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Wallace & Gale Asbestos Settlement Trust v. Busch

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

September 26, 2018

WALLACE & GALE ASBESTOS SETTLEMENT TRUST
v.
WILLIAM EDWARD BUSCH, JR., ET UX.

          Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-X-16-000151

          Kehoe, Berger, Beachley, JJ.

          OPINION

          BERGER, JUDGE

         Following a 14-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City in favor of William Edward Busch, Jr. ("Busch"), appellee, and his wife Kathleen.[1] The jury found that Busch suffered from mesothelioma caused by exposure to asbestos-containing insulation products installed by Wallace & Gale Co. ("W&G") during the construction of Loch Raven High School ("LRHS"). Busch worked as a steamfitter during the construction of LRHS. W&G was the predecessor to Wallace and Gale Asbestos Settlement Trust ("WGAST"), appellant.

         In this appeal, WGAST presents two questions[2] for our consideration, which we have rephrased as five questions as follows:

I. Whether there was legally sufficient evidence to support a rational inference of causation.
II. Whether the circuit court erred and/or abused its discretion by permitting Busch to introduce evidence relating to the dismissal of McCormick Asbestos Company from the lawsuit.
III. Whether the circuit court erred and/or abused its discretion by permitting Busch to introduce evidence of W&G's insulation work at LRHS during a broader period of time than when Busch actually worked on the site.
IV. Whether the circuit court erred and/or abused its discretion by declining to propound WGAST's requested jury instruction on fiber drift.
V. Whether the circuit court erred and/or abused its discretion in association with its instructions about interrogatory responses and statements in the Complaints. For the reasons explained herein, we shall affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Busch is a 69-year-old retired steamfitter. Busch began working as an apprentice steamfitter in 1967. Throughout his career, Busch worked for Lloyd E. Mitchell, Honeywell Corporation, and J.F. Fischer. At J.F. Fischer, Busch advanced to the position of project manager and department head.

         Busch worked on many construction projects throughout his career, including the construction of Mercy Hospital, a building at the Edgewood Arsenal, the Mercantile Bank & Trust Building in downtown Baltimore, the BlueCross/BlueShield building in Towson, LRHS, the Frederick Towne Mall, the USF&G Building (now the Transamerica Building) in downtown Baltimore, Old Mill High School in Anne Arundel County, and residential projects, among others. As a steamfitter, Busch installed HVAC equipment.

         Busch was employed by Honeywell for thirty years, including during the construction of LRHS. Busch would install thermostats, sensors, relay stations, fan control systems, and automatic temperature control devices. The work performed by Busch generally occurred at the end of construction, when "most of the job sites were pretty much completed and finished." Busch alleged that he was exposed to asbestos at various job sites over the course of his career.[3]

         W&G was a local insulation contractor that sold and installed insulation products, some but not all of which contained asbestos. For example, W&G sold and installed fiberglass and foamglass products, which did not contain asbestos. W&G petitioned for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 1984. In 2002, WGAST was established pursuant to a reorganization plan and was approved by the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maryland.

         McCormick Asbestos Company ("McCormick"), since renamed MCIC, Inc., was another local insulation contractor and a competitor of W&G. MCIC was a party to the lawsuit below, but was dismissed by the plaintiffs one month before trial.

         The specific construction project at which Busch asserts he was exposed to asbestos-containing products installed by W&G is the LRHS project. While employed by Honeywell, Busch worked on the construction of LRHS for three to four months in the late winter and early spring of 1972. Busch worked mostly in the school's boiler room, near two large fifteen-foot by twenty-foot boilers. Busch testified that during the time period that he was working in the boiler room, he was exposed to a "snow storm" of visible dust created when blocks of insulation were cut, stacked around the boilers, and covered with cement.

         The building specifications for LRHS required that magnesia blocks be used to insulate the boilers. Busch presented evidence at trial that, in 1972, magnesia block contained up to 15% asbestos by weight. Abatement records from the Baltimore County Public Schools were introduced to show that the block used to insulate boilers at LRHS contained asbestos. Additional evidence was presented to establish that the cement used to cover the magnesia block also contained asbestos.

         Prior to trial, in response to interrogatories, Busch identified McCormick and Georgia-Pacific, LLC as the source of his asbestos exposure at LRHS. Specifically, Busch averred that during the construction of LRHS, he "worked with and around asbestos-containing thermal insulation products sold, supplied and installed by McCormick Asbestos Company (MCIC) and asbestos-containing joint compound manufactured, sold and supplied by Georgia-Pacific LLC." Busch also identified two witnesses with personal knowledge of his exposure in his interrogatory responses: Richard Huettel and Howard Sheppard. At his deposition, Busch testified that he did not know the employer of the insulators around whom he had worked at LRHS.

         At trial, Busch testified that he did not have any recollection of who employed the insulators during the LRHS construction project. Huettel testified at trial that McCormick was the company responsible for insulation of the boilers at LRHS. Sheppard's 2007 deposition was presented as testimony at trial. Sheppard also testified that McCormick employed the pipe insulators at LRHS. Neither Huettel nor Sheppard identified W&G as the party responsible for insulation in the boiler room at LRHS.

         Other evidence was presented at trial to demonstrate that W&G performed insulation work at LRHS. A partial billing statement was sent by W&G to mechanical contractor Poole & Kent Co. ("Poole") for "Job #5679" on February 16, 1972. The document provided that W&G had "insulated various plumbing, heating and ventilating surfaces" at LRHS in connection with Job #5679. A second "partial billing" was sent on May 15, 1972 for work on the same project. The partial billings reflect that the value of Job #5679 was $145, 250.00, but the invoices sent by W&G to Poole that were entered into evidence at trial totaled less than $20, 000.00.

