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Estate of Concetta Schatz v. John Crane, Inc. - Maryland Intermediate Appellate Court Holds Maryland Imposes No Duty on a Manufacturer to Warn a Household Member of a Worker Who Used the Manufacturer's Product

The case involved a mesothelioma claim brought by the estate of Concetta Schatz against John Crane, Inc. (hereinafter "JCI") (other defendants had been sued but had been dismissed or had resolved before trial). The estate claimed that Mrs. Schatz developed mesothelioma as a result of washing her husband's clothing.  Her husband, William Schatz, was employed as a mechanic, working on turbines and boilers at a power plant and, during the course of working on boilers, Mr. Schatz routinely replaced the rope packing around the various doors and openings in the boilers.  Mr. Schatz and the other repairmen replaced the damaged packing with JCI rope, creating dust in the process.  Further evidence showed that, from 1930 until 1985, JCI's rope contained sixty percent chrysotile asbestos.  Mr. Schatz took his dirty work clothes home for his wife to wash and, approximately every other day, Mrs. Schatz would shake out the work clothes and wash them, breathing in dust as she did so.  Trial proceeded before a jury but, at the conclusion of all the evidence, the court granted JCI's motion for judgment, holding that JCI did not owe a duty to Mrs. Schatz.  

In affirming the trial court's decision holding JCI owed no duty to a household member of one who used its rope packing, the intermediate appellate court focused on existing Maryland law, including from Maryland's highest court opinion in Georgia-Pacific, LLC v. Farrar, 432 Md. 523 (2013), holding no duty pre-OSHA owed by a manufacturer to a household member of one exposed as a bystander to a worker using the manufacturer's product.  The intermediate court reviewed the rationale behind the Farrarcase and indicated that: 

"[I]n a household member's product liability action against a manufacturer for failure to warn, the existence of a duty is determined by two factors. The first factor is what the manufacturer knew or reasonably should have known about the dangers posed to household members when the exposures occurred--the "foreseeability of harm." The second factor involves weighing the foreseeability of harm against other policy-based factors, including the relationship between the parties and the feasibility of providing warnings."

The court determined that Mrs. Schatz estate's attempts to distinguish Farrarfailed.  Although exposures in the Farrarcase occurred pre-OSHA in 1972, whereas Mr. Schatz's exposures continued at least into the mid-1980's, the distinction was irrelevant.  The court determined that the OSHA discussions in Farrarmerely suggested when Georgia-Pacific in that case should have known of the dangers of household exposures. Like in Farrar, though, the court in Schatzdecided that knowledge that a class of persons may be in the "zone of danger" is not the sole criterion in determining duty to warn. In fact, such a factor deserves less weight than policy considerations in determining whether a duty to warn exists.

Turning then to policy considerations, the court found that it was not feasible for JCI to warn Mrs. Schatz and indicated that the Schatz estate's arguments that JCI could have warned intermediaries (such as distributors, land owners, union officials, contractors, etc.) misconstrued the "feasibility" discussion in Farrar. The court noted that feasibility of a warning did not depend on the ability to warn an "intermediary" but instead the focus had to be on the ability of the manufacturer to warn the household member. Moreover, the court disagreed with the estate's argument that had JCI warned Mr. Schatz post-1972, Mr. Schatz could have used the protections in OSHA to force compliance with the regulations that required safe laundering of the clothing.  The court first indicated that the estate's argument lost proper focus - the analysis should not be on JCI's duty to warn Mr. Schatz but on its duty, if any, to warn Mrs. Schatz. Moreover, the court found that there was legally insufficient evidence to suggest that, even if JCI had warned Mr. Schatz, that such a warning would have done anything to limit exposure to Mrs. Schatz and, as such, there was no evidence that a warning, even if required, would have been effective.

The court announced its conclusion:

"Because there was no evidence tending to show that it was feasible for JCI to warn Mrs. Schatz, and no evidence tending to show how any such warning would have been effective, Farrarinstructs that JCI had no duty to warn Mrs. Schatz. Accordingly, the circuit court did not err in granting JCI's motion for judgment."

Although not required to reach its decision, the court went on to address a second argument made by the estate - that the trial court erred in finding that household members constituted an "indeterminate class."  The court disagreed with the estate's interpretation of a footnote in Farrarwhich indicated that household members were an "identifiable class of individuals."  The Schatzcourtreiterated that it did not matter -- there was no holding in Farrarthat a duty exists to warn household members because it was an "identifiable class of individuals." Because in the Schatzcase a warning was neither feasible or likely to be effective, even if there was "error" by the trial court in finding that household members were an "indeterminate class," any such error was harmless.

The Schatzdecision is a very strong decision for manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos products who are defending claims for household exposures.  Under this decision, Plaintiffs will have a difficult time proving that a duty to warn existed absent some relationship between the manufacturer or supplier defendant and the actual injured household member. It is important to note that this case is a reported decision by the intermediate appellate court in Maryland. We anticipate that the estate will petition Maryland's highest court, the Court of Appeals of Maryland, to hear the case by filing a petition for a writ of certiorari.

At MacDonald Law Group, we handle a broad array of matters involving the defense of toxic tort and asbestos-related claims.  Should you have any questions on toxic tort or asbestos-related topics, please contact us using the email or phone contacts found on our website at www.macdonaldlawgroup.com.

 

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