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SCOTUS rules manufacturers liable when they knew asbestos would be added later

Certain equipment used on Navy vessels and in naval shipyards uses asbestos. However, many are manufactured as "bare metal," without the asbestos components installed. The asbestos components are added later by the user or a third party, but the equipment manufacturer knows that it will happen. Indeed, the asbestos components are necessary to make the equipment work.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently addressed whether bare-metal manufacturers like these can be held liable for asbestos injuries caused by the finished equipment.

Previously, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the bare-metal manufacturers had a duty to warn consumers of any foreseeable risks from using their products.

As we discussed when the case was first taken up, the widows of two navy sailors sued the bare-metal manufacturers after their husbands died of asbestos-related lung cancer. The women argued that the manufacturers had a duty to warn users of the asbestos hazards.

Although the equipment contained no asbestos when delivered, the widows argued that the manufacturers were in the best position to know of the asbestos hazards that would arise when the asbestos components were added. The law generally places the duty to warn on the party in the best position to know.

The bare-metal manufacturers argued that their products simply contain no asbestos. And, requiring them to warn consumers of the projected asbestos risk could cause over-warning, which could dilute the message. They pointed to the manufacturers of the asbestos components as the party in the best position to warn.

Justice Brent Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion. In the 6-3 ruling, the Court found that the bare-metal manufacturers did have a duty to warn consumers of the asbestos risk, although not simply because that risk was foreseeable. Instead, the bare-metal manufacturers are liable for the effect of the third-party components because they knew and intended those components would be added in the foreseeable future.

The ruling only applies in maritime tort cases, because maritime rules "recognize the special solicitude for the welfare of those who undertake to venture upon hazardous and unpredictable sea voyages," Kavanaugh wrote. While technically this is true, the outcome and analysis of the Supreme Court can and will be cited as persuasive authority in other cases.

In non-maritime cases, manufacturers would be held liable under traditional, common law rules. Those may find liability when a manufacturer "knows or has a reason to know that the product is or is likely to be dangerous for the use in which it is supplied," according to the opinion.

Asbestos litigation can be complex but, as this case demonstrates, it can be successful. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, discuss your situation with an experienced attorney.

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