Component Part Manufacturer Asbestos Liability

The plaintiff’s bar continues to look for fresh targets in the asbestos litigation, utilizing increasingly creative theories of liability, as the original targets of plaintiffs’ lawsuits have been largely forced into bankruptcy.  One of the new asbestos battlegrounds centers around the liability of parts manufacturers, such as pump and valve manufacturers, who never manufactured or sold asbestos-containing materials ("ACM").  Plaintiffs typically argue that these manufacturers may be liable for asbestos-containing products manufactured by different companies that they can reasonably anticipate will be used with their equipment.  However, in recent months, there have been a handful of appellate decisions suggesting that liability will not be extended to equipment manufacturers that neither sold nor included with their equipment ACM.  At the end of last year, the Supreme Court of Washington issued two decisions that rejected plaintiffs’ claim that defendants should be held liable for failing to warn of the hazards of another manufacturer’s product that is applied to or incorporated into the defendants’ products.  The Supreme Court of Washington articulated a blanket rule that a duty to warn under common law negligence "is limited to those in the chain of distribution of the hazardous product."  The court also concluded that the defendants were not strictly liable for manufacturing a defective product because, not being product sellers or manufacturers, they could not translate their knowledge of the product’s dangerous aspects into a cost of production against which liability insurance could be obtained.  Thus, the court held, it would be manifestly unfair to hold a defendant liable for another party’s product. There is a good discussion of these cases, Simonetta v. Vlad Corp. and Braaten v. Saberhagen, in a Metropolitan Corporate Counsel article written by John E. Heintz and Justin F. Lavella at Kelly Drye & Warren LLP. A great deal was at stake on the appeal of these cases.  On February 25, 2009, The California Court of Appeal decided Taylor v. Elliot Turbomachinery Co. Inc  2009 WL 458543, and reached the same result as the Washington Court.  In rejecting plaintiffs’ theory that the defendant should be liable for exposure to ACM in replacement parts sold and manufactured by other companies, the California court relied upon the California’s "chain of distribution" line of cases that culminated in Cadio v. Owens-Illinois Inc. These cases recognize that "legal nightmares" would result if one company was held liable for the products of other companies.  There is a discussion of both the California and Washington decisions in a March 17, 2009 Law360 article  In an August 21, 2009 blog post by Michael J. Pietrykowski of Gordon & Rees, LLP, the DRI Blog reported that the California Supreme Court has declined to accept an appeal of Taylor v. Elliot Turbomachinery Co. Inc.  In the world of asbestos litigation, defense victories like these in Washington and California are hard fought and few and far between.