A California Court of Appeal recently issued an interesting decision affirming summary judgments for two asbestos defendants on product identification grounds, but reversing a summary judgment that had been awarded to a third defendant on “sophisticated user” grounds.

Collin v. CalPortland Co. (C063875, C065180, certified for publication July 30, 2014) affirmed summary judgment for CalPortland. The company sold two cements during the same time period: one called plastic cement that did not contain asbestos, and a second product called Colton gun plastic cement that did contain asbestos. Both were packaged and used similarly, the only difference being the one with asbestos was labeled Colton gun plastic cement. The plaintiff argued that even though he couldn’t recall the word “gun” on the packaging, the similarities between the two products were sufficient to raise an issue of fact. The court said this was speculative, rejecting the plaintiff’s product similarity argument. “Plaintiff does not claim that further discovery may produce evidence of exposure to Colton gun plastic cement, as opposed to the asbestos-free plastic cement. … [¶] Although a party may rely on reasonable inferences drawn from direct and circumstantial evidence to satisfy its burden on summary judgment, we do not draw inferences from thin air.”

Collin also affirmed summary judgment for Kaiser Gypsum. The plaintiff testified he saw Kaiser Gypsum pre-mixed joint compound at construction sites from the 1950s to 1995, but could not pinpoint any particular year. Kaiser submitted evidence that it started selling asbestos containing pre-mixed joint compound in 1959, began selling an asbestos-free joint compound in 1974, and stopped selling products with asbestos by early 1976. The plaintiff argued that based on probabilities, there was a greater than 50 percent chance that the joint compound he encountered contained asbestos, since Kaiser Gypsum used asbestos for the first 17 years of his work history (1959-1974) and asbestos-free only for a couple of years thereafter. Collin said this was speculative and rejected the plaintiff’s probability argument.

Collin reversed the grant of summary judgment to J-M Manufacturing Co. and Formosa Plastics Corporation USA (alleged alter egos and makers of Transite pipe). These defendants argued that the plaintiff was a sophisticated user because he owned two construction businesses; had obtained information from the Contractors State License Board that working with asbestos products could be hazardous; and from 1976-1980, he saw notices specific for asbestos posted at job sites. Collin found this insufficient to bar liability under the sophisticated user defense. Unlike the HVAC technician in Johnson v. American Standard, there was no evidence that the plaintiff had specialized knowledge or training with regard to Transite pipe, or ever read a material safety data sheet (MSDS) concerning Transite. There was no expert testimony that the plaintiff should have known of the dangers associated with Transite pipe, nor did the plaintiff recall ever seeing any warnings about the dangers of asbestos on any Transite pipe.

This is a hopeful decision on product identification grounds, and another in a series of California cases finding the sophisticated user defense inapplicable. It came from the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District (Sacramento), which is a less frequent venue for asbestos cases than the First (San Francisco) and Second (Los Angeles) Districts.