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On February 3, 2021, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court’s ruling that granted a summary judgment motion finding plaintiffs failed to submit specific evidence of asbestos exposure necessary to create a genuine issue of material fact. Steib v. Lamorak Ins. Co., et al., 20-0424 (La. App. 4 Cir. 2/3/21). In 2018, Charles Steib (“Mr. Steib”) filed a petition for damages against approximately forty defendants, alleging that he contracted mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos-containing products during work he performed on various premises while employed by various employers across Louisiana as a pipefitter.  Particularly, Mr. Steib alleged he was exposed to asbestos while employed by Parsons Government Services, Inc. (“Parsons”) from 1975 through 1977 when he worked on the initial construction of Marathon Petroleum Company LP’s (“Marathon”) oil refinery in Garyville, Louisiana. Mr. Steib passed away just a few months after filing suit. His surviving spouse and three adult children (collectively the “Plaintiffs”) then substituted themselves as plaintiffs and asserted survival and wrongful death claims.

Following discovery, Parsons filed a motion for summary judgment premised on Plaintiffs’ inability to establish Mr. Steib was exposed to asbestos while working for Parsons at Marathon from 1975 to 1977.  Marathon later joined Parsons’s motion. Plaintiffs opposed the motion and submitted, in part, excerpts from the depositions of Mr. Steib’s co-workers and six individuals deposed in unrelated asbestos cases that Plaintiffs argued established Mr. Steib’s exposure. Following the hearing, the trial court granted summary judgment and dismissed both Parsons and Marathon. The trial court did not file a written judgment, instead it issued oral reasons in which it found there was a “dearth of evidence (sic) from anyone who can definitively place him working, you know, at the facility during that time window.” Plaintiffs appealed.

On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment given the substantial evidence they submitted establishing Mr. Steib’s exposure.[1]  Plaintiffs argued they introduced sufficient evidence that reflected asbestos-containing materials were used during Parsons’s initial construction of the Marathon refinery. Thus, Plaintiffs claimed that since Mr. Steib worked for Parsons on the Marathon refinery construction, this evidence established Mr. Steib was exposed to asbestos.  The Court rejected this argument, stating that even if the Marathon refinery was constructed with some asbestos-containing materials, “evidence of the mere physical presence of asbestos-containing materials at a particular job site in insufficient to defeat an employer’s or premises owner’s summary judgment motion.” Id. at 12. “Simply establishing that asbestos-containing materials were present at some time in some place in Marathon’s refinery is insufficient.” Id. at 13. In order to defeat the defendants’ motion, Plaintiffs “must submit specific evidence showing potential exposure to asbestos-containing materials for which the defendant is responsible.” Id. at 12 (emphasis added). In other words, Plaintiffs were required to present some evidence linking the presence of asbestos-containing materials with the work that Mr. Steib performed for Parsons at Marathon from 1975 to 1977. Such evidence, both sides agreed, could come only from the depositions of Mr. Steib’s former co-workers. The Court of Appeal addressed each co-worker’s testimony separately and ultimately found Plaintiffs could not establish causation.  In short, the Court found that the co-workers lacked personal knowledge of Mr. Steib’s work, offered speculative testimony, failed to provide specific recollections of exposure, or presented such inconsistences that did not create triable issue of fact.

Because Plaintiffs could not present any specific evidence linking the presence of asbestos-containing materials to Mr. Steib’s work, the Court ruled the trial court did not err in granting the summary judgment motion and dismissing Parsons and Marathon.  The opinion reaffirms a plaintiff’s need for specific testimony in order to establish issues of fact necessary to defeat a motion for summary judgment in an asbestos exposure case.

[1] Plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s judgment on both procedural and substantive grounds. This article addresses Plaintiffs’ substantive arguments.

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