Plaintiffs v. Defendant Auto Manufacturer

Synopsis:

DBMS secured a verdict for the defense in a jury trial where the family of a deceased man brought suit against an auto manufacturer. The family claimed that the man was exposed to asbestos while performing maintenance work on his vehicles.

Approximately 40 years ago, the man, who was a farmer residing in the Quad Cities region, began purchasing vehicles manufactured by the defendant company.

The man was not a professional vehicle mechanic but performed his own car repair work. The brakes on several vehicles he purchased in the 1970s and worked on through the 1980s contained asbestos. Whenever he changed the brakes, he was potentially exposed to asbestos dust.

The man owned a total of 17 vehicles manufactured by the defendant company. The man also may have been exposed to asbestos while working on the clutches of some of these vehicles, including pickup trucks and tractors.

In December 2014, when he was 64 years old, he was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer in the abdomen. He passed away three months later.

The man’s widow and adult children filed suit against numerous defendants, including the auto manufacturer.

The plaintiffs alleged that the auto manufacturer failed to provide adequate warnings on its vehicles, in the owner’s manuals, and in customer notices and technical service bulletins for “shade tree mechanics,” who perform their own maintenance on vehicles. If the man had been properly warned, plaintiffs reasoned he would have had worn a respirator mask or safely vacuumed the asbestos dust. The plaintiffs also presented evidence that in his younger years, the man worked in an automobile services station for a few months and was exposed to asbestos while performing maintenance work on vehicles manufactured by the defendant.

To establish causation, the plaintiffs asserted that peritoneal mesothelioma was a “signal disease” of asbestos, which means the only way a person could get peritoneal mesothelioma is through asbestos exposure. The man’s occupational medicine expert testified that even one exposure to asbestos could contribute to development of mesothelioma.

Plaintiffs’ counsel asked the jury to award $6.6 million.

DBMS presented testimony that the man’s exposure to the auto manufacturer’s original brakes and clutches was minimal, and he generally did not use replacement clutches or brakes manufactured by the defendant. Additionally, the man’s wife testified that he had worked for several years with a farm supply company removing and installing furnaces, which placed him in contact with asbestos insulation.

DBMS presented expert testimony that peritoneal mesothelioma cases can occur spontaneously without environmental exposure to asbestos. The defense also presented testimony about numerous epidemiology studies that show career brake mechanics have no increased risk of asbestos related diseases, which would make it unlikely that a shade tree mechanic would be at any increased risk. The development of peritoneal mesothelioma requires frequent exposure to amphibole asbestos, which was the type of asbestos used in commercial insulation, and not sporadic exposure to chrysotile asbestos, which was the type of asbestos used in automobile brakes.

After a trial that lasted two weeks, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the auto manufacturer.
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