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Asbestos Supplier Owed Duty to Warn Pipe Company Employee As Foreseeable Downstream User, and Supplier Negligently Supplied Dangerous Asbestos


A worker brought an action against an asbestos supplier for personal injuries. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County granted judgment for the supplier notwithstanding the verdict. The worker appealed.

 

The Second District California Court of Appeal reversed and remanded with directions to reinstate the original judgment entered in favor of the worker. First, the court held that the trial court violated its statutory duty to provide notice of its intention to hear a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV). Trial court's entry of the JNOV was impermissibly premature, where the JNOV was entered before the deadline for filing and service of a new trial motion. The trial court violated the statutory duty to provide the parties with at least five days' written notice of its intention to hear a motion for JNOV and of the grounds on which the motion would be based, before the trial court deemed the defendants' pre-verdict motions for nonsuit and directed verdict to be a motion for JNOV and granting them as such, since the trial court did not file or serve any written notice of its intention to move for JNOV, and the court's oral inquiries about “what would be the practical harm” if it granted JNOV did not constitute notice that the hearings being conducted were hearings on a motion for JNOV.

 

Second, the court held that the adequacy of the supplier's warnings was an issue for the jury. The court reasoned that California law imposes a duty on anyone who puts a dangerous product into the market to provide reasonable warnings to users. The questions of whether the asbestos supplier provided adequate warnings to the buyer and downstream users about the dangers of the supplier's asbestos were for the jury, and thus were not a proper basis for trial court to grant a JNOV. When a manufacturer or supplier places dangerous products into the stream of commerce, the duty to warn foreseeable consumers of those products about their products' hazards is owed not just to the product's initial purchaser, but also to a downstream user or consumer. The court concluded that the asbestos supplier's act of supplying a dangerous product, with knowledge that it was dangerous and with knowledge that consumers would not know it was dangerous, gave rise to a duty for the supplier to warn potential consumers as a matter of law, as would support negligence liability.

 

Third, the court held that substantial evidence supported the jury’s finding that the worker was exposed to the supplier's asbestos. This included evidence that the supplier supplied thousands of tons of crocidolite asbestos to the pipe manufacturer over a period of about seven years, that the worker handled the pipe for his employer three to five times per week for about five years during that period, and that the pipe that the worker's employer received from the manufacturer had no warnings.

 

Fourth, the court held that as a person who put a dangerous product into the market, the asbestos supplier owed a duty to warn an employee of a company that bought pipes manufactured by the buyer of the asbestos, as a foreseeable potential user of the supplier's asbestos, regardless of whether the buyer complied with its own duty of care to warn potential users, absent evidence that the supplier ever actually expected that the buyer would comply with that duty. Moreover, the asbestos supplier had the burden to produce evidence on the issue of whether it actually expected that the buyer would comply with the buyer's duty of care to warn potential users of the dangers of asbestos and to establish that the supplier owed no duty to warn an employee of a company that bought pipes manufactured by the buyer, since only the supplier had knowledge of its own expectations.

 

It was the jury's task to determine the extent to which the supplier's reliance on the buyer's or anyone else's compliance with its own duty of care to warn potential users of the asbestos justified allocation of responsibility for the worker's harm. Any jury finding that the asbestos supplier could not reasonably have expected that the buyer would warn users about the dangers of asbestos, thereby declining to apply the presumption that every person has a right to expect that every other person will use reasonable care, unless he or she knows, or should know, that the other person will not use reasonable care or will violate the law, was supported by substantial evidence. The evidence showed that the supplier had instructed its sales force to market its asbestos as safer than other types of asbestos even though it was not, that the supplier had not inquired of the buyer about warnings to users of its asbestos products, and that the supplier had not required that the buyer place warnings to potential users in purchase orders or invoices.

 

Fifth, the court held that the evidence supported the jury’s finding that the supplier negligently supplied dangerous asbestos. The evidence showed that the supplier sold a particularly dangerous type of asbestos, but that the supplier told its sales force to market the asbestos as much safer than other types of asbestos because it supposedly did not get airborne and get in people's lungs.

 

See: Webb v. Special Electric Company, Inc., 2013 WL 991600 (Cal.App. 2 Dist., March 14, 2013) (not designated for publication).

 

 

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