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
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
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
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