BUFFALO, NEW YORK – This week, New York’s highest court upheld a wrongful death verdict on behalf of a Buffalo-area widow who lost her husband to mesothelioma. In a landmark, forty-eight page majority opinion, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam reaffirmed that New York’s longstanding rule that a manufacturer who sells products in New York assumes a serious responsibility to warn end-users about non-obvious dangers of intended uses of its products.
Gerald Suttner spent his career as a pipefitter at the GM Powertrain facility in Tonawanda, New York. His job required him to regularly service industrial valves manufactured by Crane Co. In order to keep the valves in working order, Mr. Suttner had to remove and replace worn-out asbestos gaskets and packing materials, which exposed him to carcinogenic dust.
Crane Co. is a large international corporation which manufactured asbestos-containing industrial valves from the 1850s until the 1980s. The valves in question contained asbestos packing and gaskets at the time of sale, which had to be routinely replaced over the lifetime of the valve. Crane recommended that asbestos-containing replacement parts be used in its valves but did not sell the replacement parts that Mr. Suttner used.
Gerald Suttner was diagnosed with mesothelioma in September 2010 and died as a result of this asbestos-induced cancer in October 2012. In late 2012, a jury in Buffalo, New York, awarded $3,000,000 to the family of Gerald Suttner as compensation for his disease and death caused by the failure of multiple asbestos companies to warn Mr. Suttner about the perils of exposure to asbestos dust he encountered working at General Motors in Tonawanda, beginning in 1960. Crane was found to be 4% responsible for Mr. Suttner’s death.
Crane appealed the verdict, arguing that it did not have any obligation to Mr. Suttner. The Suttner family argued that Crane had a duty to warn her husband that, if he followed their instructions without taking additional safety precautions, he would be exposed to cancer-causing dust.
An appellate court in Rochester disagreed with Crane’s argument and affirmed the decision. Crane then appealed to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals in Albany. The Court heard the case in May, along with Crane’s appeal of a verdict for Ronald Dummitt, a New York City naval veteran.
According to Dennis Harlow, a Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford attorney who briefed the case to the Court of Appeals, “In many respects, this decision is unsurprising, because it reaffirms the same longstanding, New York tort principles recognized by the lower courts. The decision is most significant because it explains those principles and the public policy rationales that inform them in great detail. This decision will be a key guidepost for litigators and academics working in this area for the foreseeable future.”
John Ned Lipsitz, the Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford partner who argued the case to the Court of Appeals, commented: “Crane manufactured a product that, when used as intended, put workers at risk for terminal cancer. It had a duty to warn Mr. Suttner and Mr. Dummitt just as a gas grill manufacturer has a duty to warn about minimizing the risk of explosion, even if the grill manufacturer does not sell the replacement propane cylinders. The Court has reaffirmed the common sense idea that a manufacturer has a duty to warn about the risks inherent in using its product as intended.”
About Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC:
Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC, established in 1995, concentrates its practice in the areas of asbestos disease and lead poisoning litigation, medical malpractice, product liability, personal injury and workers’ compensation matters. The Firm has achieved thousands of settlements and numerous verdicts on behalf of its clients who were harmed by toxic substances. For more information, visit Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford’s website at www.lipsitzponterio.com.