Crane Co. to Pay Millions for Asbestos Products

     (CN) — A valve manufacturer must pay millions for failing to warn U.S. Navy and General Motors employees that its ship valves’ asbestos-laden gaskets could give them cancer, New York’s high court ruled.
     During and after World War II, the Stamford, Conn.-based Crane Co. sold the U.S. Navy valves for use in high-pressure, high-temperature steam pipe systems on ships.
     Crane packaged the valves with bonnet gaskets consisting of an asbestos disc sealed by a layer of rubber, and braided asbestos-based stem packing.
     Since those materials eventually needed replacing, Crane marketed “Cranite,” an asbestos-based sheet material used to produce replacement gaskets and packing, despite noting in its catalogs issued from 1923 to 1962 that replacements made of other materials were available.
     Indeed, in the 1930s, certain trade associations, some of which had Crane-employed members, started publicizing the hazards of exposure to dust from asbestos-based products.
     Though Crane says it learned of the link between asbestos exposure and a type of cancer called mesothelioma in the early 1970s, it never provided product warnings until at least 1980.
     After a former Navy boiler technician, Ronald Dummitt, was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in April 2010, he and his wife Doris sued Crane and 67 other defendants for negligence and strict products liability in Supreme Court.
     Later that year, Gerald Suttner, who worked as a pipefitter amid Crane valves at General Motors’ Tonawanda Engine Plant, filed a similar New York Supreme Court lawsuit with his wife Joann against Crane and 37 others, after he was also diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma.
     Suttner’s wife added a wrongful death claim after he died the next year.
     A jury ultimately found Crane 99 percent liable in Dummitt’s case and awarded $32 million in damages, but the parties agreed to reduce the damages to $5.5 million for past damages and $2.5 million for future pain and suffering, which the Appellate Division affirmed.
     The jury in Suttner’s case meanwhile found Crane 4 percent liable and awarded $3 million in damages, and the Supreme Court refused to set the verdict aside.
     The Appellate Division affirmed. Crane appealed both of the court’s rulings, but the New York Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s rulings Tuesday.
     “Certainly, Crane’s direct distribution and marketing of asbestos-based products were powerful signs of its intent that these products be used with its valves,” Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wrote for the seven-judge panel. “Likewise, Crane’s promotion of asbestos-containing packing and gaskets as suitable for use in high-temperature, high-pressure systems showed that Crane endorsed, as a matter of practical necessity, the joint use of its product and asbestos-laden products that it had promoted.”
     Crane had a duty to warn Dummitt about the dangers of asbestos dust, the ruling states.
     “Indeed, having recommended such a dangerous use in the valve’s specifications and originally supplied the asbestos-based components needed to carry out that perilous activity, Crane could hardly deny that it was readily foreseeable under the circumstances that Navy employees like Dummitt would install and replace asbestos-bearing gaskets, packing and insulation on the valves,” Abdus-Salaam wrote.
     The judge later added, “Tellingly, too, Crane promoted asbestos-based gaskets and packing as appropriate for high-pressure, high-temperature services, but it never suggested to its customers that other materials could be used to seal its valves in such services. Based on this evidence, the jurors could only have concluded that the design and mechanics of Crane’s valves prevented the valves from operating properly without asbestos-bearing components in the high-pressure, high-temperature steam service for which the Navy had purchased them.”
     The court also found “no merit” to Crane’s claim that it did not breach the duty to warn Suttner.
     Dummitt’s attorney, Seth Dymond with Belluck & Fox in New York, said the ruling “reaffirms that product manufacturers have a responsibility to supply products that are safe for their intended use, and those manufacturers that violate the public’s trust will be held accountable for their actions.”
     “We are extremely pleased that New York will continue to protect the rights of innocent product users and their families,” Dymond added.
     Suttner’s attorney, Dennis Harlow with Lipsitz & Ponterio in New York, said “The Appellate Division has rejected Crane’s primary argument several times in the past, as have over a dozen New York trial court judges.
     “But it’s also a really remarkable document,” Harlow added, noting that it is “almost certainly the most significant New York failure to warn decision since at least 1998 and it’s a case that litigators and academics will be discussing at length for the foreseeable future.”
     Amicus curiae Product Liability Advisory Council’s attorney, James Beck with Reed Smith in Philadelphia, said the group is “disappointed that the Court of Appeals allowed yet another extension of the already excessive degree of asbestos-related liability being allowed under the law.”
     “There was no proof that the plaintiffs in these cases were ever exposed to the products of the defendant held liable,” Beck added.
     Amici curiae CBS Corp. and General Electric spokespersons Kelli Raftery and David Lurie, respectively, declined to comment on the ruling.
     Crane’s attorney, Caitlin Halligan with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in New York, did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
      Neither did amici curiae Business Council of New York State; New York State Trial Lawyers Association; The Retired Enlisted Association; Pacific Legal Foundation; United Steel; Environmental Working Group; CBS Corp.; and the United States Chamber of Commerce.
     Crane reported that it reaped $660 million in sales in the first quarter of 2016 alone.

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