(CN) - A federal judge said he smelled "gamesmanship" in the distance that a century-old aircraft manufacturer put between itself and an asbestos lawsuit.
Asbestos-related diseases may have a latency period of 40 to 50 years, making it difficult for the newly diagnosed to pinpoint liability.
The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred about 12,000 asbestos products liability cases to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1991.
In one such case, Shirley Spychalla sued more than two dozen corporations for negligence, strict liability and wrongful death arising out of her the asbestos exposure suffered by her late husband, Leonard Spychalla.
The defendants include Avco Corp., Boeing Aerospace Operations Inc., Cessna Aircraft Co., General Electric Co., Goodrich Corp., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., Michelin North America Inc., Shell Chemical Co., Goodyear and Medicare.
Spychalla informed the court, however, that Cessna had failed to adequately answer or object to her eight-point request for admissions.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Strawbridge partially granted the motion on Friday, directing Cessna to answer whether it bought a McCauley Propeller company in 1960, and which company it bought specifically that year if there are multiple possibilities.
"We note that McCauley Propeller Systems' website clearly provides that 'McCauley was purchased by Cessna Aircraft Co. in 1960 and remains a division of Cessna today,'" Strawbridge wrote. "Cessna's refusal to answer request to admit 1 smells of gamesmanship."
Though the court found that Spychalla has provided sufficient evidence that her husband was possibly exposed to Cessna's asbestos-containing products, it declined to fault Cessna at this juncture as to the other seven points.
"Cessna contended that it could not responsibly admit, deny, or assert that, after reasonable inquiry, it had insufficient knowledge to admit or deny requests to admit 2 through 8, until it had searched its records to determine" several issues, Strawbridge wrote.
But the judge reminded the company that its answers neither require it to uncover all relevant records, nor produce those records.
"We also remind the parties that any admissions by Cessna 'cannot be used against the party in any other proceeding,' and that, to the extent Cessna does not admit a request, it has a good faith obligation ... to deny it 'specifically' and to 'fairly respond to the substance of the matter,'" Strawbridge wrote. "Further, if Cessna believes it can neither admit nor deny a request, it must 'state in detail why [it] cannot truthfully' do so after 'it has made reasonable inquiry.'"
Strawbridge was sympathetic but not convinced of the burden a search of this nature will affect Cessna.
"Cessna has not yet convincingly demonstrated that such a thorough search is necessary, or if so, the extent of the burden," the ruling states. "Cessna's counsel was able to provide specific information regarding how some of the earliest sales records were kept, to the extent that they still existed, but claimed not to have had the time to investigate the status of later records. Thus, we defer ruling on requests to admit 2 through 8 until Cessna provides a detailed declaration describing its burden in having to answer the requests. After receiving this declaration, we will weigh its contents against the benefit of the responses to plaintiff in determining whether to grant or deny the remainder of the motion."
Cessna must admit the first point and give a declaration on the others by Feb. 1.
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