U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Asbestos Case

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Published Mar 19, 2019 7:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that manufacturers have a duty to warn about potential dangers of parts with asbestos that were later added onto their products by third parties under maritime law.

Air & Liquid Systems and four other manufacturers made equipment for U.S. Navy ships that required asbestos parts to function as intended - which the U.S. navy added after receiving them in “bare-metal” condition. 

Two Navy veterans, Kenneth McAfee and John DeVries, and their wives, sued the manufacturers alleging that the were exposed to asbestos, developed cancer as a result and that the equipment manufacturers were negligent because they failed to warn about the dangers of asbestos present.

In their defense, the manufacturers said they they should not be held liable for harm caused by later-added third-party parts. 

The court held that “in the maritime tort context, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn when its product requires incorporation of a part, 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.”

Three of nine Justice's dissented the ruling. 

Florida-based maritime law expert John "Jack" Hickey says: “The significance of this decision is that the manufacturers cannot get off scot-free when they know that their product will incorporate a dangerous add on product.” 

Bryon Benevento, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, says: "The decision is limited to maritime law – meaning the injured party must be covered as a sailor or employee of a water shipping company.” Benevento notes that in some cases exposure may have occurred decades ago when most non-asbestos manufacturers did not fully appreciate the health consequences of asbestos and were not warning other manufacturers to avoid adding asbestos containing parts to the underlying asbestos-free product. 

The Supreme Court opinion is available here.