Gerald Suttner never lived to see his landmark court victory.

The former pipefitter at General Motor Co.’s engine plant in Tonawanda died at age 77 in 2011, well before New York’s highest court upheld a verdict on behalf of his widow.

The court, in a decision anxiously awaited by industry and business groups across the country, ruled against Crane Co., the Connecticut manufacturer found partially responsible for Suttner’s death. Suttner, who retired from GM in 1996 after more than 30 years of employment, was diagnosed with mesothelioma two years before his death.

A few months after Suttner died, a jury found Crane and several other companies failed to warn him about the risks of working with asbestos-containing replacement parts used in valves at the plant. The jury also awarded $3 million to his family.

“Crane manufactured a product that, when used as intended, put workers at risk for terminal cancer,” John N. Lipsitz, one of Suttner’s lawyers, said in a statement.

Lipsitz compared Crane’s obligations to those of a gas grill manufacturer and its responsibility to warn users about the risk of explosion, even if the grill manufacturer does not sell the replacement propane tanks that fuel them.

The Court of Appeals agreed and upheld the jury verdict against Crane.

In its appeal, Crane argued that it did not have an obligation to warn Suttner and, in a friend of the court brief, the National Association of Manufacturers and Business Council of New York State joined several other national and statewide business groups in asking the court to overturn the verdict.

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Crane, which said it never manufactured asbestos-containing products, says the court ruling creates a new standard for when manufacturers have a duty to warn users about potential hazards.

“We are disappointed by the Court’s ruling, which is in conflict with those made by courts in other states, as well as on the federal level,” the company said in a statement after the ruling.

The appeals court decision upheld a ruling by an appellate court in Rochester, as well as the jury verdict in Buffalo.

Reprinted with permission from The Buffalo News.
Phil Fairbanks – July 10, 2016