Supreme Court Decides Bare Metal Defense Case

James F. Humphreys & Associates, L.C. has represented thousands of people who have been injured by exposure to asbestos, including many veterans who were exposed to asbestos on naval vessels and subsequently developed asbestos-related diseases such as asbestos, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. If you or a loved one served in the Navy and later developed a serious asbestos disease, you may be interested in a recent decision which should make it easier for veterans to recover compensation from manufacturers for their service-related asbestos exposures.

On March 19, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States decided a case rejecting the so-called “bare metal defense,” which was frequently raised by manufacturers of equipment where asbestos insulation or parts were added to a piece of equipment after it was sold to the Navy. The case, Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, No. 17-1104, 586 U.S. __, (2019), involved two sailors who served on three naval vessels where they worked with and around asbestos products, and later died from asbestos-related cancers.

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The Defendants were five companies that made equipment, such as turbines, pumps, and blowers, that were used on Navy ships, and incorporated asbestos parts such as gaskets and insulation. In some instances, the manufacturers supplied equipment that came with asbestos parts that were later replaced with asbestos parts manufactured by another company, while other equipment was sold to the Navy without asbestos parts, in a “bare metal” state, and insulation or other asbestos components were later installed by the Navy. The Court framed the issue to be decided as “whether a manufacturer has a duty to warn when the manufacturer’s product requires later incorporation of a dangerous part—here, asbestos—in order for the integrated product to function as intended.”

As the Court observed, lower courts had split on how to answer this question, with three approaches emerging from their decisions. The first approach, “foreseeability,” was the most “plaintiff-friendly,” holding that a manufacturer might “be liable when 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.” The Court rejected this approach as too broad, exposing manufacturers to excessive liability, “while simultaneously over warning users.”

The second approach, the “bare metal defense” favored by defendants, provided that “[i]f a manufacturer did not itself make, sell, or distribute the part or incorporate the part into the product, the manufacturer [was] not liable for harm caused by the integrated product – even if the product required incorporation of the part and the manufacturer knew that the integrated product was likely to be dangerous for its intended uses.” The Court rejected this approach as too narrow, noting, among other things, that the equipment manufacturer was “often in a better position than the parts manufacturer to warn of the danger from the integrated product,” that it was not unduly burdensome for the equipment manufacturer to warn about the dangers posed by asbestos components because they already had a duty to warn about the dangers of their own products, and that it was particularly appropriate to impose some duty to warn on equipment manufacturers in this case because maritime law had always been particularly solicitous of protecting sailors and their families. 

The third approach, which was adopted by the Court for maritime personal injury cases, fell somewhere in between the other two, providing that “a manufacturer does have a duty to warn when its product requires incorporation of a part and the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses,” even if the manufacturer did “not incorporate the required part into the product.” (emphasis in original). After working through its analysis of the three approaches, the Court set forth the following rule: “In the maritime tort context, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn when (i) its product requires incorporation of a part, (ii) the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses, and (iii) the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger.”

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Photo by Thomas Fields on Unsplash

The Court was careful to point out that its ruling did “not purport to define the proper tort rule outside of the maritime context,” which is an area governed by federal law. Consequently, state courts are free to craft their own rules of liability in garden variety personal injury cases decided under state law. The Court also noted in a footnote that the parts manufacturer, as well as the equipment manufacturer, might have a duty to warn “in certain circumstances.”

The Court offered a “final point for clarity,” recognizing that its rule applied in the following situations: “(i) a manufacturer directs that the part be incorporated, …; (ii) a manufacturer itself makes the product with a part that the manufacturer knows will require replacement with a similar part,…; or (iii) a product would be useless without the part…” As the Court observed, these were all situations where lower courts had recognized that “the product in effect requires the part in order for the integrated product to function as intended.”  

The Court’s opinion is important for a number of reasons. First, it provides needed clarity in an area that has been marked by conflicting approaches in the lower courts. Second, by rejecting the strict “bare metal defense” favored by defendants, it makes it easier for veterans exposed to asbestos while serving their country, and their families, to obtain much-needed compensation for very serious and often fatal injuries. As the Court observed near the beginning of its opinion, the Navy is usually immune from suit, while companies that made asbestos insulation and parts are often bankrupt, making equipment manufacturers an important source of compensation. Finally, the opinion allows states to develop their own approaches to liability under state law in ordinary, non-maritime personal injury cases.

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured by exposure to asbestos, you need to retain counsel familiar with the changing law that governs asbestos cases. To contact James F. Humphreys & Associates, L.C. for a free initial consultation, call us at 304-347-5050 (local) or 877-341-2595 (toll-free). You can also contact us through our website, http://www.jfhumphreys.com.

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