April 25, 2014

Drawing a line

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

Tort law allows injured people to sue the person or company that caused the injury.  The question of who “caused” the injury, however, has filled volumes of legal reports.  In the context of asbestos litigation, where the companies that manufactured asbestos-containing products long ago went bankrupt, plaintiffs suffering from asbestos-related diseases cast a wider and wider net to pin blame – and financial responsibility – on whatever tangentially related company they can find.  In Webb v. Special Electric Company, the California Supreme Court will decide where to draw the line.

In this case, Special Electric served as a broker for a South African mining company to supply raw asbestos to Johns-Manville.  Johns-Manville allegedly recycled scraps from the manufacture of a pipe that contained asbestos into a type of pipe that ordinarily does not contain asbestos, then sold the potentially contaminated pipe to a pipe supplier that sold it to another supply company, where William Webb was employed.  When Webb later developed mesothelioma, he sued an array of defendants.  His claim against Special Electric was that the company had failed to warn him of the dangers of asbestos, thus causing his illness.  The trial court rejected his claim, but the Court of Appeal reinstated it, holding that Special Electric did have a duty to warn Webb.

The California Supreme Court granted review and PLF filed an amicus brief this week, arguing that Special Electric is far too removed from Webb’s injury to justify the imposition of tort liability.  The Court of Appeal’s rule would shift the costs of injuries resulting from product use to attenuated businesses that have only a hypothetical ability to prevent the harm through pointless warnings, which would not protect consumers.  It would create a tremendous, unjustified burden on a broad array of industries by increasing the difficulty and expense of countless transactions.  PLF’s brief urges the Court to clarify the responsibilities of suppliers by adopting the component parts doctrine, as articulated by Restatement (Third) of Torts: Product Liability § 5 (1998), that a manufacturer or supplier of a component part is not liable for harm caused by a product that included the part unless the part itself was defective and the defect caused the harm.  The doctrine is fair, efficient, and places legal responsibility with the party best suited to prevent the harm.  Liability costs are a serious burden on business, unnecessarily over-deterring economic activity, stifling investment, economic growth, and job creation.  Allowing negligence liability to attach here would expand the duty of care too far, with potentially dangerous consequences to California’s already fragile economy.

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