The Supreme Court Adopts a Middle of the Road Approach When Deciding a Manufacturer’s Duty to Warn in the Context of Maritime Tort Asbestosis Cases

John D. Kimball and Noe S. Hamra

 

On March 19, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court in Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries held that, under maritime law, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn of asbestos or other hazardous parts when its own product, although not containing such hazardous parts, requires its later incorporation, and the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated part is likely to be dangerous for its intended use. The Supreme Court’s decision settles a longstanding conflict between federal and state courts regarding the applicable rule in maritime tort cases. Manufacturers of such products must take this ruling into account when evaluating product warnings.

Background

For years, federal and state courts have struggled to find consensus on the applicable rule regarding a manufacturer’s duty to warn of the danger of its products when those products later had dangerous parts added to them. Prior to Devries, courts generally applied one of three approaches.

The first approach, viewed as plaintiff-friendly, relied on mere foreseeability. Under this approach, if it was foreseeable that the manufacturer’s product would be used with another product or part, even if the manufacturer’s product did not require use or incorporation of that other product or part, then the manufacturer could face liability for failure to warn.

The second approach, viewed as defendant-friendly, relieves manufacturers of any liability if they do not make, sell, or distribute the dangerous part or incorporate the dangerous part into the product, even if the product requires incorporation of the part and the manufacturer knows that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended use (this is also known as the “bare-metal defense”).

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