Environmental and Toxic Tort Advisor

Delaware High Court Upholds Burden-Shifting Requirement for Summary Judgment in Asbestos Cases Under Delaware Law

March 31, 2022

Donald R. Kinsley

Wilmington

The Delaware Supreme Court ruled on March 28, 2022, that Delaware’s burden-shifting requirement, known as “Stigliano,” for deciding summary judgment is a “proper framework” in asbestos exposure cases, however, the particular facts of the case warranted denial of summary judgment for the Defendant, and therefore reversed the trial court decision.

The case before the Court involved a deceased Plaintiff who had used an arc grinder in performing brake shoe work in the 1970s in the state of Washington. The evidence led to an inference that two of the brake products the Plaintiff had used, Wagner and Bendix, were asbestos-containing brakes for several years in the early 1970s, therefore Plaintiff had satisfied her burden to survive summary judgment. Thus the Court reversed the granting of summary judgment for Hennessy, successor to AMMCO, the arc grinder manufacturer.

The burden-shifting requirement stems from a 2006 letter opinion from then-Superior Court Judge Joseph Slights in granting a motion on summary judgment for Westinghouse (CBS Corp.), which made welding rods, some that did and some that did not contain asbestos. Judge Slights stated:

When the record reveals that a defendant manufactured both asbestos-containing and non-asbestos-containing versions of a product during the time period of alleged exposure, in the absence of evidence directly or circumstantially linking the plaintiff to the asbestos-containing product, the Court cannot draw the inference of exposure and summary judgment on product nexus must be granted.

Stigliano v. Westinghouse, No. CIV.A 05C-06-0263ASB, 2006 WL 3026171, at *1 (Del. Super. Ct. Oct. 18, 2006)

In addition to upholding the Stigliano decision as a proper framework to apply Rule 56 to product identification disputes in asbestos exposure cases, the  Court disagreed with Appellant/Plaintiff’s arguments that under Stigliano’s burden-shifting framework, Plaintiff is required to show exclusive use of defendant’s product to defeat summary judgment. The Court said that the Stigliano framework does not require showing exclusive use of a defendant’s asbestos-containing product, “[a]t most, the Superior Court has expanded Stigliano to different factual circumstances where product identification arises.”

The Delaware high court also held that even though the arc grinder itself does not contain asbestos, “[t]o trigger the duty to warn, [Appellant/Plaintiff] must show by direct or circumstantial evidence that [Appellant/Plaintiff’s Decedent] was exposed to asbestos dust when using the arc grinder, and the dust came from grinding asbestos-containing brake drum shoes.”  Further, the Court held that the Stigliano framework does not conflict with Washington law, the applicable substantive law of the case.

The Delaware Supreme Court held:

“Under Stigliano—and as required by Rule 56—the defendant has the initial burden. It must show that it manufactured an asbestos-containing and an asbestos-free product at the time of alleged exposure. If the defendant makes this showing, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show through direct or circumstantial evidence that a genuine issue of material fact exists whether the plaintiff was exposed to defendant’s asbestos-containing product. The Superior Court’s Stigliano decision and its burden-shifting framework in asbestos product identification disputes are consistent with Rule 56 and its focus on identifying the absence of genuine issues of material fact about the plaintiff’s exposure to a defendant’s asbestos-containing product.”

Droz v. Hennessy Ind., LLC, Del., Case No. 211,2021 (March 28, 2022).


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