March 19, 2015

Workers’ comp, bulk suppliers, and expanded tort liability

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

Flavio Ramos worked as a mold maker, machine operator, and laborer for Supreme Casting & Pattern, Inc., which manufactured metal parts through “a foundry and fabrication process,” from 1972 to 2009. During this time, the industrial processing of raw materials created fumes from molten metal and dust from the plaster, sand, limestone, and marble. In 2010, he sued ten suppliers of all the raw materials to which he was exposed, alleging that his exposure caused his lung disease. The trial court rejected his claim, but the court of appeal held that suppliers of raw materials or component parts owe a duty to workers in plaintiff’s position where it is foreseeable that the raw material will be used in processes that may pose health hazards, even where the raw material posed no health hazard when transferred from the supplier to the manufacturer. The California Supreme Court granted review in Ramos v. Brenntag Specialties, and PLF today filed an amicus brief in support of the raw material suppliers.

Although Ramos alleged that the raw materials were “inherently dangerous,” the danger he describes is not inherent at all, but arises only “when [the materials] melted during the casting process.” To “inhere” means “to exist in and inseparable from something else.” If the danger arises only when the material is melted, then the danger cannot be inherent—the material itself presents no risk of injury. Acknowledging this fact, Ramos and the appellate court focus on the manufacturing process that created the fumes that allegedly caused Ramos’s illness. PLF therefore argues that if it is the manufacturing process that caused the employee’s injury, then this case presents nothing more or less than a typical workers’ compensation claim and Ramos should seek compensation through that exclusive remedy.

PLF further argues that, should the California Supreme Court nonetheless find that this case presents an exception to the exclusive remedy of workers’ compensation, then the suppliers of raw materials should be held to have no duty to warn an employee who should have received safety information and instruction from the party in the best position to provide it: his employer. The employers’ knowledge is particularly important when compared to suppliers of commodities that have multiple uses. When the end product could be anything that incorporates the industrial material, the product packaging, labels, or inserts cannot reasonably be expected to effectively address all the possibilities with a “one size fits all” warning.

Each potential use has its own manufacturing process, the details and potential hazards of which are best—and perhaps only—known by the manufacturer who purchased the raw material. For example, there does not exist a meaningful single warning that an aluminum supplier could offer to the multiplicity of foundries and other metalworking businesses, all with different products and clients in mind. And if a single warning does not suffice—if the supplier must append unique warnings specifically designed for the purchaser’s business, the cost of the raw materials and component parts would skyrocket as the suppliers could not absorb all the additional costs of researching and designing warnings for each individual client. This would have dire consequences on California’s already-suffering manufacturing base, which has already lost 613,000 jobs between 2001 and 2011.  PLF therefore urges the court to adopt the majority view nationwide, and reject bulk supplier liability in this case.

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