Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Products Liability
Strobel v. Johnson & Johnson
Strobel, diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma in 2019, died at age 68 in 2020. Strobel had sued for product liability, negligence, and fraud, alleging that continuous exposure to asbestos in J&J’s Baby Powder (JBP), a product he used regularly for 60 years, was a substantial contributing cause of his mesothelioma. J&J’s expert swore that JBP was at all relevant times asbestos-free. The Strobels filed declarations from five experts, all contradicting J&J’s experts. The court sustained J&J’s hearsay objections to much of the Strobels’ proffered expert testimony and concluded that, after the exclusion of this testimony, the Strobels could not bear their burden of proof on legal causation because what remained—opinions from Drs. Fitzgerald and Compton—only confirmed the presence of asbestos in the talcum ore J&J used to manufacture JBP, not in JBP offered for sale as a finished product during the years Strobel used it.The court of appeal reversed a judgment in favor of J&J. The Strobels presented sufficient admissible evidence on legal causation to create a triable issue. The court noted the evidence of long-term usage in this case and concluded that Fitzgerald fairly drew the inference that JBP dating from within the exposure period contained asbestos. View "Strobel v. Johnson & Johnson" on Justia Law
Pilliod v. Monsanto Co.
After years of spraying Roundup herbicide on their property, Pilliod and her husband, Pilliod, each developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Pilliods sued Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer, alleging design defect and failure to warn. After a six-week trial, the jury awarded Alberta over $37 million in compensatory damages, awarded Alva over $18 million in compensatory damages, and awarded each of them $1 billion in punitive damages. The trial court conditionally denied Monsanto’s motion for new trial, contingent on the Pilliods’ acceptance of substantially reduced compensatory and punitive damages, resulting in a total award to Alberta of about $56 million (including about $45 million in punitive damages) and a total award to Alva of about $31 million (including about $25 million in punitive damages). The Pilliods accepted the reductions.The court of appeal affirmed, rejecting Monsanto’s arguments that the claims were preempted by federal law, the jury’s liability findings are not supported by substantial evidence, the jury was improperly instructed as to the Pilliods’ design defect claim, the jury’s causation findings are legally and factually flawed, the trial court abused its discretion by admitting certain evidence, the verdict is the product of attorney misconduct, the punitive damages awards should be stricken or further reduced because they are unsupported by evidence and constitutionally excessive. View "Pilliod v. Monsanto Co." on Justia Law
Harris v. Thomas Dee Engineering Co., Inc.
Harris was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2014 and filed suit, alleging negligence and strict liability. Harris died weeks later. The claims arose out of Harris’s alleged exposure to asbestos while he served in the U.S. Navy, during repairs aboard the U.S.S. San Jose in 1973. Harris was a hull maintenance technician. Dee is a contractor that works with “refractory brick, mortar and castable cement situated on the inside of boilers.” Dee performed boiler repairs aboard the U.S.S. San Jose during 1973 and had to “ ‘tear out’ ” existing insulation and refractory material.Dee Engineering moved for summary judgment, alleging that the plaintiffs were unable to establish that Harris was exposed to asbestos by an act or omission of Dee. Ewing, a certified industrial hygienist, was Plaintiffs’ expert witness and opined that Harris “did not need to be present at the exact time that the insulation block was being removed, swept up, and/or installed" to be exposed because asbestos fibers can remain suspended for up to 80 hours before settling and are subject to re-entrainment.The trial court granted Dee summary judgment, stating that Harris was not in the ship's boiler room, while Dee performed its work, or at any specific time shortly after such work, The court rejected Ewing’s opinion about suspension and re-entrainment as “a new, previously not disclosed opinion that is contradicted by his deposition testimony.” The court of appeal reversed. The trial court erred in its evaluation of Ewing’s declaration; there is a triable issue whether Dee’s refractory work exposed Harris to asbestos. View "Harris v. Thomas Dee Engineering Co., Inc." on Justia Law
Berg v. Pulte Home Corp.
