March 19, 2019

Supreme Court Decides Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries

On March 19, 2019, the Supreme Court decided Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, No. 17-1104, holding that in the maritime tort context, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn when: 1) its product requires incorporation of another part, 2) the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended use, and 3) the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger.

The manufacturers in this case produced equipment such as pumps, blowers, and turbines for three Navy ships. The equipment required asbestos insulation and asbestos parts to function as intended. The manufacturers delivered the equipment to the Navy without the asbestos parts; the Navy later added the asbestos parts to the equipment. When used on the ships, the equipment released asbestos fibers into the air. Two Navy veterans who were exposed to asbestos on the ships developed cancer and died. The veterans’ families sued the equipment manufacturers, claiming the manufacturers negligently failed to warn of the dangers of asbestos.

The manufacturers moved for summary judgment on the ground that manufacturers should not be liable for harms caused by later-added third-party parts. The District Court granted summary judgment to the manufacturers, but the Third Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that a manufacturer has a duty to warn when the manufacturer could foresee its product would be used with later-added asbestos-containing materials.

The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment, although it disagreed with the Third Circuit’s rationale. The Court examined three approaches to applying the “duty to warn” when a manufacturer’s product requires later incorporation of a dangerous part in order to function: (1) the “more plaintiff-friendly foreseeability rule” that the Third Circuit adopted, under which a manufacturer may be liable when it was foreseeable that its product would be used with another product or part, even if the manufacturer’s product did not require incorporation of that other product or part; (2) the “more defendant-friendly bare-metal defense,” under which a manufacturer is not liable if the manufacturer did not itself make, sell, distribute or incorporate the part; and (3) a “middle-ground” rule that a manufacturer has 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” (emphasis original).

For those reasons, the Court concluded 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.

Justice Kavanaugh delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer, Justice Sotomayor, and Justice Kagan joined. Justice Gorsuch filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito joined.

Download Opinion of the Court.

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