December 12, 2014

Bare metal cannot cause asbestos-related diseases

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

Ronald Dummitt worked aboard Navy ships in the boiler rooms for two decades, during which time he was exposed to asbestos dust during the maintenance of valves and gaskets,  some of which were insulated with asbestos-containing materials.  Crane Co. manufactured some of the valves on which Dummit worked, none of which containing any asbestos whatsoever.  The valves were, in fact, bare metal.  Thirty years after leaving the Navy, Dummitt contracted mesothelioma.  He sued Crane Co., and 67 other defendants, 65 of whom settled before trial and one of whom settled after trial.  Although Dummit worked with at least 20 other manufacturers’ equipment used with or containing asbestos, a jury found Crane 99% at fault for Dummitt’s illness and awarded him $32 million in non-economic damages, reduced to $8 million by the court.  The appellate division affirmed, holding that the only way Crane—again, a manufacturer of a safe, non-asbestos-containing product—could avoid liability is if it had, against all industry practices of decades past, recommended non-asbestos insulation of its valves.  For its failure to depart from the then-best practices in the industry, the court held that Crane acted recklessly, and had a duty to warn Dummit about the dangers of asbestos.  The case is now before the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.

This week, Pacific Legal Foundation submitted an amicus brief in support of Crane Co. that addresses the policy implications of imposing on a manufacturer a duty to warn against dangers presented by other products that might be expected to be used in tandem with the manufacturer’s own product, which in itself presents no danger of harm.  While it is entirely consistent with New York tort doctrines that manufacturers have a duty to warn about maintenance procedures regarding their own products, New York state courts have never held that manufacturers have a duty to warn about dangers of other products manufactured by other companies that, when disturbed in general maintenance procedures, result in potential hazards.

PLF’s brief identifies several important public policies that justify line-drawing when it comes to imposition of a duty.  There was nothing about the maintenance of the pumps, valves, and turbines themselves that necessitated a warning about its safety.  It was only because the insulation for the machinery the Navy chose to use was asbestos insulation, that Dummit was exposed to asbestos fibers.  Under any theory by which a manufacturer of a safe product has a duty to warn of dangers inherent in the manufacture of other products, the potential liability is limitless.  Saucepan manufacturers will have to warn of the dangers of grease fires.  Jelly manufacturers will have to warn of the danger of peanut allergies. Manufacturers of champagne flutes would be required to warn their ultimate users that consuming alcohol can be dangerous, particularly when combined with the use of other products, such as automobiles.  In this case, the Navy as the employer had a duty to warn its employees of the hazards of asbestos, and the manufacturers of the asbestos-containing insulation had a duty to warn the Navy, but there was no relationship between Dummit and Crane that can justify imposing a duty on Crane to warn Dummit of the dangers of asbestos-containing insulation that it did not manufacture, distribute, or install.

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