Granting of Summary Judgment to Defendant Shipping Companies Overturned in Maritime Action, Based on Negligence Standard in Jones Act
In this case brought under the Jones Act, 46 U.S.C.A. 30104, the decedent, Earl Criswell, was allegedly exposed to asbestos during his time as a Merchant Marine aboard various defendants’ vessels. The appellees, Atlantic Richfield Company and Sunoco, Inc. were both granted summary judgment. The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the lower court failed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and applied the wrong standard for negligence under the Jones Act. The appellate court agreed with the plaintiff’s arguments and overturned the granting of summary judgment to both defendants.
Before ruling on the issues at hand, the superior court set forth how the commonwealth has concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts to try actions brought under the Jones Act. The appellate court then went on to disagree with the lower court’s finding that the plaintiff had failed to establish exposure to asbestos sufficient to have caused his lung cancer. The appellate court found the trial court to be in error of its finding that the only evidence produced by the plaintiff to establish the decedent’s exposure to asbestos was the decedent’s testimony that he assumed the materials he worked with and around contained asbestos, because they could withstand high temperatures. As noted by the appellate court, the lower court completely overlooked other portions of the decedent’s testimony where he testified to working with asbestos insulation aboard both Atlantic and Sunoco vessels. As the court stated in its ruling against Atlantic: “Inexplicably, the trial court ignored this clear evidence of exposure to asbestos. Viewing it in the light most favorable to Criswell, and resolving all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact against Atlantic, we conclude that this is evidence of Decedent’s exposure to asbestos on Atlantic’s ships.”
Regarding the negligence standard, the lower court incorrectly held that the plaintiff must establish that a product was a substantial factor in causing the injury he suffered. As stated by the appellate court: “This is incorrect. To prove causation under the Jones Act, a plaintiff need only prove ‘whether the employer’s negligence played any part, however slight, in causing the injury.’”(citations omitted). The appellate court found that the plaintiff met the more relaxed Jones Act standard through the decedent’s testimony and the expert report of Dr. Arthur Frank, where he opined: “Decedent developed asbestos-related pleural disease, called by some pleural asbestosis, based upon the prior history of exposures [to asbestos] as well as the radiographic findings. Secondly, and more importantly, he developed and then died from lung carcinoma that was caused by his exposures in combination with his habit of cigarette smoking. The cumulative exposures he had to asbestos, from any and all products, containing and [sic] any fiber type, would have given rise to these two conditions.”
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