Supreme Court Finds Manufacturers’ Duty to Warn Sailors Where Asbestos Added Later

By | March 19, 2019

Manufacturers have a duty to warn about potential dangers of parts with asbestos that were later added onto their products by third parties, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

The ruling, in a case involving sailors diagnosed with cancer, says this responsibility is in keeping with maritime law that extends special protections to Navy veterans.

Air & Liquid Systems Corp. and four other manufacturers made equipment for Navy ships that required asbestos parts to function as intended, but the manufacturers did not always incorporate the asbestos into their products. Instead, the Navy later added the asbestos to the equipment. Two Navy veterans, Kenneth McAfee and John DeVries, were exposed to asbestos on the ships and developed cancer. They and their wives sued the manufacturers, alleging that the asbestos exposure caused the cancer and contending that the manufacturers were negligent in failing to warn about the dangers of asbestos in the integrated products.

When used as intended, the equipment can cause the release of asbestos fibers, which if inhaled or ingested may cause various illnesses.

In their defense, the manufacturers raised the “bare-metal defense,” under which they said they should not be held liable for harms caused by later-added third-party parts. The defense refers to the fact that the equipment was delivered in a condition known as “bare-metal.”

In an opinion written by Justice Brent Kavanaugh and joined by five other justices, the high court rejected the manufacturers’ argument in this case. The court held that “in the maritime tort context, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn when its product requires incorporation of a part, the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses, and the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger.”

The court noted that many products can foreseeably be used in numerous ways with numerous other products and parts but that requiring a product manufacturer to imagine and warn about all of those possible uses would be burdensome and costly, while “simultaneously overwarning users.”

At the same time that it rejected this foreseeability rule of liability as too generous to plaintiffs, the court also rejected the bare-metal defense as going too far in the other direction because, the court said, it would mean a business generally has no duty to control the conduct of a third person to prevent physical harm to another.

The Supreme Court said its rule does not require that manufacturers warn in cases of mere foreseeability. The rule requires that manufacturers warn only when their product requires a part in order for the integrated product to function as intended.

The opinion is Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries.

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