In Hughes v. A.W. Chesterton Co., the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey affirmed a trial court’s granting of Goulds Pumps’ motion for summary judgment to a set of consolidated asbestos personal injury cases. The cases alleged the plaintiffs were exposed to asbestos in replacement parts manufactured or sold by third parties. The court found that there was insufficient evidence of causation. Hughes v. A.W. Chesterton Co., 2014 WL 1613394 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. April 23, 2014).
Plaintiffs Michael Greever, Elbert Hughes, Thomas Fayer, and Angelo Mystrena alleged that their asbestos-related diseases were caused by exposure from the gaskets and packing in Goulds’ pumps. The materials removed in proximity to the plaintiffs were not original to the pumps, and no evidence existed as to who manufactured or supplied the replacement gaskets and packing. Noting that Goulds did not require the use of asbestos-containing replacement products, the trial court held that the plaintiffs’ inability to prove Goulds was in the chain of distribution was fatal to their claim.
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that Goulds owed a duty to warn end users of hazards associated with replacement products for its pumps. They reasoned that it was foreseeable to Goulds that the original gasket and packing in the pumps would be replaced with asbestos-containing gaskets and packing. Goulds disagreed, arguing that it did not require the use of asbestos-containing replacement parts, and that product liability could not attach to products outside of its chain of distribution.
The appellate court held that Goulds was presumed to know of any danger with its pumps, including the dangers associated with asbestos-containing replacement parts. Relying on testimony that non-asbestos-containing replacement parts were not available until the late 1960s, the appellate court inferred that Goulds should have reasonably foreseen the use of asbestos-containing replacement parts in pumps sold prior to then. As the duty to warn is non-delegable, Goulds owed a duty to the plaintiffs as end users of the pumps’ replacement products.
However, the appellate court affirmed summary judgment because the plaintiffs were unable to identify the manufacturer or seller of the replacement parts that allegedly made them ill, and because they failed to produce evidence of exposure to friable asbestos from replacement parts installed on pumps attributable to Goulds. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that they could prove causation by showing exposure to a product without also showing exposure to an injury-producing element in the product that was manufactured or sold by the defendant. “If that were the case, a manufacturer or seller who failed to give a warning could be strictly liable for alleged injuries long after the product entered the marketplace even if the injury-producing element of the product no longer existed. The imposition of liability based upon such proofs would rest upon no more than mere guesswork and would fail to limit liability ‘only to those defendants to whose products the plaintiff can demonstrate he or she was intensely exposed.’” Hughes, supra, 2014 WL 1613394 at *9 (citations omitted).
While the court in Hughes departed from the trend in other jurisdictions (e.g., California, Washington) to impose a duty to warn for third-party products, the decision nevertheless demonstrates that such claims will be difficult to establish without sufficient evidence of exposure and causation.