Asbestos Liability Case Picked Up by Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CN) – Taking up an asbestos case this morning, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to resolve whether military widows can hold companies liable under maritime law for products that they did not make, sell or distribute.

Before their husbands died of lung cancer, Roberta Devries and Shirley McAfee sued Buffalo Pumps and more than 50 other companies that had contracted with the U.S. Navy. Their suits alleged exposure to asbestos from equipment on the vessels, but several of the companies named as defendants did not actually manufacture or supply any of the insulation, gaskets or packing here that contained asbestos.

A federal judge in Philadelphia sided with these companies at summary judgment in 2014, but the Third Circuit remanded the case in an unpublished order last year.

As explained in a statement Friday by Richard Phillips Myers, an attorney for the widows with  the Philadelphia firm Paul, Reich & Myers, liability should follow because the sailors were exposed to asbestos from replacement parts that conformed to the manufacturers’ specifications.

Four companies of the companies petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, however, to reverse.

The companies behind the appeal are led by Air & Liquid Systems Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Ampco-Pittsburgh Corp., which in turn is the successor by merger to Buffalo Pumps Inc.

CBS is also a petitioner, as the parent of National Amusements Inc. The remaining two petitioners are Ingersoll Rand PLC and Foster Wheeler LLC, a wholly owned indirect subsidiary of the Scottish company John Wood Group PLC.

The companies are represented by Shay Dvoretzky of Jones Day.

While Dvoretzky has not returned an email seeking comment, attorney Myers emphasized that “the primary purpose of [maritime law] is to protect sailors.”

“We think that, where the manufacturer knows that asbestos-containing wear parts will have to be replaced during the long life of the equipment, they should be held responsible,” Myers said in a statement.

Jeffrey Bucholtz with King & Spalding filed an amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The asbestos case was one of two that the Supreme Court took up Monday. The other case involves an attempt by the BNSF Railway Company to let tax withholdings offset a negligence judgment it was ordered to pay Michael Loos, a conductor it fired in 2012 after he injured his knee on the job.

The Eighth Circuit ruled against BNSF in August 2017.

Per its custom, the U.S. Supreme Court did not issue any comment in picking up the two cases.

Loos is represented by Michael Wolff with Schlichter Bogard & Denton in St. Louis. BNSF is represented by Charles Glaston Cole with Steptoe & Johnson. The Association of American Railroads filed a brief in the case as amicus curiae.

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