Unprecedented Expansion of Strict Products Liability Rejected by California Supreme Court

In a lawsuit against two companies that manufactured components of steam propulsion systems used on ships during and after WWII (namely Crane Co. and Warren Pumps LLC), the Supreme Court of California ruled the rejection of the expansion of liability for faulty products. The plaintiff was the family of Patrick O’Neil, a member of the U.S Navy who died of mesothelioma in 2005. Evidence showed that the “Essex Class” carrier was built in the early 1940s, and that Warren pumps and Crane valves were connected to other components with asbestos-containing flange gaskets. Because these other components were designed, made and sold by other companies, the Court ruled that the defendants cannot be held liable for the injury caused.
Mesothelioma is a pulmonary cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. The use of asbestos in army battleships, carriers, destroyers and aircrafts was common practice before its banning in the late ‘60s. This widespread use of asbestos can be explained by its excellent insulating and fireproofing characteristics, and accounts for the high asbestos risk for veterans who served time on equipment that used it. Symptoms in people affected may appear as late as 50 years after exposure and this long period of latency not only makes diagnosis difficult, but it also complicates mesothelioma lawsuits.
In its reasoning, the Court stated that the manufacturers of pumps and valves sought in the lawsuit cannot be held liable for injury caused by an adjacent or replacement product made by a different company, even when it was predictable that the combination of products would cause harm. It was also stated the asbestos that caused the mesothelioma in O’Neil was contained in thermal insulation, replacement gaskets and packing made by other manufacturers than Crane Co. and Warren Pumps.