On March 19, 2019, the United States Supreme Court redefined the scope of manufacturer’s liability under general maritime law for asbestos-related injuries caused by third-party built-in parts. In Air & Liquid Sys. Corp vs. DevriesCase No. 17-1104, 2019 US LEXIS 2087 (03/19/2019), the Supreme Court ruled that a manufacturer has a duty to notify users when its product requires the subsequent incorporation of another part, such as asbestos, which the manufacturer knows is likely to render the integrated product dangerous for its intended use.
In Devriestwo navy veterans and their wives filed a complaint against the manufacturers of certain equipment (that is to say., pumps, blowers and turbines) which was used aboard Navy ships. The equipment required asbestos insulation or asbestos parts to function properly. However, manufacturers have not always incorporated asbestos parts into their products. Instead, manufacturers supplied much of the asbestos-free, or “bare metal,” equipment to the Navy, which then independently added asbestos to the equipment.
The plaintiffs alleged that they had been exposed to asbestos on Navy ships and as a result had developed cancer. The plaintiffs argued that the equipment manufacturers were liable for their negligent failure to warn users of the dangers of asbestos in parts built into the equipment. According to the plaintiffs, if the manufacturers had provided such warnings, people working on Navy ships could have worn protective masks to prevent exposure and injury.
In the district court, the equipment manufacturers sought summary judgment on the plaintiff’s claims and argued that they should not be liable for injuries caused by parts subsequently added by third parties, a defense known as the “bare metal defense”. The district court granted the manufacturers’ motions for summary judgment. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed and returned the district court’s judgment on the grounds that “”a manufacturer of a bare metal product may be liable for a plaintiff’s injuries. suffered by materials containing asbestos subsequently added” if the manufacturer could to expect that the product would be used with later added asbestos-containing materials.
The Supreme Court upheld the Third Circuit’s decision to vacate and remand. However, the Supreme Court rejected the Third Court’s “foreseeability” approach, finding it too broad and exposing manufacturers to massive liability and burden while warning users against too many potentially foreseeable dangers. Conversely, the Supreme Court rejected the “bare metal defense” of equipment manufacturers on the grounds that the product manufacturer is generally better informed of the risks associated with the required built-in parts and, therefore, is in a better position to warn hazard users. of the product. In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that requiring manufacturers to warn of the dangers of embedded parts “is particularly appropriate in the maritime context” since general maritime law provides special protections for those exposed in the of their employment to the unique dangers of the sea.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that “[i]n the maritime context, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn when (1) its product requires incorporation of a part, (2) the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the incorporated product is likely to be hazardous for its intended uses, and (3) the manufacturer has no reason to believe that users of the product will become aware of this danger. “In other words, a manufacturer has a duty to warn users when their product requires the incorporation of a potentially hazardous part in order for the product to function properly for its intended use.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Devries may expand the scope of marine product liability and increase the obligations of marine equipment manufacturers to warn against the dangers of asbestos or other hazardous parts incorporated by third parties and necessary to the use of the equipment. the Devries The opinion leaves some questions about the future of U.S. product liability law, including whether a duty to notify embedded parts should apply to non-maritime cases where the special protections given to seafarers are not not extended.