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In re Asebestos Litigation Walls

Supreme Court of Delaware

April 21, 2017

IN RE: ASEBESTOS LITIGATION DONNA F. WALLS, individually and as the Executrix of the Estate of JOHN W. WALLS, JR., deceased, and COLLIN WALLS, as surviving child, Plaintiffs Below, Appellants,
v.
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendants Below, Appellees.

          Submitted: April 5, 2017

         Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware C.A. No. 14C-01-057

          Before VALIHURA, VAUGHN, and SEITZ, Justices.

          ORDER

          COLLINS J. SEITZ, JR. JUSTICE

         This 21st day of April, 2017, upon consideration of oral argument, the briefs, and the record below, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) Donna F. Walls and Collin Walls ("Plaintiffs") filed a complaint in Superior Court against Ford Motor Company ("Ford") alleging that Ford was negligent in failing to warn John W. Walls, Jr. ("Mr. Walls") of the dangers posed by servicing asbestos brake parts in Ford vehicles. The complaint alleged that Mr. Walls, the husband and father of the Plaintiffs who worked on Ford and other makes of vehicles for a living, died from exposure to asbestos due to Ford's negligence. Before trial, Ford moved for summary judgment on liability, claiming that Ford had no duty to warn Mr. Walls about asbestos replacement brake parts manufactured by third party parts suppliers, and that Plaintiffs had failed to produce evidence that Mr. Walls had been exposed to any Ford asbestos brake parts. The Superior Court granted the motion in part, ruling that Ford had no duty to warn Mr. Walls about the dangers associated with third party replacement brake parts. The court denied the remainder of the motion. The case then went to trial limited to negligence claims directed at Ford's original and replacement asbestos brake parts. The jury determined that Ford was not negligent for failing to warn Mr. Walls about the dangers associated with Ford's original or replacement asbestos brake parts.

         (2) The Plaintiffs have not appealed the jury's verdict. Instead, they have appealed the Superior Court's partial summary judgment decision relating to asbestos replacement brake parts made by third party suppliers. They argue that the Superior Court erred when it granted partial summary judgment because Ford had a duty to warn Mr. Walls about the hazards associated with servicing replacement asbestos brake parts manufactured by third parties and installed in Ford vehicles.

         (3) We need not reach the central question presented in this appeal- whether an automobile manufacturer such as Ford has a duty to warn about the dangers associated with replacement brake parts manufactured by third parties for use in its vehicles-because the jury has determined that Ford was not negligent in failing to warn Mr. Walls about the dangers posed by Ford original and replacement asbestos brake parts. If Ford was not negligent for failing to warn about the dangers associated with its original and replacement asbestos brake parts, it could not have been negligent in failing to warn about the dangers of third party asbestos replacement brake parts. Thus, any error in the summary judgment decision would be harmless error. We therefore affirm the decision of the Superior Court.

         (4) Mr. Walls spent the majority of his career as an automotive mechanic at his family's service station. From the late 1960s, the service station serviced brakes on Chevrolet and Ford vehicles. Mr. Walls worked at the service station full-time after he graduated high school in 1971. When his father retired in 1986, Mr. Walls and another relative bought the service center.

         (5) Mr. Walls regularly completed brake work on Ford vehicles, including removing and installing original Ford and aftermarket brake parts. Plaintiffs alleged that during this time, all brands of replacement brake parts for Ford vehicles contained asbestos, and that Ford was aware that there was no alternative to asbestos-containing brake parts.

         (6) Mr. Walls contracted mesothelioma and died on July 26, 2012. Plaintiffs filed suit in the Superior Court in January 2014 alleging Ford was negligent for failing to warn about the dangers of removing and replacing asbestos-containing brake parts from its vehicles.[1] On July 29, 2015, after a lengthy period of discovery, Ford moved for summary judgment. Ford argued that Plaintiffs had failed to produce evidence that Mr. Walls had been exposed to any Ford asbestos-containing brake parts, and that it had no duty to warn when third party replacement brake parts were used. The Superior Court granted Ford's motion in part. Relying on its earlier ruling in Bernhardt v. Ford Motor Company, [2] the court held that:

Ford would not be obligated to warn [about] the risk of asbestos exposure from replacement parts that it did not manufacture, even though the plaintiff has argued that Ford vehicles were sold with asbestos components installed and the use of . . . asbestos-containing replacement parts might be foreseeable. The [c]ourt, therefore, will grant in part the [motion] . . . on the failure to warn claim as to any liability for third-party parts. [The court does] believe there's . . . [a] genuine issue [of] material fact as to whether or not those replacement parts . . . were also provided by Ford and, therefore, [summary judgment as to the] failure to warn [claim] is denied.[3]

         (7) The Superior Court conducted a jury trial from June 13, 2016 to June 29, 2016. The jury returned a defense verdict, determining in the special verdict form that Ford was not negligent.[4] Because Ford was not found negligent, the jury did not determine whether exposure to Ford asbestos brake parts caused Mr. Walls' death.

         (8) Plaintiffs appealed only the Superior Court's grant of partial summary judgment to Ford, where the Superior Court found as a matter of law that Ford had no duty to warn of the dangers posed by brake parts supplied by third parties. "We review the Superior Court's grant of summary judgment de novo to determine whether, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, the moving party has demonstrated that there ...


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