The Iowa Court of Appeals recently affirmed summary judgment for both a premises owner and an installer of asbestos products pursuant to Iowa Code 686B.7(5) (2017), which provides that a defendant in an asbestos action “shall not be liable for exposures from a product or component part made or sold by a third party.” Beverage v. Alcoa, Inc., No. 19-1852, slip op. (Iowa Ct. App. March 17, 2021). The Plaintiffs brought suit on behalf of Mr. Beverage, who worked as an independent contractor at an Alcoa aluminum plant around asbestos-containing insulation installed by IITI. Alcoa and IITI, the only two defendants, filed motions for summary judgment claiming that Section 686B.7(5) provided them with immunity from Plaintiffs’ lawsuit. The district court granted both Alcoa and IITI’s motions for summary judgment. On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in granting immunity to Alcoa and IITI by incorrectly interpreting Section 686B.7(5).
First, Plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in defining the word “defendant” in Section 686B.7(5) as “any entity in an asbestos suit.” Instead, Plaintiffs urged that “defendant” be defined as “one that makes or sells an asbestos product.” The appellate court disagreed with Plaintiffs’ proposed definition, stating that the established legal meaning of “defendant” is, in part, a “person sued in a civil proceeding.” The appellate court noted that the legislature is presumed to intend the established legal meaning of a word unless context shows otherwise, which in this case it did not.
Second, Plaintiffs claimed Section 686B.7(5) was essentially a codification of the bare metal defense, which is only applicable to product manufacturers. In turn, Plaintiffs argued that the district court should have interpreted Section 686B.7(5) to only protect product manufacturers. The appellate court disagreed and reasoned that the statutory text of Section 686B.7(5) neither implicitly nor explicitly limited immunity to product manufacturers. Additionally, while immunity protections under Section 686B.7(5) may overlap with the protections of the bare metal defense, the appellate court found no reason to believe the legislature intended to codify the bare metal defense with the enaction of Section 686B.7(5).
Lastly, Plaintiffs argued that Section 686B.7(5) should only apply to product manufacturers because, under the district court’s interpretation, Section 686B.7(5) would eliminate the liability of premises owners and asbestos product suppliers which, Plaintiffs claimed, was “absurd in the extreme.” The appellate court again disagreed, noting that the purpose of Section 686B.7(5) was to narrow asbestos litigation by protecting defendants against liability for exposure to products made or sold by a third party, which refocused asbestos litigation on more culpable targets.
The appellate court ultimately concluded that Plaintiffs did not show the district court erred by granting immunity to Alcoa and IITI pursuant to Section 686B.7(5). Plaintiffs also argued on appeal that Section 686B.7(5) violated Plaintiffs’ due process rights under the United States and Iowa constitutions; however, the court did not consider Plaintiffs’ due process argument as it was not properly preserved for appeal.
The Iowa court’s interpretation of the statute to protect premises owners and installers of equipment upon those premises protects businesses who did not manufacturer asbestos-containing components. Toxic tort litigators defending claims arising out of exposure in Iowa will want to take advantage of the broad application of the law.