In a consolidated appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently looked at the proximate cause standard for asbestos cases in Davis v. John Crane. 2019 WL 5558711 (Ga. Ct. App. Oct. 29, 2019). In so doing, the appellate court declined to extend the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries to cases outside of a maritime tort context. While the Davis Court is not the first to analyze the DeVries decision, it is one of the first to hold that the case is exclusively limited to maritime torts.
In Davis, the plaintiff was a widow of a laborer and boiler operator who passed away from malignant mesothelioma in 2015. She brought claims for personal injury and wrongful death against twenty-two entities. The trial court granted summary judgment as to two of the companies, John Crane and FMC Corporation, due the plaintiff’s failure to establish proximate cause. Plaintiff’s husband worked in a fiberboard mill where he installed and removed gaskets and packing material on boilers and their related pumps and valves. Prior to his death, plaintiff’s husband testified that he used “John Crane asbestos-containing gasket and packing material on two boiler feedwater pumps manufactured by Peerless Pumps, a business formerly owned by FMC.” Davis, 2019 WL 5558711 at *3.
The Court of Appeals separated their analysis of the two entities in forming their opinion. The Court first addressed the trial court’s decision related to John Crane and reversed the trial court’s ruling. The Court of Appeals held that the husband’s product identification testimony of John Crane was sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment. Id. at *2-3.
The appellate court next reviewed the evidence against FMC and upheld the trial court’s summary judgment ruling. Plaintiff sought to hold FMC liable for injuries caused by “third-party asbestos-containing replacement parts used in industrial pumps manufactured by its subsidiary,” which her husband regularly maintained at the mill. Id. at *3. Plaintiff argued that summary judgment was improper because “it was foreseeable that the pumps would require asbestos-containing replacement parts as a result of regular wear and tear, and that such foreseeability was sufficient to impose liability on FMC.” Id. The Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that they “decline to advance such a theory of liability in Georgia.” Id.
Plaintiff argued that the court was bound by the recent United States Supreme Court case, Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, 139 S.Ct. 986, (2019). In DeVries, the Supreme Court held that, in the maritime tort context, a manufacturer has a duty to warn when its product requires asbestos-containing replacement parts. Id. at 996. The Georgia Court of Appeals analyzed the Devries case and determined it was inapplicable to the plaintiff’s case against FMC because “the holding applied only in the maritime tort context due to particular concerns for the welfare of sailors.” Davis, 2019 WL 5558711, at *5. The Court of Appeals further analyzed the “bare metal defense” which “stands for the proposition that that a manufacturer is not liable for injuries caused by asbestos products, such as insulation, gaskets, and packing, that were incorporated into their products or used as replacement parts, but which they did not manufacture or distribute.” Id. (citation and punctuation omitted.) The appellate court stated that Georgia “impliedly recognizes the bare metal defense” based on the threshold requirement that a plaintiff must prove causation to a specific manufacturer’s asbestos-containing product. Id.
The Court held that summary judgment was appropriate because plaintiff’s case lacked evidence of proximate cause as she could not prove that her husband was exposed to asbestos from pumps or parts manufactured by FMC. Id. at *5-6.