Washington State Supreme Court Victory for Asbestos Victims

This month, Seattle law firm Bergman Draper Ladenburg (now Bergman Draper Oslund) won an important victory for victims of asbestos exposure. By a 4-1 vote, Washington State’s high court overruled an appellate court’s ruling that the manufacturer of respirators designed to be worn by asbestos workers could not be held liable for failing to warn other workers who may have come in contact with dangerous asbestos fibers carried on the respirators.

In Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings Inc. the plaintiff worked as a tool keeper in a shipyard, from 1978 to 2004. As part of his regular employment duties he cleaned respirators worn by other workers, including those who worked with asbestos. In 2008 he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer caused by the asbestos fibers he inhaled while cleaning and handling respirators.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen found that earlier cases limiting liability for products not in the chain of asbestos distribution did not apply in this case, because the express purpose of the respirators was to filter out hazardous airborne contaminants, such as asbestos. “Filtering out such contaminants, including asbestos, is the exact reason that the respirators were used; removing asbestos and other contaminants was the very function for which the respirators were intended.”

Earlier precedents cited by the appellate court did not apply, said Madsen, because “in Simonetta and Braaten, the manufacturers did not manufacture products that inherently involved the danger of exposure to asbestos. Here, the respirator manufacturers manufactured products that inherently involved the danger of exposure to asbestos when the products were used exactly as intended and for the purpose for which they were intended.”

The defense’s reliance on Simonetta and Braaten went too far, said Matthew Bergman, founding partner of Bergman Draper Oslund. “What the defendants interpreted those cases as saying is that, unless the manufacturer actually made the asbestos, no liability can be imposed in any circumstances.”

Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings brings clarity to asbestos liability suits in Washington State. It contradicts a recent California Supreme Court case which relied in part on Washington’s appellate court ruling in Macias, to find that a sailor’s mesothelioma was not the fault of a valve manufacturer whose products were often lined with asbestos.

Matthew Bergman described the court’s finding as a return to principles of basic tort law. “The analysis goes back to basic tort principles — which is if you design a product that is intended to be used with asbestos or some other harmful substance, even if you didn’t make the harmful substance, you have a duty to exercise reasonable care as a manufacturer.

This news is also posted in The National Law Journal.

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