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,
FORD MOTOR COMPANY, Defendants Below, Appellees.
Submitted: April 5, 2017
Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware C.A. No.
VALIHURA, VAUGHN, and SEITZ, Justices.
COLLINS J. SEITZ, JR. JUSTICE
21st day of April, 2017, upon consideration of
oral argument, the briefs, and the record below, it appears
to the Court that:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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,  the court held
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.
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. Because Ford was not found negligent, the
jury did not determine whether exposure to Ford asbestos
brake parts caused Mr. Walls' death.
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 ...