Third Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment in Asbestos Exposure Case

The Third Circuit partially reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of a manufacturing company in an asbestos exposure case after finding that a reasonable jury could find the manufacturer may have exposed the worker to asbestos.  The Plaintiff (the estate of a deceased pipefitter) alleged that the pipefitter’s terminal lung cancer was caused to forty-five years of asbestos-exposure in three facilities owned by the manufacturer and that the exposure occurred from 1) asbestos-containing turbines and 2) asbestos-containing switchgears.

Before reaching its ultimate decision, the Third Circuit addressed two statutes of repose defenses under Indiana law raised by the manufacturer.  The Third Circuit stated that the first statute of repose defense did not bar the claim because the Indiana Supreme Court previously determined its statute of repose was unconstitutional as applied to asbestos claims.  The second statute of repose in question barred tort claims brought more than ten years after “construction” or “improvement of real property,” but the Third Circuit found this inapplicable because the alleged asbestos exposure occurred during “maintenance work” rather than installation of equipment, and thus the work was not part of an “improvement to real property.”

In weighing the evidence, the Third Circuit first found that summary judgment was appropriate in favor of the manufacturer on the exposure claims related to the turbines.  The court described the three main pieces of evidence: (1) coworker testimony that employees supervised maintenance; (2) the manufacturer’s admission that the equipment’s insulation was not required to be asbestos-free until 1973; and (3) expert testimony that insulation was saved during maintenance when possible.  The Third Circuit found that this evidence did not support an inference that the worker was exposed to asbestos dust from the turbines.

However, when examining the evidence related to the exposure from the switchgears, the court focused on three items: (1) coworker testimony that dust was blown out of the equipment during maintenance; (2) the manufacturer’s admission that some of the equipment had asbestos; and (3) and expert testimony that the equipment’s asbestos-containing parts would likely release asbestos dust during maintenance.  The Third Circuit found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the worker had been exposed to asbestos dust from the switchgears and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The case is No. 2:09-cv-61717 and is now pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

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