Earlier this week, New York’s highest court effectively endorsed the “Forsterite defense” for chrysotile in friction products. By a 4-1 decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court order setting aside a jury verdict on the basis of plaintiffs’ failure to prove causation. In Juni v. A.O. Smith Water Products, the court ruled that plaintiffs’ expert evidence “was insufficient as a matter of law to establish that respondent Ford Motor Company’s conduct was a proximate cause of the decedent’s injuries.”
The majority opinion is sparse, only two sentences and sixty-eight words long. A concurring opinion by Judge Wilson, however, is more enlightening. Judge Wilson held that while there was no dispute that raw chrysotile asbestos carries increased risk of mesothelioma, plaintiffs did not submit any proof that chrysotile asbestos, as contained in Ford’s friction products, posed any causal relationship to disease. Ford’s experts set forth the “Forsterite defense” – that as a result of high heat in manufacturing and braking, any chrysotile in friction products would be converted into the “biologically inert” substance Forsterite. Plaintiffs did not produce an expert to rebut this opinion. Instead, plaintiff’s own expert conceded that “no one knows whether the friction product dust to which Mr. Juni was exposed when replacing the used products was toxic.”
This decision is a positive development for friction defendants in New York asbestos litigation and elsewhere. It is also authority for the broader proposition that the central issue is whether asbestos as a purported component of another product can cause disease -and not whether asbestos standing alone causes disease. Plaintiffs need to prove the former to establish general causation, and need to prove general causation before they can demonstrate specific causation.
At the same time, the decision emphasized that it was based “on this particular record.” Thus, the decision may be the result of inadequate trial preparation on the plaintiffs’ part rather than some significant shift in asbestos causation law. We expect the plaintiffs’ bar to respond aggressively in working up causation proof in pending and future cases. This may include finding experts who will attempt to dispute the amount of chrysotile converted into Forsterite, or the toxigenic properties of Forsterite.