In Olivares et al. v. Morehouse-Cowles et. al., (April 21, 2014, B245407) [2014 WL1571766], the California Court of Appeal recently held that several mixing machine manufacturers could be sued for injuries allegedly caused by the release of carcinogens from other companies’ chemical ingredients mixed in their machines.
Plaintiffs Maria Olivares, Diane Cano-Casas, and Gerardo Olivares alleged that their decedent, Ramiro Olivares, was a “mixer” at an electronics company. As part of his job, he operated machines designed to mix chemical ingredients used to make electrical insulation. The plaintiffs alleged that the machines caused the chemical ingredients mixed therein to emit airborne toxins that were absorbed into the decedent’s lungs, resulting in lung cancer. The plaintiffs asserted claims of negligence, strict liability, and breach of warranty in their complaint.
Three mixing machine defendants filed motions for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that under O’Neil v. Crane Co., 53 Cal.4th 335 (2012), they could not be held liable for injuries caused by other manufacturers’ products, even if it was foreseeable that the products might be used together. The trial court granted the motions without leave to amend, and the plaintiffs appealed.
The Court of Appeal reversed, holding there is an exception to the general rule that manufacturers are not liable for injuries caused by another party’s product in cases involving products designed to be used in a manner inevitably creating a hazard, as stated in Tellez-Cordoba v. Campbell-Hausfeld/Scott Fetzer Co., 129 Cal.App.4th 577 (2004). The court explained that the Olivares family properly alleged that the defendants’ mixing machines caused toxins to be released from chemicals that were harmless until mixed. Additionally, the “sole purpose” of the machines was to utilize a mixing process that inevitably produced harmful toxins. Taken as true, the allegations in the plaintiffs’ complaint were sufficient to invoke the exception to O’Neil, outlined in Tellez-Cordoba.
While the Olivares decision may seem like an unwarranted expansion of grounds for product liability, it should be noted that the Court of Appeal only reversed the trial court’s decision because the plaintiffs pled an exception to the general rule that will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ counsel recognized this fact at oral argument, admitting he did not believe he could prove that the “sole purpose” of the defendants’ machines was to mix chemicals for electrical insulation, or that the machines had no other non-hazardous applications. Thus, the case may not survive summary judgment and proceed to trial.