October 23, 2013

The outer limits of the blame game

By Christina M. Martin Attorney

William Aubin contracted mesothelioma in 2008, allegedly from working with joint compound and texture sprays produced by Georgia Pacific, and provided by Aubin’s employer.  Those products contained asbestos, but Aubin alleged that their packaging did not warn users to wear masks to protect them from inhaling the product’s dangerous dust.  But whether or not Georgia Pacific adequately warned its consumers was not the topic of this lawsuit.  Rather, Aubin claims that the company that mined, processed, and sold the asbestos to Georgia Pacific should be liable for harm that he suffered allegedly because of Georgia Pacific’s product and failure to warn. PLF filed an amicus brief in the Florida Supreme Court on Monday, explaining why that would be a bad idea.

Aubin’s lawsuit would seem reasonable if the mining company, Union Carbide, sold Georgia Pacific a faulty product.  But Aubin went further, asking for a rule that would hold a supplier of components liable for the sins of the companies that later use those components in their own products.

Of course, we’re used to the idea that asbestos lawsuits exist in a fantasy land of their own.  But consider the problems this supplier-liability rule would cause, particularly for the most basic and versatile component parts of the products we buy. Most finished consumer products incorporate goods from a variety of sources.  From high end electronics to basic household cleaners, every supplier of those component parts would risk liability for however the final-product manufacturer decided to make and package their product. This idea is so dangerous to suppliers across a broad range of products that courts nearly everywhere have rejected it.

Such a rule would unduly burden a broad range of businesses.  It would also generally fail to improve safety by failing to shift the costs of injuries resulting from product use to those parties who have the greatest power to prevent harm.  These kinds of problems ultimately hurt everyone, driving up prices and stifling innovation and the economy.  That’s why almost all other courts have limited supplier liability and that is why we asked the Florida Supreme Court to do the same.

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