Ohio High Court Ruling Tosses Out Another Asbestos Claim

October 28, 2008

The Ohio Supreme Court delivered a second blow to people seeking damages in asbestos-related cases October 22, throwing out a widow’s claim that a company that insulated the pipes at her husband’s workplace shared responsibility for his death.

In a 5-2 ruling, the court said that its 1977 decision extending liability for defective products from manufacturers to suppliers should not be applied to events that took place before the ruling.

Writing for the majority, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton said the U.S. Supreme Court laid out a three-prong test for judging whether legal interpretations could be applied retroactively and this case failed the test.

One part of the test is whether extending a court ruling into the past would promote the intent of the decision, which in the 1977 case was to encourage product safety.

“Products containing asbestos have not been manufactured or sold for approximately 30 years,” Lundberg Stratton wrote. “The time for making these products safer has come and gone.”

The case involved Joseph DiCenzo, a longtime Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Co. worker who developed asbestos-related health problems and died in 1993. DiCenzo’s widow sought damages from more than 80 defendants, including a Pennsylvania company, George V. Hamilton Inc., that supplied Wheeling-Pitt with asbestos-containing pipe coverings during the 1950s.

The company couldn’t have predicted that decades later it would be liable for injuries caused by products he sold in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Lundberg Stratton wrote.

“Imposing such a potential financial burden on these nonmanufacturing suppliers years after the fact for an obligation that was not foreseeable at the time would result in a great inequity,” she said.

In a separate ruling last week, the Ohio Supreme Court restricted people’s ability to pursue asbestos claims filed before a 2004 law took effect that set a higher bar of proof. The decision led Cuyahoga County judges to toss about 30,000 pending asbestos injury claims.

Critics painted the earlier ruling as a victory for big insurance and manufacturing companies over workers, while defenders said it would rid the Ohio courts of thousands of ungrounded lawsuits.

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and Justice Paul Pfeifer dissented in both cases, Moyer without comment. All seven members of the court are Republicans.

Pfeifer disparaged the October 22nd decision as “unheard of,” accusing fellow justices of making a mockery of the case law.

He said the ruling changes the rules of the game for many families who believed they had legitimate asbestos-related claims.

It leaves Ohioans asking what the law is, he wrote.

Pfeifer said the justices who held suppliers liable for defective products in the 1977 Temple v. Wean United Inc. case didn’t exempt suppliers in other cases from the ruling’s effects, so they must have known it would be broadly applied.

“For decades, anyone, especially defendant-suppliers involved in asbestos-injury cases, would have believed that the decision in Temple was retroactive,” Pfeifer wrote. “That logical belief, rooted in the stability of this court’s decision, is now torn asunder.”

Ohio Supreme Court: http://www.sconet.oh.us

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