Estes v. Eaton Corp.

Decision Date29 June 2020
Docket NumberA152847
Citation265 Cal.Rptr.3d 202,51 Cal.App.5th 636
Parties Norman ESTES, Plaintiff, Respondent and Cross-Appellant, v. EATON CORPORATION, Defendant, Appellant and Cross-Respondent.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Squire Patton Boggs, David M. Rice, San Francisco, and Chassica Soo, Los Angeles, for Defendant, Appellant, and Cross-respondent.

Brayton Purcell, Alan R. Brayton, Richard M. Grant, Lloyd F. LeRoy and James P. Nevin, Novato, for Plaintiff, Respondent, and Cross-appellant.

STEWART, J.

In this asbestos-related personal injury lawsuit, a jury returned a defense verdict for an electrical component manufacturer and the trial court then granted the plaintiff a new trial on the ground of insufficient evidence. The manufacturer, Eaton Corporation (Eaton), now appeals the new trial order on multiple grounds and the plaintiff, Norman Estes (now deceased), by and through his successor Dionne Estes ("Estes"), has protectively cross-appealed from the judgment, arguing the jury's verdict is unsupported by substantial evidence.

We reverse the order granting a new trial because the trial court's explanation of its reasons for granting a new trial is not sufficient under Code of Civil Procedure section 657, and we reject Estes's substantial evidence challenge to the jury's verdict exonerating Eaton of liability for his mesothelioma. Accordingly, the judgment will be reinstated and affirmed.

BACKGROUND

For nearly a decade, Norman Estes worked for the Navy as an electrician in two Bay Area naval shipyards, Hunters Point Naval Shipyard (from approximately 1966 to 1973) and then after Hunters Point closed down, Mare Island Naval Shipyard (for about a year, until 1974). Later, he developed asbestos-related mesothelioma.

It is undisputed that Estes's work in the shipyards in that era exposed him to what quite literally has been described as "snowstorms" of asbestos dust, from both his own work and a wide variety of maintenance and repair activities carried out in his vicinity by other shipyard workers. Estes stipulated he was exposed to asbestos-containing products manufactured or supplied to the Navy by approximately fifty companies. In this lawsuit, he also claimed he was exposed to harmful levels of asbestos contained in a product manufactured by another Navy supplier, Eaton's predecessor, Cutler-Hammer, Inc. Among other parts it supplied to the Navy, Cutler-Hammer manufactured an electrical component called an "arc shute" (or "arc shield"), a part resembling a hood or cover installed above electrical contacts to prevent current from jumping and causing sparks or electrical shorts. Estes contended he had been exposed to asbestos dust from Cutler-Hammer arc shutes at both Hunters Point and Mare Island when he and other electricians would clean them.

It is undisputed that Cutler-Hammer arc shutes contained asbestos. Eaton, though, contended Estes couldn't prove he ever worked with Cutler-Hammer's arc shutes (as opposed to arc shutes manufactured by other suppliers); and even if he did, that cleaning them would not release toxic levels of asbestos (because the asbestos was encapsulated in a hard plastic resin); and finally, that even if Estes was exposed to asbestos from Cutler-Hammer arc shutes, that exposure was minimal and paled in comparison to his exposure to asbestos from dozens of other sources and did not increase his risk of developing mesothelioma at all, much less was it a substantial factor in increasing that risk.

The case against Eaton proceeded to a three-week jury trial. Estes presented five expert witnesses on liability, one damages expert and four lay witnesses. Eaton presented the testimony of one expert witness, who was on the stand for two days, and one lay witness. Both parties also presented deposition testimony of several other witnesses, including Mr. Estes.

The jury deliberated less than a day, returning a verdict the same day it was instructed. It found there was no design defect in Cutler-Hammer asbestos-containing products; there was no failure to warn of any defects in such products; and Cutler-Hammer1 was not negligent. It did not reach questions on the verdict form asking whether Cutler-Hammer's conduct was a substantial factor in causing Estes's injury.

Judgment was entered in Eaton's favor, and Estes then moved both for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and for a new trial. The new trial motion asserted two grounds: juror misconduct and insufficiency of the evidence.

The trial court denied Estes's JNOV motion, because Eaton "presented evidence that the asbestos was encapsulated in the arc shutes. Although asbestos fibers would be released when work was done on the arc shutes, the asbestos fibers released were at ambient levels."