The issue presented for the Court of Appeal’s review in this case arose from a residential construction defect lawsuit filed by several homeowners against Pulte Home Corporation. The homeowners sued Pulte for allegedly violating building standards set forth in Civil Code section 896, breach of contract, and breach of express warranty pertaining to 13 homes (the Berg litigation). St. Paul Mercury Insurance Company (St. Paul) defended Pulte in the Berg litigation as an additional insured under a general liability policy issued to St. Paul’s named insured and one of Pulte’s subcontractors, Groundbreakers Landscaping, Inc. Pertinent here, St. Paul later sued three of Pulte’s subcontractors -- Vaca Valley Roofing, Inc., Norman Masonry, Inc., and Colorific Painting, Inc. (collectively defendants) -- for equitable subrogation through a complaint in intervention in the Berg litigation. In essence, St. Paul sought to pursue Pulte’s breach of contract claims against defendants for their failure to defend Pulte in the Berg litigation. Standing in Pulte’s shoes, St. Paul asserted defendants were jointly and severally liable for the reimbursement of the money it expended in defending Pulte, St. Paul raised four arguments on appeal: (1) the trial court erred in granting defendants’ request for a jury trial; (2) the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury that defendants are jointly and severally liable for the mixed defense fees (i.e., attorney fees and costs incurred in defense of the entire Berg litigation, such as attending status conferences or mediations; in other words, tasks unrelated to the defense of a subcontractor’s specific scope of work); (3) the trial court erred in denying St. Paul’s motion for prejudgment interest; and (4) the trial court erred in denying St. Paul’s request for attorney fees in prosecuting the equitable subrogation action. Finding no reversible error, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court. View "Berg v. Pulte Home Corp." on Justia Law
Cahill Construction Co., Inc. v. Superior Court
Richards sued 105 defendants, including Cahill, with claims arising out of Richards’s alleged asbestos exposure during his 30-year career as a pipefitter. The trial court granted trial preference based on a declaration from Richards’s physician that Richards, then 72 years old, was suffering from mesothelioma and had a life expectancy of fewer than six months. Richards produced voluminous responses to interrogatories, the transcript of Richards’s prior deposition in asbestos litigation involving Richards’s co-worker, and Richards’s employment records.Code of Civil Procedure section 2025.295 provides that in a civil action “for injury or illness that results in mesothelioma” if a licensed physician declares the plaintiff “suffers from mesothelioma . . . , raising substantial medical doubt of the survival of the [plaintiff] beyond six months,” deposition examination of the plaintiff is limited to seven hours of total testimony. The statute permits a court to grant up to an additional seven hours if more than 20 defendants appear at the deposition. Defendants deposed Richards for 14 hours. Cahill challenged the time limit.The court of appeal denied Cahill’s petition for mandamus relief. A court may not grant deposition time in excess of the 14-hour cap established in section 2025.295(b)(2) despite other Code of Civil Procedure provisions addressing a court’s right to control discovery. Section 2025.295’s limitation on deposition time does not violate Cahill’s due process rights. View "Cahill Construction Co., Inc. v. Superior Court" on Justia Law
Khosravan v. Chevron Corp.
Malekeh Khosravan appealed the denial of her motion to strike or tax costs with respect to the expert witness fees incurred by defendants Chevron Corporation, Chevron U.S.A. Inc., and Texaco Inc. (Chevron defendants) following the trial court’s granting of the Chevron defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Malekeh and her husband Gholam Khosravan brought claims for negligence, premises liability, loss of consortium, and related claims, alleging Khosravan contracted mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos while he was an Iranian citizen working for the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) at the Abadan refinery the Khosravans alleged was controlled by the predecessors to the Chevron defendants, Exxon Mobil Corporation, and ExxonMobil Oil Corporation (Exxon defendants). The trial court concluded the Chevron and Exxon defendants did not owe a duty of care to Khosravan, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed. The trial court awarded the Chevron defendants their expert witness fees as costs based on the Khosravans’ failure to accept the Chevron defendants’ statutory settlement offers made to Khosravan and Malekeh under Code of Civil Procedure section 998. On appeal, Malekeh contended the trial court erred in denying the motion to strike or tax costs because the settlement offers required the Khosravans to indemnify the Chevron defendants against possible future claims of nonparties, making the offers impossible to value; the Khosravans obtained a more favorable judgment than the offers in light of the indemnity provisions; and the offers were “token” settlement offers made in bad faith. The Court of Appeal concurred with this reasoning and reversed: "We recognize the desire by defendants to reach a settlement that protects them from all liability for the conduct alleged in the complaint, whether as to the plaintiffs or their heirs in a wrongful death action. But if defendants seek that protection through indemnification, they may well need to give up the benefit of section 998." View "Khosravan v. Chevron Corp." on Justia Law
Swanson v. The Marley-Wylain Co.
