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Asbestos Defenses Addressed in South Carolina’s Garvin v Crane Opinion

In an opinion handed down by the Supreme Court in South Carolina, the Honorable D. Garrison Hill addressed several defenses typically urged by asbestos defendants including but not limited to the “Bare Metal Defense”. After wading through the not so clever manipulation of half-truths and twisted logic, Judge Hill rejected the so called “bare metal” defense. According to the Court, the “Evidence showed Crane standardized the use of asbestos gaskets and packing on all of its bronze, iron and steel valves. Asbestos was the standard offering from Crane up into the 1980s. Crane’s manuals and drawings from Carolina Eastman list asbestos gaskets and/or packing in the Crane valves present at the facility.” (p. 2)

According to the Court, the plaintiff (Gavin) was exposed to substantial and medically causative levels of asbestos dust when working on or replacing original Crane products that contained asbestos placed by Crane directly into the “stream of commerce”.

“When the gaskets stuck, he (Garvin) had to scrape them off with a putty knife, scraper, hammer, wire brush, power wire brush, or end grinder. It took up to half an hour to scrape off a gasket, and it was a dusty process.” (p. 3)

Not only did Garvin experience substantial asbestos exposure to original Crane asbestos products but Crane specified that its equipment required asbestos be used as replacement parts. Crane claimed that the jury charge improperly used the word “specify”, although it failed to explain how there could be any confusion. The opinion of this Court is that “the jury understood manufacturers may be specific about the component parts to be used in their products, just as manufactures may also ‘recommend’ or ‘require’ particular components.” (p. 9-10)

As part of its decision, the Court explained that “there was no evidence the replacement gaskets and packing manufactured by others were different in material or design from Crane’s original supplied products or specifications. The evidence showed Crane long knew of the risk asbestos posed, and it occupied the best position in the chain of distribution to warn consumers of those risks.” (p. 13, emphasis added) According to the Court, “although Crane protests there was no evidence that it required the use of asbestos gaskets and packing with its valves, the evidence was sufficient to create a fact issue for the jury.” (p.15) “[I]n sum, the Court finds the jury charge conformed to established South Carolina law that a manufacturer’s liability extends to foreseeable dangers resulting from the anticipated or intended use of its products.” (p. 17)

The Court also addressed the issue of causation. Crane argued that “there was insufficient evidence that Mr. Garvin’s mesothelioma was caused by his exposure to asbestos from Crane products.” (p. 18) In rejecting Crane’s argument, the Court pointed out that “a study relied on by Crane’s own experts found that gaskets work releases asbestos at levels that ‘exceed all current and historical occupational safety and health administration excursion limits and some permissible excursion limits based on an 8 hour time weighted average.’” (p. 20)

The Court also rejected Crane’s challenge to the plaintiff’s experts’ qualifications and the basis for the experts’ testimony. In so holding, the Court ruled that the plaintiff’s experts were “well-qualified to offer causation opinions and their testimony reliable and helpful to the trier of fact.” The Judge also ruled that “it is for the jury to determine the soundness of facts underlying the expert’s opinion and the correctness of his conclusions.” In rendering its decision, the Court sites Crane’s own expert witness testimony that “each and every exposure to asbestos that an individual [with] mesothelioma experienced in excess of a background level is a substantial contributing factor to the disease.” (p. 23-24). Finally, there is evidence from both plaintiff’s and defendant’s experts that numerous health and regulatory agencies conclude that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos and that mesothelioma can be caused by brief and low level exposures. (p. 24)

The notion that Crane contends that certain statements in trade association journals and other documents about the hazards of asbestos were inadmissible hearsay (p. 25) is also shot down in this opinion. According to the Court, the documents were relevant and admissible concerning the issue of notice.

“Communications from trade organizations such as API to a defendant or management-level employee of the company are not hearsay when offered to show the information that Crane received about health concerns associated with asbestos exposure. The question of what was known and knowable to asbestos manufacturers is always a highly relevant area of inquiry in any asbestos case, and communications to the defendant from a variety of sources may be offered to show notice to a defendant.” (p. 26-27)

The Court likewise rejected Crane’s contention that the testimony of his own corporate representative was inadmissible as hearsay, allowing the same testimony as impeachment evidence. (p. 26)

Crane’s dispute that settled parties should have been allocated fault at trial is addressed by the Court siting South Carolina Statute 15-38-15 Section (D) which “retains a Defendant’s right to argue non-party fault at trial even though the non-party does not appear on the verdict form, a right Crane exercised.” (p. 28)

The Court rejected defendant’s concern regarding the length of time the jury deliberated as well as accusations that the jury reached their verdict on damages as a result of improper motives and insufficient evidence. “As noted the Court observed the jury to be conscientious, thoughtful, and properly focused on the evidence.” (p.31) Furthermore, the Court concluded that the record “contains ample evidence to support the jury’s determination that Crane’s conduct warranted punitive damages.” (p.32)

Crane’s motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and new trail absolute were denied, however Crane’s motion for new trail nisi remittitur was granted. The Court found “the jury was unduly liberal in awarding Mr. Garvin $10 million in compensatory damages.” (p. 38) Based upon Mr. Gavin’s “pecuniary damages, the nature of his injury, his treatments, his age and his life expectancy, compelling reasons justify his actual damages award from $10 million to $1.5 million.” (p. 39) Similarly, Mr. Garvin’s punitive damages award was reduced from $11 million to $3.5 million. The $1 million award to Ms. Garvin for loss of consortium stands.

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