The court granted the new trial motion. We quote its ruling in full: "On a motion for new trial, the court may weigh all of the evidence, and after doing so, based on the entire record, find that the jury should have reached a different verdict. The court may draw reasonable inferences and resolve conflicts in the evidence that are contrary to the conclusions drawn by the jury. [¶] Upon weighing the evidence in this case under these standards, the court finds plaintiff presented sufficient credible evidence that he worked with arc chutes manufactured and supplied by Cutler-Hammer; the arc chutes contained asbestos; asbestos fibers from the arc chutes were released during plaintiff's work with them; and the levels of fibers released posed a hazard to plaintiff, and may have been a substantial factor in causing injury to him. The evidence submitted by Eaton was not sufficient to rebut this evidence submitted by plaintiff. Therefore, the court finds there was insufficient evidence for the jury to find, as it did, that there was no design defect, no failure to warn, and no negligence on the part of Eaton in this case."

These appeals followed.

DISCUSSION
I.The Trial Court's Explanation of Its Reasons for Granting a New Trial Is Insufficient.

Eaton challenges the order granting a new trial on three grounds, but it is necessary to address only the first. Eaton argues the order must be reversed because the trial court did not comply with its mandatory, statutory duty to adequately explain its reasoning. We agree.

When a trial court grants a new trial, it is required under section 657 of the Code of Civil Procedure to specify both the ground (or grounds) for granting the new trial and "the court's reason or reasons for granting the new trial upon each ground stated." ( Code Civ. Proc. § 657.) "[S]trict compliance" with section 657 is required. ( Oakland Raiders v. National Football League (2007) 41 Cal.4th 624, 634, 61 Cal.Rptr.3d 634, 161 P.3d 151 ( Oakland Raiders ).) The court's statement of reasons "should be specific enough to facilitate appellate review and avoid any need for the appellate court to rely on inference or speculation." ( Ibid . )

In a line of decisions beginning with Mercer v. Perez (1968) 68 Cal.2d 104, 65 Cal.Rptr. 315, 436 P.2d 315 ( Mercer ), the Supreme Court has explained what this requirement entails when, as here, a new trial is granted on the ground of insufficient evidence. "[T]he trial judge's specification of reasons ‘must briefly identify the portion of the record which convinces the judge "that the court or jury clearly should have reached a different verdict or decision." " ( Stevens v. Parke, Davis & Co. (1973) 9 Cal.3d 51, 60, 107 Cal.Rptr. 45, 507 P.2d 653 ( Stevens ), quoting Mercer , at p. 116, 65 Cal.Rptr. 315, 436 P.2d 315, italics added.) Although the court is not necessarily required to " ‘cite page and line of the record, or discuss the testimony of particular witnesses,’ nor ... undertake ‘a discussion of the weight to be given, and the inferences to be drawn from each item of evidence supporting, or impeaching, the judgment’ " ( Scala v. Jerry Witt & Sons, Inc. (1970) 3 Cal.3d 359, 370, 90 Cal.Rptr. 592, 475 P.2d 864 ( Scala ); see also Miller v. Los Angeles County Flood Control Dist. (1973) 8 Cal.3d 689, 697, 106 Cal.Rptr. 1, 505 P.2d 193 ( Miller )), it "must briefly recite the respects in which [the court] finds the evidence to be legally inadequate." ( Mercer , supra , 68 Cal.2d at p. 116, 65 Cal.Rptr. 315, 436 P.2d 315.) This level of specificity is required "in order to serve the twofold purpose of the specification requirement: encouraging careful deliberation by the trial court before ruling on a motion for new trial, and making a record sufficiently precise to permit meaningful appellate review." ( Miller , at p. 697, 106 Cal.Rptr. 1, 505 P.2d 193.) "[T]he trial court is required to state in its order the theory under which it concludes the jury should have returned a verdict for the moving party, and the order must be sustained on appeal unless the opposing party demonstrates that no reasonable finder of fact could have found for the movant on that theory.... [¶] An abuse of discretion cannot be found in cases in which the evidence is in conflict and a verdict for the moving party could have been reached under the theory expressed in the order for a new trial ." ( Jones v. Citrus Motors Ontario, Inc. (1973) 8 Cal.3d 706, 710-711, 106 Cal.Rptr. 28, 505 P.2d 220, italics added.)

The Supreme Court has reiterated time and again, "[t]he statement of reasons must refer to evidence, not ultimate facts."2 ( Oakland Raiders , supra , 41 Cal.4th at p. 635, 61 Cal.Rptr.3d 634, 161 P.3d 151 ; see also Scala , supra , 3 Cal.3d at p. 367, 90 Cal.Rptr. 592, 475 P.2d 864 [court must "briefly identify the deficiencies he finds in ‘the evidence’ or ‘the record’ or ... ‘the proof’—rather than merely in ‘the issues’ or ‘the ultimate facts’ "].) That is because simply explaining that a party has proved, or failed to prove, ultimate facts as to which it bore the burden is just another way of repeating the ground for the order granting a new trial: that the verdict is not supported by...

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