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September 2020

Proposed Changes to California Asbestos Jury Instructions on Causation

The Advisory Committee on California Civil Jury Instructions is considering changes to many instructions, including two on causation: CACI 435 (substantial factor in asbestos cases) and CACI 430 (substantial factor generally).

CACI 430, applicable in tort actions generally, defines “substantial factor” as “more than a remote or trivial factor” in contributing to the harm, which “does not have to be the only cause of the harm.”

CACI 435 is modeled on Rutherford v. Owens-Illinois, Inc. (1997) 16 Cal.4th 953, and provides that the “substantial factor” is not to be determined by causing harm, but a substantial factor contributing to plaintiff’s “risk of developing cancer.”

Two issues are addressed by the proposed changes: (1) whether CACI 435 applies to defendants other than manufacturers or suppliers of asbestos-containing products, such as property owners or those doing work at a site, and (2) whether in some asbestos cases the more traditional, cause-of-harm CACI 430 may be used.

The proposed changes would answer both in ways that help plaintiffs, and expand liability risk for some defendants. First, the proposed changes to CACI 435 will add “property” and “operations” to “product” as a possible source of asbestos exposure. The proposal cites Lopez v. The Hillshire Brands Co. (2019) 41 Cal.App.5th 679, 688, which ruled that CACI 435 was proper for claims against an employer/premises owner for asbestos at the site, even though not a manufacturer or supplier but rather a user of the product. Lopez reasoned that the point of CACI 435 was to focus on the risk of developing cancer from asbestos, and that the same considerations applied whether or not the defendant was a product manufacturer. Further, Lopez ruled that CACI No. 430’s terms “remote and trivial” are misleading and may confuse jurors: “jury instructions therefore should not suggest that a long latency period … precludes an otherwise sufficient asbestos claim.” The concern seems misplaced: there is no reason to assume jurors are incapable of understanding the concept of latency.

The proposed changes build on Lopez and would not only extend CACI 435 to non-manufacturers, but would drop from the “directions for use” contrary authority, and a reference that the issue was “was not settled.” Potentially worse, they would assert that CACI 430 may never be given in an asbestos case, whether or not in conjunction with CACI 435.

Complicating the problem: even the existing CACI 435 does not faithfully reflect Rutherford, which addresses “a substantial factor in contributing to the aggregate dose of asbestos the plaintiff or decedent inhaled or ingested” (emphasis in original). The existing instruction refers to a substantial factor contributing to the risk of cancer, without grounding that medical opinion (as did Rutherford) in comparative dose. The difference is particularly significant for defendants with minimal or low-dose exposure in cases where there is abundant alternative exposure (e.g., one home remodel job but a lifetime career working near asbestos insulation). GRSM and other defense attorneys have attempted in vain to get this instruction to reflect its source authority.

The proposals and directions for public comment can be found by clicking here. Comments are due September 2, 2020. Pending that comment period, the changes are due to become effective November 15, 2020.

Environmental/Toxic Tort

Angela M. Hampton



Environmental/Toxic Tort