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Court of Appeals Revises Its Opinion In Asbestos Suit Causation An Open Issue

Ruth Belche May, Individually and as Executrix of the Estate of Philip Royce May v. Air & Liquid Systems Corp., etc., et al.
No. 5, September Term, 2015 (Maryland Court of Appeals, December 18, 2015, revised February 22, 2016)

by Caroline E. Willsey, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2015/5a15.pdf

On Monday, February 22, 2016, the Maryland Court of Appeals granted a Motion for Reconsideration by one of the Appellees leading to a revision of its December decision in the case of May v. Air & Liquid Systems Corp. In December, the Court held that a manufacturer could be liable for an asbestos illness caused by replacement parts made by other manufacturers. The revision makes clear that medical causation is still at issue when the case is remanded to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.

Ruth Belche May (“Petitioner”) maintained suit on behalf of her late husband, Philip Royce May (“May”), who was a machinist mate in the Navy from 1956 until 1976 and served on several warships constructed during or shortly after World War II. Respondents, Air & Liquid Systems Corp., Warren Pumps LLC and IMO Industries, Inc. (collectively, “Respondents”) manufactured steam pumps that were installed aboard Navy warships. Navy specifications for steam pumps required asbestos gaskets and packing. The replacement gaskets and packing handled by May were conceded to have been made by manufacturers other than Respondents. 

May worked in the engine rooms of Navy ships. In his role as a machinist mate, May was removed and replaced gaskets and packing “hundreds and hundreds” of times. This work allegedly generated dust, which May breathed. May was diagnosed with mesothelioma in January 2012.

May and the Petitioner filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, in March 2012, against numerous defendants, including the Respondents. The Respondents, relying on Ford Motor Co. v. Wood, 119 Md. App. 1, 703 A. 2d 1315 (1998), moved for summary judgment on the ground that they had no duty, as a matter of law, to warn of the dangers of the asbestos-containing replacement parts which they neither made nor placed into the stream of commerce. The Circuit Court granted the motion for summary judgment and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed.

In December 2015, the Court of Appeals considered whether (1) Respondents could be liable in negligence for injuries sustained by May, and (2) Respondents could be strictly liable for injuries sustained by May. Underlying the question presented to the Court of Appeals was whether companies could be held liable for asbestos exposures from components used in their products that they themselves did not produce.

The Court of Appeals ruled in the affirmative on both questions and reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment. The Court of Appeals concluded that where a manufacturer’s product contains asbestos components, and those components must be replaced periodically with new asbestos components, the risk of harm to the machinist is foreseeable. This foreseeability thus weighed heavily in favor of imposing a duty to warn on the steam pump manufacturers. The Court also found that requiring a warning instruction manual for a large piece of naval equipment was not unduly burdensome on manufacturers, nor would it spark a “proliferation of warnings.”

The Court of Appeals developed a four-part test to determine when a manufacturer owes a duty to warn under strict liability. A manufacturer owes a duty when: (1) its product contains asbestos components, and no safer material is available; (2) asbestos is a critical part of the pump sold by the manufacturer; (3) periodic maintenance involving handling asbestos gaskets and packing is required; and (4) the manufacturer knew or should have known the risks from exposure to asbestos.

On Monday, February 22, 2016, the Court of Appeals added notes to its December 2015 ruling to make it clear that, on remand, the Petitioner could continue to challenge medical causation, because the lower court’s ruling on the initial motion for summary judgment had not decided that issue.

At the circuit court level, Petitioner argued that May’s mesothelioma was caused by “exposures to asbestos above background levels.” Petitioner presented expert testimony in support of this argument. Petitioner’s expert testified that mesothelioma is dose-dependent and the risk of disease rises with cumulative exposures. Respondents contested medical causation at the circuit court level.