California Supreme Court to Determine When Asbestos Warnings Are Needed

In California, individuals who are diagnosed with mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases have the right to go to court to seek damages from the companies or entities responsible for causing the asbestos exposure.

Many of these lawsuits are based on a "failure to warn" theory. As such, they argue that the defendant in question knew of the risks posed by asbestos exposure but did not provide adequate warning of the danger. A case currently before the California Supreme Court seeks to test just how far this duty to warn extends.

Webb v. Special Electric Co.

The plaintiff in the case developed mesothelioma after exposure to, among other things, Transite pipe that was manufactured by Johns-Manville. Johns-Manville made the pipe using asbestos supplied by Special Electric.

The plaintiff sued Special Electric, arguing that it had a duty to warn both Johns-Manville and end users about the dangers of asbestos exposure. The trial court dismissed the claim, however, on the grounds that Johns-Manville was a "sophisticated user" who was fully aware of the risks of asbestos use. The trial court further held that Special Electric had no duty to warn end users because it could reasonably rely on Johns-Manville to make those warnings.

The plaintiff appealed the trial court's ruling, and the court of appeals reversed it. The appeals court agreed that Johns-Manville was a sophisticated user of asbestos. However, it held that Johns-Manville's status as a sophisticated user did not absolve Special Electric of its duty to warn ordinary consumers and end users. The appeals court also found that the trial court made a number of unwarranted factual assumptions when it determined that Special Electric did not have a duty to warn end users.

In late June 2013, the California Supreme Court agreed to examine the appellate court's ruling. The Supreme Court is expected to issue final guidance on how the sophisticated user doctrine should be applied in cases such as this.

Impact on future cases

The Supreme Court's decision is likely to have a wide-ranging impact on future California asbestos lawsuits.

Nearly all asbestos lawsuits involve some interplay between suppliers of raw asbestos, manufacturers of asbestos containing products and the distributors and installers of these products. Each one of these entities has the potential to shoulder some of the legal liability for causing the plaintiff's illness. Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, plaintiffs may have to take a different approach when it comes to naming defendants in asbestos injury lawsuits.

This issue highlights the importance of contacting an experienced asbestos attorney if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Asbestos injury lawsuits can be extremely complicated, so it is crucial to enlist the help of an attorney who is well versed in the intricacies of California asbestos law.