Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Case Involving Bare Metal Defense

James F. Humphreys & Associates, L.C. has represented victims of asbestos exposure for almost 30 years, and many of our clients have been exposed to asbestos in ships and shipyards while serving in the Navy. On May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear a case involving a defense that is frequently raised in asbestos personal injury cases by companies that manufacture equipment used on ships, such as boilers, valves, turbines, and pumps.

Via Unsplash

For years, equipment manufacturers have argued that they are not responsible for asbestos exposures related to parts that are used in conjunction with their equipment but are manufactured by a third party. For example, another company might manufacture a replacement part for the equipment, such as a gasket or a packing, that contained asbestos. In other cases, a piece of equipment, such as a turbine might be sold by the defendant without any insulation, and asbestos-containing insulation was added by the user. In such cases, the defendant raised the so called “bare metal” defense, arguing that it was not responsible for asbestos exposures resulting from insulation or other asbestos-containing products used with its product that was manufactured by someone else.

The lower courts have reached different conclusions as to whether an equipment manufacturer can be held responsible for asbestos-containing parts and materials used in or with their equipment. Some courts have adopted a bright line rule that equipment manufacturers are not responsible for exposures from asbestos-containing materials manufactured by other companies, while other courts have followed a more fact-specific approach that depends on the circumstances of the case.

Via Unsplash

The case the Supreme Court recently agreed to hear was brought by Roberta Devries and Shirley McAfee, two widows of Navy men who died from lung cancer. They sued various companies that supplied equipment for the Navy, including Buffalo Pumps (now Air & Liquid Systems Corp.); CBS; Ingersoll Rand PLC and Foster Wheeler LLC, all of whom sought review by the Supreme Court.

The case was originally brought in state court but was removed to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which ruled against the widows, adopting a bright line rule that equipment manufacturers could not be responsible under maritime law for exposures resulting from asbestos parts and materials manufactured by other companies. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed in part, refusing to adopt the lower court’s bright line rule. Instead, the appellate court espoused a more fact specific approach, holding that an equipment manufacturer could be held responsible in a negligence case when the use of asbestos-containing materials in conjunction with its equipment was reasonably foreseeable and it failed to warn users of the hazards of asbestos exposure.

In reviewing decisions from other courts, the court opined that an equipment manufacturer could be held liable when it reasonably should have known that asbestos was hazardous and that asbestos products would likely be used with its equipment. Various circumstances might put a manufacturer on notice that asbestos products would be used in conjunction with its equipment. For instance, the equipment might have been manufactured with an asbestos-containing part that was likely to be replaced, or the manufacturer specifically directed that the product be used with an asbestos-containing part (such as insulation on a turbine or boiler), or the equipment required an asbestos-containing part to function properly. The court also indicated that this list was not necessarily exhaustive and that other facts might provide a basis for liability.

Via Unsplash

The ruling of the Supreme Court will have a significant bearing on the ability of injured sailors to obtain compensation from equipment manufacturers for asbestos-related injuries such as lung cancer or mesothelioma. If the Court adopts a bright line rule that equipment manufacturers are not responsible for exposures resulting from parts and materials made by other companies, it will be much harder for service personnel and their estates to obtain fair and adequate compensation for asbestos-related injuries and deaths. On the other hand, if the Court adopts a fact driven analysis, sailors and their families will have a better chance of recovering compensation for their injuries.

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured by exposure to asbestos, contact James F. Humphreys & Associates, L.C. for a free initial consultation. We can be reached at 304-881-0652 (local) or 877-341-2595 (toll free) or through our website, www.jfhumphreys.com.

Sources:

Barbara Leonard, “Asbestos Liability Case Picked Up by Supreme Court,” May 14, 2018, https://www.courthousenews.com/asbestos-liability-case-picked-up-by-supreme-court/
In Re Asbestos Products Liab. Litig., 873 F.3d 232 (3d Cir. 2017)

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