Adverse decision in Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings

August 09, 2012 | By DEBORAH LA FETRA

In a split decision that bodes ill for manufacturers of safety devices, the Washington Supreme Court ruled today that a cancer-stricken shipyard worker whose job was to clean respirators contaminated with asbestos could sue the respirator manufacturers for failing to warn him about the dangers of such exposure.  The case, Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, was decided 5-4, and marks a sharp departure from previous decisions limiting the liability of manufacturers of products that do not actually contain asbestos.

The case involved Leo Macias, a shipyard worker responsible for handling and maintaining tools, including respirators, from 1978-2004.  When he developed mesothelioma, a cancer caused by inhaling asbestos particles, he sued the respirator manufacturers (because all companies who actually manufactured asbestos-containing products were long ago sued into bankruptcy).  However, the Washington Supreme Court had issued two decisions in 2008 — Simonetta v. Viad Corp. and Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings that held that a manufacturer had no duty to warn of the dangers inherent in a product that it does not manufacture, sell, or supply.  (PLF filed amicus briefs in both those cases).

In this case, the Court of Appeal held that Simonetta and Braaten barred Macias’s claims, but the Washington Supreme Court labored mightily to distinguish the prior cases and reinstate Macias’s lawsuit.  The majority decision emphasizes that the rule of Simonetta and Braaten is a general one, subject to exceptions.  And while it acknowledges that neither of the two settled exceptions would apply to Macias, it takes the existence of those two exceptions as a good enough reason to create a third exception.

The Court determined that the plaintiffs claims are “fundamentally different” from those in Simonetta and Braaten because Macias’s claim rests “squarely on the respirator product in and of itself, and specifically on the inadequate warnings and instructions of the respirator product, without reference to any other manufacturer’s products.”  The court held that “the very purpose of the respirators would, of necessity, lead to high concentrations of asbestos (and/or other contaminants) in them, and in order to reuse them as they were intended to be reused, this asbestos had to be removed,” and therefore, “the respirator manufacturers manufactured the very products that posed the risk to Mr. Macias of asbestos exposure.”

For this reason, the Court held that Simonetta and Braaten do not control the manufacturers’ products in those cases did not, “in and of themselves, pose any inherent danger of exposure to asbestos, here when the products were used exactly as intended and cleaned for reuse exactly as intended they inherently and invariably posed the danger of exposure to asbestos.”

The Court concluded by noting that it only decided whether Simonetta and Braaten foreclosed the plaintiffs’ failure to warn claims as a matter of law.  It remanded the case to the trial court to decide whether the danger was so obvious that no warnings were required, and other issues.

The dissent correctly identifies the many logical mistakes in the majority opinion.  It first correctly notes that the majority improperly restates the holdings of Simonetta and Braaten, but the thrust of the dissent focuses on the untenable policies set in motion by this decision.  Echoing key points of PLF’s amicus brief, the dissent notes that the “respirators were intended to protect against a number of different contaminants, including welding fumes, paint fumes, and various types of dust. The manufacturers should not be expected to warn of the dangers of every contaminant a user could conceivably encounter. Imposing such an obligation would render all the warnings given virtually meaningless: “To warn of all potential dangers would warn of nothing.”

Moreover, the safety purpose of the respirators cuts against imposing liability here. “A fundamental policy underlying product liability law is the promotion of safe products. Safety products, such as the respirators involved in this case, are of great social value and promote this essential goal. The expansion of liability for asbestos exposure to safety product manufacturers provides a strong disincentive to continue making safety products, such as protective respirators. This could impact both the availability and affordability of respirators, frustrating the safety objective of product liability.

The decision today places a manufacturer of safety products in the position of having to speculate about the many risks that a user of its product may encounter — risks that the manufacture does not create and cannot control — and having speculated as to those risks, it must issue warnings against them.

After today’s decision, the manufacturers better hope their crystal balls are accurate — multimillion dollar judgments await their errors.