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SCOTUS Rejects "Bare-Metal" Defense, Finds Machinery Makers Responsible for Harm Caused by Asbestos Supplied by Third Parties

On March 19, 2019, The United States Supreme Court determined that manufacturers of machinery installed on Navy ships have a duty to warn about dangers posed by asbestos supplied and installed by third parties.

In reaching this decision, the high court addressed a slit of authority regarding the so-called “bare-metal” defense which holds that a manufacturer has no liability for harm caused by – and no duty to warn of hazards associated with – a product it did not manufacture or distribute.

In Air & Liquid Sys. Corp v. DeVries, Navy veterans Kenneth McAfee and John DeVries developed mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos materials used with shipboard machinery made by Air & Liquid Systems Corp and four other manufacturers. It was conceded that the machinery manufacturers did not make or supply the asbestos materials which were the source of Mr. McAfee and Mr. DeVries’ exposure. It was asserted that, because the asbestos materials were required for the machinery to function properly, the manufacturers were negligent in failing to warn about the dangers of asbestos in the integrated products.

In response, the manufacturers asserted the “bare-metal” defense, claiming they are not responsible harm caused by later-added third-party asbestos materials.

In an opinion written by Justice Brent Kavanaugh and joined by five other justices, the high court rejected the manufacturers’ argument in this case. 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.”

The Supreme Court said its rule does not require manufacturers to warn in cases of “mere foreseeability.” The rule requires that manufacturers warn only when their product requires a potentially dangerous part for the integrated product to function as intended.

The case involved claims brought under Maritime law. The court’s opinion states that a manufacturer’s “duty-to-warn” is “especially appropriate in the maritime context, where the law has always recognized a “special solicitude” for the welfare of sailors, particularly veterans and their families.”

The high court’s decision directly resolves the split among federal circuit courts of appeal interpreting the “bare-metal” defense in maritime cases. The decision will indirectly impact a similar split among federal and state courts of appeal interpreting the “bare-metal” defense in common law product liability cases.

The Supreme Court’s decision in DeVries could truly be a “game changer.” It provides courts in states like California grounds to reverse harmful “bare-metal” rulings which have denied claimants, including thousands of Navy veterans, their day in court.

You can read the Supreme Court’s opinion in its entirety here.

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