Automotive Parts Manufacturers Granted Summary Judgment in Secondary Exposure Case

The plaintiff sued various automotive parts manufacturers, alleging secondary asbestos exposure from the work of his father, a mechanic. The plaintiff had been diagnosed with mesothelioma. The plaintiff’s father worked at Bekins warehouse from June 1974-May 1982, where he did brake, clutch, and engine gasket repair. The plaintiff visited his father at work, helped him at work, and father’s clothes were washed at home. Products identified in discovery included: two Ford trucks; four International semi-truck tractors; Rockwell axles; Carlisle brake linings; Grizzley brake linings (Maremont, or ArvinMeritor); International replacement parts. Various defendants moved for summary judgment, which was granted by the trial court and affirmed here.

The court provided a lengthy summary of the evidence for and against summary judgment and summarized the legal standards applicable to asbestos exposure cases. The court agreed with the trial court that the defendants satisfied their initial burden in showing that the plaintiff provided factually devoid responses to comprehensive defense interrogatories. Here, the plaintiff’s interrogatory responses stated that Bekins trucks used Rockwell asbestos-containing brake linings, Rockwell sold these linings under truck manufacturers’ brand names, and Father used manufacturer replacement brake linings. However, evidence that Rockwell’s OEM brake assemblies had asbestos parts when first manufactured did not establish exposure absent evidence that Father performed the initial brake job on the trucks. The plaintiff’s evidence did not support even a likelihood that Father did. Further, Rockwell was a supplier, not the supplier (emphasis added).

The trial court did not err in finding there were no triable issues of fact. Since the plaintiff’s father did not start at Bekins until 1974, five of the six trucks were too old for his father to have sustained exposure to OEM products. The evidence that his father was exposed to OEM products from the sixth truck, a 1975 International, was too speculative. In reaching these conclusions, the court provided an extensive analysis of the evidence provided. It also pointed out that the ultimate factual issue was whether the plaintiff himself was exposed to OEM products.

The plaintiff argued evidence supported that Rockwell, Maremont, and Carlisle were suppliers of replacement parts, and this was sufficient to support an inference that Father was exposed to asbestos from these products. The court cited case law which found evidence of exposure when one supplier provided the asbestos products; here, the percentages of each defendant’s products was unknown: “…the evidence shows that Defendants were among multiple suppliers and thus does not support an inference that Johnson probably encountered asbestos from Defendants’ products.”

The plaintiff also argued ArvinMeritor was liable on a design defect theory; the court found this argument legally untenable. Accepting the plaintiff’s argument would, by logical extension, making every vehicle produced by any manufacturer during the period before non-asbestos friction materials became generally available defective by design, simply by virtue of incorporating asbestos materials in third party component parts. The court quoted the Supreme Court: “’…the reach of strict liability is not limitless.’”

Read the full decision here.