Facts of the Case
Roberta G. Devries and Shirley McAfee are the widows of two US Navy sailors whom they allege developed cancer after they were exposed to asbestos working on Navy ships and in a naval shipyard. They sued multiple defendants, including manufacturers of “bare metal” ship components, or parts that were made and shipped before any asbestos-containing insulation materials were added. The plaintiffs sued in state court under theories of both negligence and strict liability.
The defendant manufacturers removed the case to federal court, and moved for summary judgment based on the bare metal defense, arguing that they could not be held liable for the sailors’ injuries because they shipped their products out in bare metal form. The district court granted summary judgment as to both the negligence and strict liability claims. The plaintiffs appealed, and the Third Circuit remanded with instructions to the district court to more clearly address the plaintiffs’ negligence claims, and to explain whether it was applying the bright-line as opposed to the fact-specific rule that can be relevant to the bare metal defense, and regarding which circuits are split. The district court again granted summary judgment on both claims, stating that it was applying the bright line rule.
The plaintiffs appealed again, but the Third Circuit did not consider their strict liability claims on appeal because it considered them abandoned. It therefore affirmed the district court’s ruling in favor of summary judgment for the defendants as to strict liability. The Third Circuit reversed the summary judgment ruling on the negligence claim, holding that maritime law principles permit the manufacturer of a bare metal product to be held liable for asbestos-related injuries when they are reasonably foreseeable results of the manufacturer’s actions. In so holding, the appellate court applied the bare metal defense's fact-specific standard rather than the bright-line rule.
Can products liability defendants be held liable under maritime law for injuries caused by products that they did not make, sell, or distribute?
Under maritime tort law, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn if its product requires incorporation of a part produced by a third party, the resulting fully incorporated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses, and the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users would be aware of that danger. In a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Court held that Air and Liquid Systems owed a duty to warn the plaintiffs about the danger of the ship components even though the Navy, not the manufacturer, added the parts with asbestos. Three approaches have emerged from the duty to exercise reasonable care in warning prospective users of a product that requires later incorporation of a dangerous part for the integrated product to function as intended. Of those three, the Court chose the approach that imposes neither the narrowest nor broadest liability on manufacturers, finding it most appropriate for the maritime context, which recognizes “a special solicitude for the welfare of sailors.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined. The dissenters would adopt the bare-metal defense approach, consistent with traditional common law of torts.
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