Court of Appeals Revives Asbestos Lawsuit Against Gasket Manufacturer

The dangers of asbestos have now been known for decades. Any exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to the development of mesothelioma, a deadly form of lung cancer, and other illnesses. In many cases, asbestos-related illnesses do not manifest symptoms until decades after the exposure.

Davis v. John Crane, Inc.

The Georgia Court of Appeals recently issued a decision in what is just the latest in a series of asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits. In Davis v. John Crane, Inc., the Court addressed a pair of related claims arising from the death of John F. Davis, a former worker at a fiberboard mill owned by Louisiana Pacific Corporation. As part of his job, David routinely “swept up dust and debris around the mill and assisted in the removal of gaskets on the mill’s boilers,” according to court records. This exposed Davis to a number of asbestos-containing parts.

Davis died in 2015 after developing mesothelioma. Before he died, David and his wife filed a personal injury lawsuit naming 22 separate defendants. After Davis passed away, his wife continued the case as a wrongful death lawsuit.

The Court of Appeals addressed the widow Davis’ claim against two specific defendants, John Crane, Inc., and FMC Corporation. John Crane manufactured asbestos-containing gaskets used at the Louisiana Pacific mill. FMC owned a subsidiary that produced boiler pumps for the mill. The FMC pumps did not contain asbestos; rather, the replacement parts used in the pumps did. The plaintiff alleged FMC was negligent in designing the pumps and failing to include warnings that the devices would likely need asbestos-containing replacement parts.

A trial court granted summary judgment to both John Crane and FMC. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge with respect to John Crane, but affirmed as to FMC. With respect to John Crane, the appeals court said the widow presented sufficient evidence to show the company actually produced asbestos-containing products used at her husband’s mill. Under Georgia law, the Court explained, “product identification is a necessary element of an asbestos tort claim.” Here, John Davis himself testified in a deposition taken prior to his death that “he had used John Crane asbestos packing material during his employment at the mill.” Two of Davis’ co-workers confirmed this in their own depositions. At this stage of the litigation, the Court of Appeals said that was sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment.

That was not the case with respect to FMC. Here, the widow’s argument hinged on the claim that “it was foreseeable that the pumps would require asbestos-containing replacement parts as a result of regular wear and tear, and such foreseeability was sufficient to impose liability on FMC.” The Court of Appeals said that was not the law in Georgia, and it declined to “advance such a theory of liability.” The pumps made by FMC did not contain asbestos. More to the point, they were installed before Davis started working at the mill, and they “could operate with packing made from materials other than asbestos, or could be modified in the field to require no packing at all.”