The manufacturers at issue produced equipment such as pumps, blowers, and turbines for three Navy ships which required asbestos insulation or other asbestos-containing parts or materials in order to function as intended. Asbestos fibers were released into the air, and two Navy veterans developed cancer and later died.
In sum, the Court held that: 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.
“In tort cases, the federal and state courts have not reached consensus on how to apply that general tort-law ‘duty to warn’ principle when the manufacturer’s product requires later incorporation of a dangerous part in order for the integrated product to function as intended. Three approaches have emerged.
“The first approach is the more plaintiff-friendly foreseeability rule that the Third Circuit adopted in this case: A manufacturer may 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 second approach is the more defendant-friendly bare-metal defense that the manufacturers urge here: If a manufacturer did not itself make, sell, or distribute the part or incorporate the part into the product, the manufacturer is 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 third approach falls between those two approaches. Under the third approach, foreseeability that the product may be used with another product or part that is likely to be dangerous is not enough to trigger a duty to warn. But 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. Under that approach, the manufacturer may be liable even when the manufacturer does not itself incorporate the required part into the product.
“We conclude that the third approach is the most appropriate for this maritime tort context.”
Notably, the Court explained that: “Importantly, the product manufacturer will often be in a better position than the parts manufacturer to warn of the danger from the integrated product. The product manufacturer knows the nature of the ultimate integrated product and is typically more aware of the risks associated with that integrated product. By contrast, a parts manufacturer may be aware only that its part could conceivably be used in any number of ways in any number of products. A parts manufacturer may not always be aware that its part will be used in a way that poses a risk of danger.”
In addition, the Court recognized that, while issuing a warning may cost the manufacturer time and money, “the burden usually is not significant. Manufacturers already have a duty to warn of the dangers of their own products. That duty typically imposes a light burden on manufacturers.”
Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, No.17-1104, 2019 WL 1245520 (March 19, 2019).