A trial judge in San Francisco refused yesterday to make five major tobacco companies codefendants with GAF Corp. in product-safety lawsuits brought by 201 asbestos workers who smoked cigarettes.
To allow the introduction of tobacco issues in the case "would result in administrative chaos" because it would "effectively destroy . . . efforts . . . to expedite and reduce costs of the asbestos litigation," Superior Court Judge John E. Benson ruled.
The ruling was a setback for GAF, a Wayne, N.J., producer of building materials and chemicals that sold asbestos products between 1967 and 1975. Next week, California state courts in Alameda and Solano counties are scheduled to rule on the same issue in more than 100 similar cases.
GAF is a relatively minor factor in industrywide asbestos litigation, although some 18,000 asbestos workers across the country have sued it.
Starting in late September, GAF filed motions in all three courts to involve the tobacco companies: American Brands, Brown & Williamson, Liggett Group, Philip Morris, and R.J. Reynolds. GAF argued that they should share the financial burdens if it could be shown that smoking had sharply increased the plaintiffs' risks of serious and fatal diseases related to workplace exposure to asbestos, particularly lung cancer, emphysema and asbestosis.
In response, the tobacco companies accused GAF of resorting to a ploy "to impede the prosecution and settlement" of asbestos litigation and cause "an intolerable overload on the judicial system." They pointed out that the defendants designated by the workers themselves were the asbestos makers, not the tobacco companies.
Dismissing the tobacco companies without prejudice, Benson said a ruling for GAF would inject "a significant number" of new, complex, and separate and distinct issues into the asbestos cases, particularly liability, medical causation, and apportionment of responsibility.