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Atlanta Court Rejects Asbestos Lawsuit Against Valve Manufacturer

Asbestos exposure has caused serious health problems for millions of American workers. Under Georgia products liability law, a manufacturer may be held responsible for exposing a person to asbestos-containing products. A federal appeals court recently considered how far such liability should extend.

Thurmon v. Georgia Pacific, LLC

This lawsuit involved a man who worked as a supervisor at a Georgia paper mill for over 30 years. The mill contained a number of industrial valves that frequently required maintenance. Although the supervisor did not perform such maintenance himself, he was on several occasions in close proximity to the valves while they were under repair.

The valves themselves did not contain asbestos. However, some of the parts required to repair the valves did contain asbestos. More than two decades after the supervisor retired, he developed mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. After the supervisor died, his estate and family filed a products liability and wrongful death lawsuit against a number of parties.

One of the defendants was a company that manufactured some of the valves used at the decedent’s former mill. This defendant argued that there was no evidence of any defect in the design or manufacture of its valves. A federal judge agreed and granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The plaintiffs appealed.

In a May 27 opinion, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial judge’s decision. The majority held the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate any causal link between the manufacture of the valves and the decedent’s asbestos exposure. The plaintiffs argued that the valves were defective in design because they required asbestos-containing parts to function. But the majority said the evidence presented to the trial court “affirmatively demonstrates” that some of the valves could operate without asbestos-containing parts. In any event, since the replacement parts were designed and supplied by third parties, not the defendant, the plaintiff could still not establish a valid products liability claim under Georgia law.

The dissenting judge argued the plaintiffs had presented enough evidence to at least proceed to trial. He said that a manufacturer can be held liable in Georgia for “negligent design” when a person is injured due to the “intended or foreseeable” use of a product. Here, the dissenting judge noted the plaintiff’s claim that the use of asbestos-containing replacement parts—and the decedent’s subsequent exposure to asbestos, “was part of the system’s normal, intended, and foreseeable use” of the defendant’s valves.

The three judges did agree on one point. The defendant argued the court should apply what is known as the “bare metal defense” to this case. The bare metal defense is essentially a declaration that a manufacturer of products composed only of metal, such as the defendant’s valves, has no legal duty to warn users of potential asbestos exposure due to the use of additional components. Courts in a number of states have accepted versions of the bare metal defense to absolve asbestos defendants of liability. The 11th Circuit declined to do so here, noting the Georgia Supreme Court has never expressly recognized the bare metal defense.