Summary Judgment Overturned as Lab Suppliers Found to Have Burden of Causation

Plaintiff Eileen A. O’Connor was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma allegedly caused from exposure to equipment containing asbestos while working at a research lab from approximately 1975-79. The plaintiff filed suit in February 2015 against several defendants, including suppliers of various products used at this research lab.

Supplier defendants moved for summary judgment arguing, among other things, that the plaintiffs failed to identify them as the suppliers of the asbestos-containing products in question. The Supreme Court granted the defendants’ motions dismissing the complaint against them, finding the plaintiffs failed to adequately identify any defendants as the supplier of the asbestos-containing products at issue. The plaintiffs appealed.

Upon reviewing this appeal, the court emphasized that a defendant cannot prevail on a motion for summary judgment merely by correctly arguing that the record before a court on the motion would be one which, if presented at trial, would fail to satisfy a plaintiff’s burden of proof and the court would be required to direct a verdict for. Accordingly, the plaintiffs’ burden to establish a material issue of fact as to facts and conditions from which the defendants’ liability may reasonably be inferred is only triggered in the event that a moving defendant made the aforementioned prima facie showing. [Citation Omitted]. Therefore, in order to prevail at summary judgment, the defendants bore the initial burden of demonstrating that their respective products “could not have contributed to the causation” of the plaintiff’s asbestos-related injuries. The court further stated that a defendant cannot satisfy this burden by merely pointing to gaps in a plaintiff’s proof.

In this case, the defendants submitted the plaintiffs’ responses to interrogatories, wherein the plaintiffs listed the products containing asbestos that the plaintiff was exposed to and stated that the products were supplied by the defendants, among others. However, one defendant, in its response to the plaintiff’s interrogatories, stated that, “given the passage of many decades and … [its] adherence to reasonable and normal record retention policies,” it did not have records of selling these products to the research lab. However, although none of the deponents could attest to whether any of the defendants’ brand names, trademarks or logos were present on asbestos-containing products during the relevant time period (1975-1979) that the plaintiff and other research lab employees testified there were products containing asbestos in the lab. Further, these employees consulted the defendants’ supply catalogs, among others, to place orders for these products.

Viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, Third Department, found the defendants lack of documentation from the 1970s does not establish that it did not sell asbestos-containing products to the research lab. Otherwise, the defendants merely pointed to perceived gaps in the plaintiffs’ proof rather than submitting evidence showing why the plaintiff’s claims fail. Accordingly, the court found that these motions should have been denied, and reversed the orders.

Read the full decision here.