Plaintiff's claims stemmed from his exposure to asbestos when working with boilers manufactured by Weil-McLain, now a division of MW. The jury concluded that Weil-McLain was negligent and that its negligence was a proximate cause of plaintiff's injuries, entering judgment for plaintiff against MW for $5,489,688.68. The trial court denied post-judgment motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and new trial.The Court of Appeal concluded that the evidence of causation presented at trial would have been sufficient under Michigan law to support the jury's verdict. However, the trial court's instructions to the jury regarding causation reflected California law, not Michigan law. The court concluded that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on Michigan law and that the error was prejudicial. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded to the trial court for retrial. View "Swanson v. The Marley-Wylain Co." on Justia Law
Phipps v. Copeland Corporation LLC
Plaintiff and his wife filed suit against Copeland and others, alleging that the companies exposed plaintiff to asbestos that caused him to develop mesothelioma. After the jury found Copeland liable, it apportioned 60 percent of the fault for plaintiff's harm, and awarded, among other damages, $25 million in noneconomic damages.The Court of Appeal held that the defendant has the burden at trial to show the percentage of fault attributable to other parties who may have contributed to causing the plaintiff's harm and that Copeland has not met its burden on appeal to show as a matter of law the evidence compelled an apportionment of fault more favorable to Copeland. The court also held that the trial court, in denying Copeland's motion for a new trial, did not err under Code of Civil Procedure sections 657 and 658 in declining to consider a spreadsheet created by Copeland's attorneys that presented a survey and comparative analysis of verdicts in California asbestos cases over a recent five-year period. Finally, the court concluded that substantial evidence supported the jury's award of noneconomic damages. View "Phipps v. Copeland Corporation LLC" on Justia Law
Loomis v. Amazon.com LLC
Plaintiff filed suit against Amazon for injuries she suffered from an allegedly defective hoverboard she purchased from a third party seller named TurnUpUp on Amazon's website. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Amazon.The Fourth District recently addressed this issue as a matter of first impression in Bolger v. Amazon.com, LLC (2020) 53 Cal.App.5th 431 (Bolger), review denied November 18, 2020, holding that Amazon is an integral part of the overall producing and marketing enterprise that should bear the cost of injuries resulting from defective products.The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court's judgment and concluded that Bolger properly applied a well-established strict liability law to the facts of its case and was correctly decided. Based on the court's review of Amazon's third-party business model under the Business Solutions Agreement (BSA), the court is persuaded that Amazon's own business practices make it a direct link in the vertical chain of distribution under California's strict liability doctrine. Although the court concluded that Amazon is a link in the vertical chain of distribution, the court nevertheless recognizes that e-commerce may not neatly fit into a traditional sales structure. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the court concluded that there exists a triable issue of material fact as to liability under the stream of commerce approach and thus the trial court erroneously granted summary adjudication on the strict liability claim. The court rejected Amazon's contention that it was merely a service provider and thus not strictly liable for plaintiff's injuries. Furthermore, the court was not persuaded by Amazon's reliance on those decisions that restrict strict liability to sellers or manufacturers by applying out-of-state law. The court also concluded that policy considerations underlying the doctrine are furthered by imposing strict products liability in this case. Finally, summary adjudication was improperly granted as to the negligent products liability claim where Amazon provides no legal support for its argument that negligent products liability may only be imposed on manufacturers and sellers. View "Loomis v. Amazon.com LLC" on Justia Law
Planet Bingo LLC v. The Burlington Ins. Co.
An electronic gaming device designed and supplied by Planet Bingo, LLC caused a fire in the United Kingdom. Several third parties made demands that Planet Bingo pay their damages resulting from the fire. However, Planet Bingo’s liability insurer, the Burlington Insurance Company (Burlington), denied coverage. Planet Bingo filed this action for breach of contract and bad faith against Burlington. In a previous appeal, the Court of Appeal held that Burlington’s policy did afford coverage, though only if one of the third-party claimants filed suit against Planet Bingo in the United States or Canada. Such a suit was then filed. Burlington accepted the defense and managed to settle the suit for its policy limits. In this action, the trial court granted summary judgment for Burlington, ruling that Burlington had provided all of the benefits due under the policy. Planet Bingo appealed, contending that Burlington conducted an inadequate investigation, and that Burlington wrongfully failed to settle the third-party claims, instead, denying coverage in the hope that the claimants would sue Planet Bingo in the United Kingdom, which would have let Burlington off the coverage hook. Planet Bingo claimed (and Burlington did not dispute) that it lost profits because the fire claims remained pending and unsettled. The Court of Appeal held Planet Bingo made out a prima facie case that Burlington was liable for failure to settle. Even though none of the claimants made a formal offer to settle within the policy limits, one subrogee sent a subrogation demand letter; according to Planet Bingo’s expert witness, in light of the standards of the insurance industry, this represented an opportunity to settle within the policy limits. The Court therefore did not address Planet Bingo’s claim that Burlington conducted an inadequate investigation. The Court also did not decide whether lost profits were recoverable as damages, because this issue was not raised below. View "Planet Bingo LLC v. The Burlington Ins. Co." on Justia Law