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From Products Liability Law Daily, August 26, 2013

Steam valve manufacturer’s government contractor defense survives summary judgment

By John W. Scanlan, J.D.

The manufacture of steam valves used aboard a U.S. Navy vessel produced sufficient evidence for its “government contractor defense” to design defect and failure to warn claims brought by the widow of a deceased Navy fireman/boiler operator to survive a motion for summary judgment (Sweredoski v. Alfa Laval, Inc., August 22, 2013, Gibney, A.).

Background. Douglas A. Sweredoski died of malignant mesothelioma. Rosie K. Sweredoski, as personal representative of his estate, brought various product liability claims against Alfa Laval, Inc., alleging that Douglas Sweredoski’s mesothelioma was caused by his exposure to asbestos while he replaced packing and gaskets in steam valves allegedly designed and manufactured by Alfa Laval while serving in the U.S. Navy aboard an aircraft carrier between 1965 and 1967. Rosie Sweredoski alleged that the asbestos-containing steam valves were defectively designed, and that Alfa Laval owed Douglas Sweredoski a duty to warn him of the dangers of asbestos exposure. The court allowed Alfa Laval to amend its answer to assert the government contractor defense, but Rosie asserted that the company had failed to prove reliable and admissible evidence to support this defense for both the design defect and failure to warn claims.

Reasonably precise design specifications. The manufacturer raised triable issues as to whether the Navy chose the specific design features of the valves involved in this case and as to whether the Navy engaged in sustained design-related discussions with the manufacturer. An affidavit by the manufacturer’s designate corporate witness showed that it manufactured and delivered these valves pursuant to Navy specifications, and that witness testified that the specifications contained precise requirements for every component of the valves. An affidavit by an expert witness for the manufacturer—a rear admiral—showed that the Navy was deeply involved in the design process, producing a comprehensive series of design specifications (MILSPECs) for all vessels that were drafted by Navy engineers. These MILSPECs included the design for the high-pressure steam valves at issue, and the rear admiral testified that manufacturers were required to test extensively their products against the MILSPECs, and government inspectors supervised these tests.

The court also found triable issues of fact as to whether the Navy exercised its discretion in choosing the content and placement of warnings in the manuals for and on the label plates of the steam valves. Testimony presented by the government showed that the Navy prohibited valve manufacturers from placing warnings related to asbestos in the valves’ manuals or on plates affixed to the valves. Instead, the Navy developed shipboard training documentation and technical documentation to teach servicemen the necessary skills and tactics necessary to function aboard its ships, which included general information on equipment but did not include make- or model-specific information. This documentation was generally produced by Navy officials, but when it was produced by manufacturers, it was done so under Navy specifications and was required to be worded pursuant to the component’s MILSPEC. One of the MILSPECs at issue mandated that the manuals contain only information related to disassembly and reassembly, with no mention of product warnings. Similarly, the MILSPECs contained specifications for label plates that largely contained identifying information, and a rear admiral testified that the Navy would not have allowed component manufacturers to place asbestos-related warnings on components during the 1940s, 1950, and 1960s.

Conformity to design specifications. The manufacturer raised material issues of fact regarding whether the steam valves used here complied with all required design specifications. The rear admiral testified that component manufacturers were required to demonstrate compliance with the appropriate MILSPECs in all material respects, and that the Navy continuously monitored their compliance through both the design and manufacturing stages. The text of the relevant MILSPECs showed that strict compliance was required of component manufacturers.

The court reached a similar result on the failure to warn claims. The manufacturer produced evidence showing that the Navy would not have accepted manuals or valve label plates that did not comply with all applicable specifications. The content of the manuals were controlled by the use of MILSPECs and a review process, and manufacturers were required to submit draft copies for feedback by Navy officials to ensure that they adhered to specifications and the Navy’s standard documentation format. The MILSPECs also specified precise component label plate requirements that were intended to inform servicemen of the function and capabilities of the components, not their dangers.

Warning. The manufacturer raised a triable issue of fact as to whether it had warned the government about the dangers of the product that were known to it but not to the government. A declaration by an expert witness for the manufacturer stated that the Navy was aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure before it procured the steam valves and had formulated appropriate measures regarding asbestos as early as 1922, conducting scientific studies in 1939 and 1941, and had “become a leader” in occupational medicine related to inhaled asbestos exposure, with further accumulation of knowledge taking place during the following decades. He also testified that the Navy viewed asbestos handling as a “strategic advantage” in managing its workplaces and, therefore, rejected participation from manufacturers in alerting personnel to potential asbestos hazards in its operations.

There was also a triable issue of fact as to whether the Navy had the same or greater knowledge of the dangers of asbestos exposure. The manufacturer had produced sufficient evidence to satisfy the warning prong for the defective design claim, and that evidence necessarily satisfied the warning prong of the government contractor defense for the failure to warn claim, the court said.

The case number is PC 2011-1544.

Attorneys: Robert J. Sweeney (Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen, L.L.C.) for Rosie K. Sweredoski. Craig Waksler (Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, LLC), Jennifer Whalen (Holland & Knight LLP) for Alfa Laval, Inc.

Companies: Alfa Laval, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory DefensesLiabilityNews DesignManufacturingNews AsbestosNews RhodeIslandNews

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