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Court rules that distributor must warn of asbestos hazard

In a ruling that could affect asbestos claimants in North Carolina and elsewhere, a state supreme court has reinstated a jury verdict in favor of a worker who died from exposure to asbestos fibers. The trial court set aside the verdict in favor of the man's employer, but the decision was reversed on appeal.

From 1969 to 1979, the plaintiff worked as a warehouseman and truck driver for a firm that sold and delivered cement piping that contained asbestos fibers. The pipes were made by Johns Manville Co., the largest manufacturer of such asbestos-containing products at the time. The asbestos in the pipes was crocidolite, the most dangerous form of the mineral. Neither Johns Manville nor the man's employer provided any warnings about the hazards asbestos product exposure, even though both were aware of the hazards. The jury awarded the man's family $5 million in damages against both defendants, but the trial court reversed the verdict in favor of the man's employer, reasoning that the distributor had a right to rely on the superior knowledge of the pipe's manufacturer.

The California Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, holding that the supplier had a duty to warn its employees of the hazards associated with asbestos. The court ruled that in some cases, a party in the chain of distribution could rely on the manufacturer to warn of known hazards if the manufacturer could be reliably trusted to do so. Because Johns Manville did not begin to provide warnings with its asbestos products until the 1980s, the court ruled that this case fell outside of the exception.

Anyone who has been exposed to airborne asbestos fibers may wish to obtain a physical examination by a physician who is knowledgeable about diseases caused by asbestos exposure. If the diagnosis is positive for mesothelioma, asbestos or any of the other diseases associated with asbestos, a consultation with an attorney who specializes in asbestos product liability lawsuits can provide a helpful evaluation of the case and an estimate of the likelihood of obtaining damages for medical expenses, lost income and pain and suffering.

Source: SFGate, "State Supreme Court rules for worker who was exposed to asbestos," Bob Egelko, May 23, 2016

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