U.S. Sup. Ct. Asbestos Maritime Ruling - Defendants liable for replacement parts

Posted: 3/19/2019

Today the U.S. Supreme Court released its opinion in the following case: Air & Liquid Systems Corp. et al. v. DeVries, Individually and as Administratrix of the Estate of DeVries, Deceased, et al., No. 17-1104 (Court Opinion).  The Court adopted its new Maritime rule which holds that “so long as the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses, and the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger: (i) a manufacturer directs that the part be incorporated; (ii) a manufacturer itself makes the product with a part that the manufacturer knows will require replacement with a similar part; or (iii) a product would be useless without the part.”  (Emphasis added)  This decision undermines the equipment manufacturers’ defense known as the “bare metal defense” which previously allowed defendants to argue that they should not be held liable for injury or harms caused by parts added to their equipment by third party manufacturers.  The decision stops short of saying this applies in all such cases but rather only those situations where a manufacturer knows it will be required to replace the offending part with a similar part.  The court made clear that the rule does not require that manufacturers warn in cases of mere foreseeability.  While the court applied this decision in the maritime tort context specifically stating that “Maritime law has always recognized a ‘special solicitude for the welfare’ of those who undertake to venture upon hazardous and unpredictable sea voyages.” (citations omitted), the Court also extended it to encompass those situations where defendant manufacturers direct that the part be incorporated or the manufacturer itself makes the product with a part that the manufacturer knows will require replacement with a similar part.

Justice Gorsuch wrote for the dissent arguing that “we dilute the incentive of a manufacturer to warn about the dangers of its products when we require other people to share the duty to warn and its correspondence costs.”  He further argued that encouraging manufacturers to offer warnings about other people’s products risks long, duplicative, fine print, and conflicting warnings that will leave consumers less sure about which to take seriously and more likely to disregard them all.  He points out the uncertainties that can occur including when a customer’s side-by-side use of two products qualifies as “incorporation” of the products, what qualifies as an integrated product and whether manufacturers can reasonably expect third party product manufacturers to comply with their own duty to warn and whether that’s sufficient “reason to believe” that user will “realize” the danger involved enough to absolve the first manufacturers; responsibility.  He then pointed out that the Court expressly stated that it does not purport to define the proper tort rule outside of the maritime context.