Court Rules Asbestos Victims Can Sue Machine Maker

Bob Egelko, SFGate

San Francisco - April 8, 2012 - A state appeals court Monday reinstated San Francisco lawsuits by asbestos victims against a manufacturer of brake shoe grinding machines that released the lethal fibers from brake linings.

The suits were filed by a former mechanic who suffers from asbestosis and by families of three people who died of cancer in 2007 and 2008 after years of exposure to asbestos. All said the asbestos was emitted from brake shoe linings by grinding machines made by Hennessy Industries.

The federal government banned asbestos in new products in 1989, but it is still contained in some older products. Hennessy, a Tennessee manufacturer of wheel service equipment, is the defendant in asbestos suits in several California courts, including more than 20 in San Francisco.

Monday's ruling overturned a June 2010 decision by Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn dismissing the four lawsuits. Kahn said Hennessy used no asbestos in its machines and was not responsible for injuries caused by dangerous substances in other companies' products.

In reviving the suits, the First District Court of Appeal said the sole purpose of Hennessy's machines was to grind brake linings, inevitably releasing the asbestos they contained.

"When used as designed and intended, Hennessy's machines caused the release of the toxic agent," said Presiding Justice Barbara Jones in the 3-0 ruling.

If the plaintiffs can prove that the emitted fibers caused the illnesses, Jones said, they would be seeking to hold Hennessy accountable for its own conduct.

Another panel of the appeals court reached a similar conclusion in five consolidated cases last month.

A Los Angeles appellate panel is scheduled to rule this month on Hennessy's claim that its machines could not have caused asbestos-related illnesses.