Retroactive Strict Liability Applied in Mesothelioma Case

Strict Liability Retroactively Applied to Mesothelioma Case, Washington Supreme Court

On June 4, 2009, the Washington State Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ruled that strict product liability applied retroactively in a case where asbestos exposure occurred prior to Washington State’s adoption of strict product liability law under the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A. The decision, in the case of Ronald and Esther Lunsford v. Saberhagen Holdings, affirmed the prior ruling of the Washington State Court of Appeals, and remanded the case for trial.

Ronald and Esther Lunsford filed a defective product claim against Saberhagen Holdings, Inc. in the King County Superior Court. Mr. Lunsford suffers from mesothelioma, a form of cancer linked specifically to asbestos exposure. Lunsford contends that his mesothelioma was caused, in part, by respirable asbestos released from insulation supplied by the Brower Company, a predecessor of Saberhagen Holdings, Inc., and carried home on the clothing of Lunsford’s father. The trial court had granted summary judgment to Saberhagen on the grounds that Lunsford was not a “user” of the insulation. In a prior appeal, the Court of Appeal had reversed that decision finding that Lunsford was a “user” if his exposure was reasonably foreseeable.

On remand, Saberhagen again sought and obtained summary judgment claiming that strict liability could not apply in this case because the exposure occurred before the Washington Supreme Court adopted the principle of strict liability law. The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court, holding that new principles of law apply retroactively unless specifically stated otherwise. Saberhagen sought further review from the Supreme Court.

In its decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal decision and found that the adoption of strict liability law in Washington was a legal principle that applied retroactively. The court affirmed that the application of a new rule of law applies both retroactively and prospectively unless the decision announcing the new rule makes it applicable only prospectively. Once the decision has been applied to the parties before the court, it is to be applied to all cases in the future whether they arose before or after the adoption of the new rule. From that, it follows that strict liability applies to Lunsford’s case as well. The court remanded the case to the trial court for further action consistent with the decision.

Brayton Purcell LLP represented the Lunsford’s at trial and on appeal. They were joined on the appeal by Phil Talmadge of Talmadge/Fitzpatrick in Tukwila, WA.