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O'Neil v. Crane Co. (2012)

January 13, 2012

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Horvitz & Levy successfully represented defendant Crane Co. in the California Supreme Court, obtaining a unanimous reversal of a Court of Appeal opinion that would have allowed Crane Co. to be liable for injuries caused by products that Crane Co. did not manufacture, sell, or distribute.

Crane Co. manufactured and supplied valves to the Navy in the 1940s for incorporation into the steam propulsion systems on Navy ships. The Navy required the use of asbestos-containing gaskets and packing inside of the valves, and the Navy covered the outside of the valves with asbestos-containing insulation.  The asbestos-containing materials were not necessary for the valves to function, but the Navy preferred asbestos over other types of insulating materials.

Lt. Patrick O’Neil served on a Navy ship in the 1960s. The ship contained Crane Co. valves, but by the time of Lt. O’Neil’s service, the Navy had removed the original gaskets and packing that Crane Co. supplied with its valves and replaced them with asbestos parts made by third parties. Decades later, O’Neil’s family sued Crane Co., alleging that he was injured by his exposure to asbestos on the ship. The trial court granted Crane Co.’s motion for nonsuit, but the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that manufacturers are liable for injuries caused not only by their own products, but also by products of others that will be foreseeably used with their products.

Crane Co. retained Horvitz & Levy LLP to associate with its existing counsel, K&L Gates, to petition the California Supreme Court for review. The Supreme Court granted review and Horvitz & Levy worked with K&L Gates to prepare the briefing on the merits. The case was pending for over two years, and attracted a dozen amicus briefs. In January 2012, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal, holding that the Court of Appeal’s opinion represented “an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability.” The court ruled that public policy would not be served by requiring manufacturers to warn about the dangerous propensities of products they do not design, make, or sell. The Supreme Court held that foreseeability is a relevant consideration in products cases, but foreseeability alone is not a sufficient basis for imposing liability. “[W]here the hazard arises entirely from another product, and the defendant’s product does not create or contribute to that hazard, liability is not appropriate.”

If you would like further information about this case please contact Horvitz & Levy partners Curt Cutting or Jason Litt.

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