California Supreme Court rules: only defendants who cause harm are liable in tort

January 12, 2012 | By DEBORAH LA FETRA

The title of this post may seem self-evident, but it is nevertheless reassuring that the California Supreme Court unanimously recognized the inherent logic in this principle, given the constant efforts by the plaintiffs’ bar to expand the reach of tort liability. The Court rejected a recent effort to expand products liability in this morning’s decision in O’Neil v. Crane.

The facts of the case are this: in the mid-1960s, Lt. Patrick O’Neil served on the USS Oriskany, a 1940s-era aircraft carrier. His job was in the boiler rooms and engine rooms and machine room, where he was responsible for supervising repairs and maintenance of equipment.  During this time, Lt. O’Neil was exposed to asbestos used in insulation for some of the machinery. When he died from mesothelioma in 2005, his widow sued Crane Co., which manufactured and supplied valves to the Navy, and Warren Pumps, which manufactured and supplied pumps. Neither of these companies manufactured or sold the asbestos-laden insulation. (The company that did manufacture and sell it — Johns Mansville — was long ago bankrupted by asbestos litigation; and the Navy, which knew about the dangers but did not warn, is immune from liability).

PLF filed this amicus brief arguing that Crane & Warren Pumps should not be liable in either strict liability or negligence, because their products did not contain asbestos and therefore could not have been the source of the plaintiff’s injuries. We also urged the Court to view this case in the overall context of nationwide asbestos litigation, which has been economically ruinous to many legitimate and productive industries.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Corrigan, the Court held:

Recognizing plaintiffs’ claims would represent an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability. We decline to do so. California law has long provided that manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have a duty to ensure the safety of their products, and will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in their products. Yet, we have never held that these responsibilities extend to preventing injuries caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant’s product. Nor have we held that manufacturers must warn about potential hazards in replacement parts made by others when, as here, the dangerous feature of these parts was not integral to the product’s design. 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.

This is an important decision that properly limits tort recovery against defendants who actually cause harm, as opposed to the last semi-sort-of-related defendant who has any money.