Decedent Hubbard died from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos from asbestos-cement pipe which he experienced when he worked for Fairley Constructors, a contractor specializing in building municipal water systems. Plaintiffs, Hubbard’s wife and children, sued LBL’s client, San Jose Water Company (SJWC). SJWC was defended at trial by LBL Partners Tom LoSavio and Vernice Louie. Tom and Vernice argued that the Privette Doctrine applied (protecting those who employ independent contractors from civil liability to the contractors’ employees who are injured on the job). For the Privette Doctrine to apply it was necessary that SJWC was not negligent. Plaintiffs claimed SJWC was negligent because it failed to warn Fairley about the dangers of working with asbestos-cement pipe.
Trial went forward before Judge Brad Seligman in Alameda Superior Court for 18 days. Tom and Vernice argued that SJWC was not negligent because it was reasonable for SJWC to expect that by November 1974 (when Fairley first started doing work for SJWC) Fairley was already aware of the dangers involved in working with asbestos-cement pipe. They elicited testimony from two Fairley employees who said they knew it was dangerous to breathe dust from asbestos-cement pipe. Tom and Vernice also got testimony from experts (including the plaintiffs’ expert!) that information about the hazards of asbestos had been available in public libraries and that OSHA (a statute requiring employers to provide a safe workplace) served to educate employers like Fairley about the dangers of asbestos dust. The jury agreed and rendered a defense verdict.
Plaintiffs appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict and that the trial court had incorrectly instructed the jury by placing the burden of proof regarding what Fairley knew on plaintiffs rather than on SJWC. LBL Partner Guy Stilson handled the appeal for SJWC. Guy showed that despite contradictions in the witness’ testimony, the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict. Guy also showed that the burden of proving an exception to the Privette Doctrine was properly placed on plaintiffs and there had been no instructional error. The Court of Appeal agreed and issued a decision affirming the judgment in favor of SJWC and awarding costs to SJWC.Meet LBL Partner Guy Stilson