High Court Rejects Substantial Contribution Requirement in Lawsuits with Multiple Defendants
ATLANTA -- Georgia's highest court has denied John Crane's appeal of a nearly $2 million verdict, rejecting the asbestos defendant's contention that a plaintiff alleging that multiple defendants proximately caused a plaintiff's injury must also prove that each individual defendant's product was a substantial contributing factor to the alleged injury. John Crane v. Jones, et al., No. S03G1791 (Ga. Sup. Ct.).
In the Nov. 8 opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the plaintiff already must show proximate cause and an additional 'substantial contributing factor' is unnecessary.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Harris Hines said,'[r]efusing to endorse the additional hurdle that each individual tortfeasor's conduct must constitute a 'substantial' contributing factor in the plaintiff's injury in order to be considered a proximate cause thereof will neither subject defendants like John Crane to unjust liability nor open the floodgates of asbestos litigation.'
Plaintiff Robert Jones alleged that he developed mesothelioma because of occupational exposure to asbestos dust generated from products manufactured by John Crane and seven other defendants. He sought damages for negligence and product liability. Jones died a year after filing the lawsuit, which was amended by Jones' widow to add claims of wrongful death and loss of consortium.
A jury awarded nearly $1,975,000 million to Jones' widow, after a trial in which John Crane was the lone defendant.
John Crane appealed the verdict, arguing that the trial court should have instructed the jury that the plaintiff could not recover unless Robert Jones' exposure to John Crane's products was a substantial contributing factor to the his injuries.
According to the Supreme Court Justice Hines, the trial court informed the jury that in order to hold an individual defendant liable, 'the plaintiff must introduce sufficient evidence to allow a jury to find that more than likely, their exposure to a particular defendant's product was a factor in producing their injuries.' The statement was agreed upon by the parties, except for the omission of the word 'substantial,' Justice Hines noted.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the jury was properly charged on proximate cause, but John Crane argued to the Supreme Court that the lower courts had erred, and that the substantial contributing factor formulation is consistent with Georgia law, and is widely used in other jurisdictions.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument.
'As the Court of Appeals noted in its opinion, the charge given by the trial court, which instructed that in order to find proximate cause the individual defendant's tortuous conduct had to be a contributing factor in bringing about the plaintiff's damages, is entirely consistent with established law regarding the concurrent negligence of joint tortfeasors,' Justice Hines wrote for the court.
Justice Hines also explained that Georgia law addresses differing degrees of culpability among joint defendants, and noted that Georgia case law establishes that 'it is sufficient to support a recovery if the negligence of both be a contributing cause, even though one owes to the person injured a higher degree of care, and even though there be differing degrees of negligence by each.'
John Crane contended that the substantial factor formulation should be used in instances 'where one defendant has made a clearly proved but quite insignificant contribution to the result, as where he throws a lighted match into a forest fire.' Ultimately, John Crane argued, the result would have been similar with or without John Crane's contribution.
The Supreme Court rejected that argument, as well.
'As the Court of Appeals concluded, the jury charge at issue would not have misled the jury into believing that it could award damages for a de minimus exposure to asbestos,' Justice Hines said.
'It would be a departure from the analysis to add the requirement that the causal connection must be substantial,' the justice explained. 'Once the term 'substantial factor' is employed in the general negligence law vocabulary, there is the danger that it will be used not only to describe a general approach to the legal cause issue, but will turn into a separate and independent hurdle that the plaintiff will have to overcome in addition to the standard elements of a clam of negligence.'
The Supreme Court also disagreed with John Crane's assertion that the failure to implement the substantial contributing factor formulation will increase the number of asbestos defendants and claims.
'Asbestos litigation is not new, and the absence of a 'substantial contributing factor' formulation has not led to the proliferation of such lawsuits, nor is it likely to do so,' Justice Hines said.
Ollie M. Harton of Hawkins Parnell & Young in Atlanta and Michael A. Pollard of Baker & McKenzie were counsel for John Crane.
Roger B. Lane of Lane & Gossett in Brunswick, Ga., and Dow N. Kirkpatrick II of Alston & Bird in Atlanta represented Jones.
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