Connecticut Superior Court Embraces Narrow Application of Bare Metal Defense in Two Summary Judgment Decisions

4/1/2013

Recently, Judge Bellis, presiding judge of the Connecticut asbestos docket, conferred a rare defense victory by granting summary judgment to Stanley Black & Decker in the matter of Abate v. AFF-McQuay, Inc., et. al., Docket No. CV 10-6006228. Plaintiff, Joseph Abate, alleged that his widow, Sharon Abate, developed mesothelioma from direct and secondary exposure to defendants' products while working with him at their automotive garage.

Black & Decker manufactured grinding machines and a shop vacuum, which were used at the garage. Black & Decker argued that it did not have a duty to warn the Plaintiff of the dangers associated with asbestos because their products did not contain asbestos and it had no duty to warn with regard to another manufacturer's products. Plaintiff's counsel conceded that Black & Decker's products did not contain asbestos. However, he argued that its products were nevertheless defective because, when they were used for their intended purpose, they emitted hazardous amounts of asbestos into the air.

In granting Black & Decker's motion, Judge Bellis relied heavily on the California Supreme Court decision of O'Neil v. Crane Co., 266 P.3d 987 (2012). O'Neil is an oft-cited pronouncement of the bare metal or component/replacement parts defense, which states that a defendant is not liable for defects present in another manufacturer's product and as a result, has no duty to warn. The O'Neil court granted summary judgment to defendants Crane Co. and Warren Pumps because the plaintiff in that matter failed to produce any evidence that they manufactured the asbestos-containing materials that the plaintiff was allegedly exposed to from their valves and pumps. Specifically, the record revealed that the original asbestos-containing gaskets and packing had been replaced with the materials of another manufacturer.

The O'Neil court, however, articulated several notable exceptions to this defense, which were highlighted by Judge Bellis. Specifically, a manufacturer is not relieved of its duty to warn if the sole and intended use of a product creates a hazardous situation. By example, Judge Bellis noted that the sole and intended purpose of a brake shoe grinding machine is to grind asbestos-containing brake linings, which causes a hazardous situation.

In contrast, Judge Bellis found that there was undisputed evidence from the record, including Mr. Abate's own testimony, that Black & Decker's grinding machines and shop vacuum were "all-purpose products that may have had a variety of uses." For this reason, Black & Decker was entitled to summary judgment.

The rationale behind this decision was reiterated by Judge Bellis, who subsequently granted summary judgment to Snap-on Inc., a similarly situated defendant in the Abate matter. Snap-on sold, marketed and distributed certain blow guns for use in various industries and settings. Like Black & Decker, Snap-on's products were non-asbestos containing, and yet Plaintiff's counsel pursued it on a theory that its products were defective because they emitted asbestos into the air. Similarly, Mr. Abate's deposition testimony supported Snap-on's contention that its tools were multi-purpose. Judge Bellis, again favorably citing to O'Neil, granted Snap-on's motion for summary judgment on these grounds.

Despite its narrow application, Judge Bellis' reliance on O'Neil is encouraging to the defense bar in Connecticut, as it demonstrates a favorable view of the component parts defense. For more information regarding this case or product liability in general, please contact David Governo (dgoverno@governo.com) or Monica Fanesi (mfanesi@governo.com).

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