October 29, 2015

Florida Supreme Court “splits the baby” in products liability decision

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

Today, the Florida Supreme Court issued its opinion in Aubin v. Union Carbide, a case that recognizes limits to manufacturers’ liability. William Aubin brought the lawsuit after he contracted mesothelioma in 2008, allegedly from working with asbestos-containing joint compound and texture sprays produced by Georgia Pacific, and provided by Aubin’s employer. Aubin alleged that Georgia Pacific’s packaging did not warn users that they should wear masks to avoid the hazard of inhaling the product’s dangerous dust. But whether or not Georgia Pacific adequately warned its consumers—consumers like Aubin—was not the topic of this lawsuit. Rather, Aubin claimed that the company that mined, processed, and sold the asbestos to Georgia Pacific should be liable for harm that he suffered allegedly due to Georgia Pacific’s products and failure to warn. The jury awarded Aubin $6.6 million from Union Carbide. Union Carbide appealed.

Seal of the Supreme Court of Florida

When the Florida Supreme Court granted review of the case a few years ago, PLF filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining why the court needed to limit liability of manufacturers or suppliers of component parts that are used in various products. Our brief asked the court to limit liability by adopting the “component part doctrine” to prevent suppliers of versatile goods from becoming de facto insurers of manufacturers who incorporate their goods into other products. We explained that if the court did not recognize a limit to liability for downstream goods, component suppliers would have the duty to monitor and evaluate all of their manufacturing clients’ products. The most versatile products would require the greatest management expenses, since suppliers would have to retain experts in a huge variety of fields to determine the risks associated with each potential use and the necessary warnings for those goods. Asbestos, for example, has been used for more than 3,000 products—including textiles, building materials, insulation, and brake linings. Many of those products were safe when used appropriately. But Aubin asked the court for a rule that would hold liable even responsible suppliers who warned their buyers about all risks.

In today’s decision, the Florida Supreme Court did not adopt the component parts doctrine for which PLF advocated, but it disapproved bad Florida precedent that had rejected the “learned intermediary” defense, which provides some similar protections for suppliers. Under Florida law, a learned intermediary is “one who has knowledge of the danger [of the product] and whose position vis-a-vis the manufacturer and consumer, confers a duty to convey the requisite warnings to the consumer.” The Court held, “[T]he learned intermediary defense permits a manufacturer to rely on an intermediary to relay warnings to the end user; provided that reliance is reasonable . . . .”

Despite the court’s recognition that Union Carbide could employ the learned intermediary defense, it ultimately refused to remand the case for reconsideration by the jury, even though the trial court never explained the defense to the jury. Its reason? The trial court’s instructions were technically accurate, even though they were not complete, while Union Carbide’s requested instructions did not accurately explain the learned intermediary doctrine. Justice Polston, dissented, arguing that the trial court’s omission was misleading and Union Carbide’s requested instruction was close enough to preserve its right to better jury instructions. The dissent also noted that it was “unclear from the majority’s opinion what magic words Union Carbide should have used to preserve its right to an instruction on the learned intermediary defense.” Fortunately, this aspect of the holding is so fact specific that its impact will be limited.

Today’s decision may not go far enough, but it does recognize an important defense for entrepreneurs that will protect suppliers and manufacturers of a variety of goods from specious lawsuits.

What to read next