         Time sheets for individual insulators employed by W&G for work performed at LRHS in association with Job #5679 were also admitted into evidence. The time sheets establish that W&G insulators worked at LRHS during the February - June 1972 time period. The time sheets indicate that W&G insulators worked on Job #5679 at LRHS for over 4, 500 man-hours during that time period.

         WGAST acknowledged at trial that W&G insulators performed work during the construction of LRHS, but contended that no evidence had been presented to show that W&G insulators worked with asbestos-containing products at LRHS. Invoices, order forms, and delivery ticket shipment records were introduced into evidence referencing "Foam Glass" pipe covering material, "FG PC" [fiberglass pipe covering material], "Powerhouse cement," and "Glass Board FSK Facing." It was not disputed that "FG" is an abbreviation for fiberglass and that "Powerhouse cement" does not contain asbestos.

         The construction specifications for LRHS required that piping be "insulated with one (1") thickness Fiberglass Standard PF sectional pipe covering." "Condensate return piping" was required to "be insulated with 3/4" thick low pressure Fiberglass with dual temperature jacket." Chilled water supply was to be insulated with "flexible foam plastic insulation." With respect to equipment insulation, the construction specifications provided that "[a]ll heating-ventilating and heating-air conditioning units shall be insulated with 1-1/2" fiberglass."

         The only documentary evidence introduced directly connecting W&G to the boiler room was a "partial billing" for Job #5679 sent by W&G on February 16, 1972 to A.C. MacDonald, Inc., for work performed "to insulate fire lines in boiler room." The construction specifications for LRHS provided that "foamglass" insulation would be used for the insulation of fire lines. Neither fiberglass nor foamglass contain asbestos or cause mesothelioma.

         The construction specifications required asbestos-containing insulation of the boilers themselves, providing that "[t]he boilers shall be insulated with 1-1/2" thickness Magnesia blocks, secured with hexagonal wire mesh and finished with two coats of asbestos cement troweled smooth." Indeed, Busch testified that he was exposed to dust when the block insulation and cement were installed during the insulation of the two boilers. No direct evidence was presented specifically connecting W&G to the supply and/or installation of magnesia block insulation. Busch introduced evidence at trial to demonstrate that the sawing of magnesia insulation blocks in the boiler room was a contributing factor to Busch's mesothelioma.

         Initially, Busch brought suit against seven defendants seeking damages for his occupational exposure to asbestos-containing products and subsequent development of mesothelioma. The case proceeded to trial against four defendants involving eight different worksites. By the close of the plaintiffs' case, only three defendants remained, and only two defendants remained by the close of evidence. The circuit court denied WGAST's motion for judgment at the end of the plaintiffs' case and renewed motion for judgment at the close of evidence.

         The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs against both defendants, WGAST and Georgia-Pacific. The jury found in the defendants' favor with respect to their cross-claims against two former defendants. The jury awarded the plaintiffs a total of $14, 568, 528.33 in damages, [4] which was subsequently reduced to $7, 284, 264.17 by the circuit court due to the cross-claims against the absent defendants. WGAST moved for JNOV, a new trial, and, in the alternative, remittitur. The circuit court denied WGAST's motions. WGAST noted a timely appeal. Georgia-Pacific noted an appeal as well, but subsequently settled with the plaintiffs.

         Additional facts shall be discussed as necessitated by our discussion of the issues on appeal.

         DISCUSSION

         I.

         WGAST first argues that the circuit court erred by denying its motion for judgment on the basis that Busch failed to present legally sufficient evidence to support a rational inference of causation. We review a trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion for judgment applying the de novo standard of review. DeMuth v. Strong, 205 Md.App. 521, 547 (2012). "In the trial of a civil action, if, from the evidence adduced that is most favorable to the plaintiff, a reasonable finder of fact could find the essential elements of the cause of action by a preponderance standard, the issue is for the jury to decide, and a motion for judgment should not be granted." Id. (citation omitted).

         In an asbestos case, a plaintiff seeking recovery must show that his or her exposure to the asbestos-containing product was a substantial factor in the development of his injury. See Eagle-Picher Industries, Inc. v. Balbos, 326 Md. 179, 210 (1992). Busch, who worked in close proximity to insulation contractors but did not himself perform insulation work, is what the Court of Appeals has "termed a 'bystander,' in that he did not work directly with the asbestos products but was in the vicinity of where such products were used." Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. Garrett, 343 Md. 500, 526 (1996). A plaintiff seeking damages for exposure to asbestos as a bystander "must prove that [the appellees'] products were a substantial causative factor in his illness and ultimate death." Id. The Court of Appeals set forth the "frequency, proximity, and regularity" test for substantial factor causation in Balbos, supra:

Whether the exposure of any given bystander to any particular supplier's product will be legally sufficient to permit a finding of substantial-factor causation is fact specific to each case. The finding involves the interrelationship between the use of a defendant's product at the workplace and the activities of the plaintiff at the workplace. This requires an understanding of the physical characteristics of the workplace and of the relationship between the activities of the direct users of the product and the bystander plaintiff. Within that context, the factors to be evaluated include the nature of the product, the frequency of its use, the proximity, in distance and in time, of a plaintiff to the use of a product, and the regularity of the exposure of that plaintiff to the use of that product.

326 Md. at 210-11 (citations omitted) (emphasis added). Balbos requires that the plaintiff prove (1) that the plaintiff was actually exposed to the defendant's asbestos-containing product, and (2) that the exposure was regular, proximate, and frequent. Id. A plaintiff is "required to present evidence of exposure to a 'specific product [made or manufactured by the defendants] on a regular basis, over some extended period of time, in proximity to where the [plaintiff] actually worked.' ...


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