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Maritime Update: U.S. Supreme Court Rules Duty to Warn in Maritime Products Liability

Bill Schwartz - 

AIR AND LIQUID SYSTEMS CORP., ET AL., v. ROBERTA G. DEVRIES, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN B. DEVRIES, DECEASED, ET AL.

In the above case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 19, 2019 that manufacturers have a duty to warn about potential dangers of parts. In this particular case, the parts had asbestos which were later added onto their products by third parties.

As a result of this decision, maritime tort law now imposes a new duty on a product manufacturer. Under certain circumstances, the manufacturer must warn of dangers of adding a part that contains a hazard, such as asbestos. In this particular case, the manufacturer did not make a product with the hazardous material. Instead, its process required the later incorporation of a part which contained the hazardous material; i.e. here asbestos.

In this case, 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 incorporate the asbestos into their products. Instead, the Navy later added the asbestos to the equipment. When used as intended, the equipment can cause the release of asbestos fibers, which if inhaled or ingested may cause various illnesses.

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. They further contended the manufacturers were negligent in failing to warn about the dangers of asbestos in the integrated products.

In their defense, the manufacturers raised the “bare-metal defense,” under which they claimed they could 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.”

Justice Kavanaugh enumerated a three-part standard imposing a duty to warn when (1) the manufacturer’s product requires incorporation of a part, (2) the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses, and (3) the manufacturer has no reason to believe the product’s users will realize the danger.

Click here to read the full decision.

If you have any questions regarding this maritime matter, please contact Bill Schwartz at (504) 569-2900 or wschwartz@bhbmlaw.com.


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