have pivoted away from their traditional focus pursuing “failure to warn” claims against equipment defendants. Instead, the new focus is on the equipment manufacturers’ alleged “design defect” of incorporating asbestos-containing components into their equipment. Plaintiffs argue that equipment defendants designed their products to use asbestos-containing parts and that the future use of replacement parts was in conformity with the design. Therefore, the equipment defendant is responsible for the replacement gasket and packing and even the external flange gasket and thermal insulation. Plaintiffs have had some initial success getting to a jury with their new strategy, but there are certain to be attempts to extend Taylor to design defect claims in the very near future.
Michael J. Pietrykowski