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Media Alerts - In Re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation - Third Circuit
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October 4, 2017
  In Re Asbestos Products Liability Litigation - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit Holds That Manufacturer Can be Held Liable for Asbestos-related Injuries When the Injury Was a Reasonably Foreseeable Result of the Manufacturer's Conduct

Area of Law: Torts

Issue(s) Presented: When should a manufacturer of a product that does not contain asbestos be held liable for an asbestos-related injury caused by parts added on to the manufacturer's product?

Brief Summary: Roberta G. Devries and Shirley McAfee, widows of former United States Navy service members, filed separate complaints against several manufacturers that produced various metal products for naval ships. Devries and McAfee sued under negligence and strict liability theories. They alleged that their deceased husbands contracted cancer from exposure to asbestos-containing insulation added to the metal products. The manufacturers invoked the bare-metal defense, arguing that they should not be held liable because their products were made of pure metal and therefore cannot contain asbestos. Further, they should not be held responsible for asbestos-containing components added to their products post-sale. The district court applied a bright-line version of the bare-metal defense, finding that a bare-material manufacturer can never be held liable for injuries caused by later-added asbestos-containing materials, and granted the manufacturers' motion for summary judgment on both theories. On appeal, the Third Circuit found that maritime law principles favored a fact-specific standard, rather than a bright-line rule, and held that a manufacturer of a bare-metal product could be found liable if the injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the manufacturer's conduct. The Court remanded the matter for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.

Extended Summary: This case concerns the validity and extent of a manufacturer's bare-metal defense. Robert G. Devries' husband served in the United States Navy and worked aboard the U.S.S. Turner from 1957-1960. Shirley McAfee's husband, who also served in the Navy, served on two ships and worked in the Philadelphia Navy Shipyard. Both men died from cancer, allegedly caused by exposure to asbestos-containing insulation and components that were added to the ships' engines, pumps, boilers, blowers, generators, switchboards, steam traps, and other devices. Plaintiffs both filed complaints under negligence and strict liability theories. Since the alleged negligent acts occurred aboard naval ships, the case was governed by maritime law and was tried in the district court. The manufacturers moved for summary judgment and invoked the bare-metal defense, arguing that they could not be held liable because their products only consisted of metal and could not contain asbestos. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the manufacturers.

Plaintiffs appealed because the district court did not address their negligence claims. The Third Circuit remanded and instructed the district court to determine the negligence issue based on either a bright-line rule or a fact-specific standard. The bright-line rule provides that a manufacturer of a bare-metal product can never be held liable for a plaintiff's injuries related to asbestos. The fact-specific standard allows a bare-metal manufacturer to be liable if the plaintiff's injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the manufacturer's conduct. The district court applied the bright-line rule and granted the manufacturers' motion for summary judgment on both the strict liability and negligence claims. Devries and McAfee appealed for a second time and the Third Circuit consolidated their appeals.

In order to determine whether the bare-metal defense was valid, the Third Circuit had to determine whether to use the bright-line rule or the fact-specific standard. Neither the Third Circuit nor the Supreme Court had addressed this issue, but other jurisdictions were split between the rule and the standard. The Court ultimately examined whether the rule or standard more appropriately aligned with the four maritime law principles: (1) deep concern with protection of sailors; (2) tradition of simplicity and practicality; (3) interest in protecting maritime commerce; and (4) preference for uniform rules to govern conduct and liability. The Third Circuit found that maritime law's deep concern with protection of sailors aligned with the standard approach because it allows for a greater number of injured sailors to be compensated. Next, the Court found that the second principle of simplicity and practicality could fit under either the bright-line rule or the fact-specific standard. It found that simplicity could relate to predictability, which would favor the bright-line rule, but it could also favor the fact-specific standard because it favors familiarity, which could be related to foreseeability. The Court disregarded the third and fourth principles because they did not favor one approach over the other. Looking at the principles in aggregate, the Court adopted the fact-specific standard.

Using the fact-specific standard, the Court held that a manufacturer could be found liable if decedents' injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the manufacturers' failure to provide a reasonable and adequate warning. Under prior case law, the Court reasoned that a bare-metal manufacturer may be subject to liability if it reasonably could have known, at the time it placed its product into the stream of commerce, that (1) asbestos is hazardous and (2) its product will be used with an asbestos-containing part, because (a) the product was originally equipped with asbestos-containing part that could reasonably be expected to be replaced over the product's lifetime, (b) the manufacturer specifically directed that the product be used with an asbestos-containing part, or (c) the product required an asbestos-containing part to function properly. However, the Court noted that this list is non-exhaustive and the bare-metal defense is a fact-specific inquiry that must be decided on a case-by-case basis. The Third Circuit remanded the negligence claims for further proceedings.

The full opinion can be found at http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/162602p.pdf

Panel: Vanaskie, Shwartz, and Restrepo, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: March 27, 2017

Date of Issued Opinion: October 3, 2017

Docket Number: Nos. 16-2602 & 16-2669

Decided: Partially affirmed and remanded.

Case Alert Author: Emily Anderson

Counsel: Richard P. Myers, Esq. for Appellants Roberta G. Devries and Shirley McAfee; and John S. Howarth, Esq. for Appellee Buffalo Pumps, Inc.; and Shay Dvoretzsy, Esq. for Appellee CBS Corp.; and Lee J. Janiczek, Esq., Christopher, J. Keale, Esq. for Appellee Foster Wheeler LLC; and Timothy E. Kapshandy, Esq. and Rebecca K. Wood, Esq. for General Electric Co.; and Joseph I. Fontak for IMO Industries, Inc.; and Laurie J. Hepler, Esq. for Appellee Warren Pumps; and Carol A. VanderWoude, Esq. for Appellee Ingersoll Rand Co.

Author of Opinion: Judge Vanaskie

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary E. Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 10/04/2017 12:53 PM     3rd Circuit  

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