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Circumstantial Evidence of Decedent’s Development of Asbestosis and Alleged Resulting Death and Damages Sufficient to Overcome Summary Judgment U.S. District Court for the District of Utah, April 9, 2015

In this case, the plaintiff, a personal representative of the heirs of the decedent, Aaron Anderson, brought negligence and product liability claims under Utah’s survival and wrongful death statutes for the decedent’s development of asbestosis and death. The defendant, General Cable, moved for summary judgment on four grounds: lack of evidence that the decedent’s injury and death were caused by their product; there is no evidence that the decedent died of asbestosis; the plaintiff cannot prove damages; and in the alternative to complete dismissal, summary judgment capping damages.
 
Regarding the lack of evidence argument, the court applied Utah’s “substantial factor” test and found the circumstantial evidence, the plaintiff's testimony regarding the use of thousands of wires including General Cable wires, and the plaintiff’s expert’s declaration that the decedent’s work likely exposed him to asbestos levels above ambient levels, was sufficient to overcome summary judgment.
 
As held by the court: “...construing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the Court finds that a reasonable jury could find in favor of Plaintiff on this issue. Admittedly, Plaintiff's evidence is thin, but the Court will allow the jury to determine whether Mr. Anderson was exposed to asbestos through General Cable's products and whether that exposure was a substantial factor in causing his alleged injuries and death." General Cable's argument that there was no evidence that asbestosis caused decedent's death was based on its expert's opinion that decedent's death was actually caused by cardiovascular disease. However, plaintiff's expert opined that decedent's 40 years of electrical work caused his asbestosis, which contributed to his death. Based on the conflicting expert reports, the court denied the argument, stating: "Based on this evidence, there remains a genuine question of fact as to whether Mr. Anderson's asbestosis was a substantial factor in his death. Therefore, the Court will not grant summary judgment on this issue.”

On the damages issue, General Cable argued that the decedent did not support any of his heirs and, because of his age at death, none of his heirs could expect a prolonged relationship. The court found that the plaintiff did not need expert testimony on this issue and held: “Although Plaintiff has not presented expert testimony of damages, Plaintiff is able to point to some evidence of damages. Specifically, Plaintiff claims, ‘Decedent's heirs have sustained pecuniary loss resulting from the loss of care, society, comfort, attention, services, and support of Decedent all to the damage of Decedent's heirs.’ Plaintiff can present evidence of these damages through the testimony of Mr. Anderson's heirs. Therefore, the Court will not grant summary judgment on this issue.”

The court also denied General Cable’s alternative argument that Utah statute capped the survivorship claims. As held by the court: “The statute states that if 'the injured person dies as a result of a cause other than the injury received' then the damages cap is imposed. In this case, it is yet to be determined whether Mr. Anderson's asbestosis was a substantial factor in his death. The Court, therefore, will not grant summary judgment on this issue. This issue can be addressed through jury instructions or post-trial motions.”

Read the full decision here. 

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