The California Supreme Court heard arguments last week in O’Neil v. Crane Co. on an issue relevant to many asbestos cases, and potentially relevant to product liability law generally: “Can the manufacturer of valves and fittings installed on Navy ships, and designed to be used with asbestos packing, gaskets, and insulation, rely on the 'component parts' defense or related theories to preclude strict liability for asbestos injuries years later suffered by seamen on those ships?”
Oral argument went generally well for the defense. The discussion was about replacement parts, not insulation. Pointed questions came at both sides, but the court expressed more problems with the plaintiffs’ position, and there appears little chance the plaintiff position could get four votes. Some of the questions and comments, however, were sufficiently peripheral or off-point that the opinion may not be as clear a delineation of “product vs. not our product” as the defense would like.
Questions or comments to plaintiffs that perhaps best show this: “Defendants did not manufacture the asbestos [sic] that hurt your client, did they?” “Wasn’t asbestos necessary for these pumps at this time?” “Strict liability shouldn’t apply because neither of its premises apply to replacement parts. 1, the Navy made the choice of replacement parts. 2, how could manufacturers spread the risks of future injuries from other products?”
The court also asked appropriate questions of the defense. “If you knew your gaskets & packing would be replaced by asbestos, why aren’t you liable?” “There was asbestos in the OEM gaskets and packing you supplied, correct?” “Why shouldn’t the manufacturer warn, since it would be the same warning to sailors working with OEM as those working with replacement parts?” Defense counsel responded well.
The court asked more peripheral questions, including about the extent to which the Navy specified asbestos; whether non-asbestos gaskets and packing were used; “asbestos awareness has increased over time, why should actions years ago be held to what we know now?” “What would a warning look like?” While many of these show a pro-defense bent, some could reflect a limit on the scope of the decision.
None of the attorneys, or justices, spoke much if at all about what a ruling in this case would mean for product liability generally, or other products. Both, especially plaintiffs, used cases from outside the asbestos context to make their points, and argued that general product liability principles compelled their desired result, but they did not take the analysis the other direction.
As required by law, the court must issue a decision within 90 days.
Please click here for a copy of a recent article on O’Neil citing an amicus brief written by San Francisco partners Don Willenburg and Michael Pietrykowski.