In Swasey v. Asbestos Companies, et al (RG15758585, Cal. Super. Ct., Alameda County, Sept. 21, 2015), five defendants, Hennessy Industries, Inc. (brake lathe manufacturer), Maremont Corp. (brake lining manufacturer), I.B. Benedict Co. (brake supplier), Metalclad Insulation Co. (steam pipe insulation) and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., obtained a defense jury verdict in the Alameda County, California court. The plaintiff claimed that during his 50-year career he developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos fibers in automobile brakes and dust created from brake-grinding machines and construction materials. The evidence showed this was likely chrysotile asbestos.
Beginning in 1962, Swasey was an officer and a mechanic in the U.S. Navy. During his service, he worked on steam pipes and insulation which contained high levels of crocidolite/amosite asbestos. After serving in the Navy, plaintiff worked as a mechanic from 1965 until his retirement in 2006. Swasey filed his suit against 30 different companies in the automotive industry. During the trial, John Henshaw, an industrial hygienist and former OSHA director, testified as an expert defense witness. The defense expert explained to the jury that the concentration of asbestos that Swasey was exposed to during his service in the Navy far exceeded any asbestos exposure during his 41-year career as a mechanic and was therefore the likely cause of plaintiff’s mesothelioma.
Due in part to the defense expert testimony, the jury returned a verdict for the defendants. The jury found that although Swasey was exposed to asbestos from the defendants’ products, the true cause of his condition was his exposure in the Navy. The jury also found that none of the products failed to perform in a way that an ordinary consumer would expect, that the product design benefits outweighed the risks, and the defendants did not fail to warn about the dangers and were not negligent.
The Swasey case illustrates how important it is to select well qualified experts that are able to break down complex issues for the lay person to understand. Fighting bad science with credible testimony from properly selected expert witnesses can strengthen a causation defense that will carry the day at trial. The Swasey case also shows that juries are willing to listen to all the evidence in a case and return a logical verdict if a defendant stands its ground.
By Kunal M. Ganti