Product Liability -- 2015

May v. Air & Liquid Systems, Inc.   (Maryland)

Duty to warn about hazards in products made by other manufacturers

The NAM joined with 6 other organizations urging Maryland's highest court to affirm a lower court ruling that refused to hold a manufacturer liable for failing to disclose the hazards that arose from products made, sold or installed by another manufacturer. Under common law, manufacturers are only liable for hazards in their own products. We opposed the creation of a new duty to warn about hazards a manufacturer does not produce or put in its products.

Product liability law generally attaches to entities which participate in the chain of distribution of a product that causes harm because of a defect in that product but does not hold them liable for products made by others. Allowing for the reverse of this decision is unsound public policy. Such logic would require the manufacturers of staplers to be legally responsible every time a person is hurt due to a paper cut. Courts nationwide have almost uniformly held that a manufacturer has no duty to warn about hazards in a third-party’s asbestos-containing product. Consumer safety could be undermined by the potential for over-warning and through conflicting information that may be provided by manufacturers of different components and by makers of finished products.

This case specifically addresses a company’s liability due to another manufacturer creating products with asbestos. Roughly 100 companies have entered bankruptcy to address their asbestos liabilities. The bankruptcies established a privately funded personal injury compensation system of over 60 multi-billion dollar trusts. This system operates parallel to, but independent of, the civil tort system and provides substantial compensation to plaintiffs for harms caused by companies that were the largest asbestos defendants. Currently, the lack of coordination between the asbestos bankruptcy trust claim and civil tort systems can lead to “double dipping” as plaintiffs obtain tort recoveries for their injuries and then bring additional claims against asbestos trusts for the same injury.

Our amicus brief supported well-established law that a manufacturer of one product has no duty to warn about the alleged hazards of another's product. This is true even where the supplier knew its product may be integrated into another product that could cause harm.

Unfortunately, on Dec. 18, 2015, the court ruled 7-2 that "a manufacturer will have a duty to warn under negligence and strict liability when (1) its product contains asbestos components, and no safer material is available; (2) asbestos is a critical part of the pump sold by the manufacturer; (3) periodic maintenance involving handling asbestos gaskets and packing is required; and (4) the manufacturer knows or should know the risks from exposure to asbestos.” The court placed its principal justification on whether the injury was foreseeable. It also thought the burden on the manufacturer was negligible because the instruction manuals for the pumps "could easily have included in those manuals a warning that asbestos dust was dangerous, and a directive to wear protective gear. . . ." The duty on manufacturers announced in this case is intended to be "a narrow and limited duty." Presumably if asbestos were not the only product required for use with the pumps, the manufacturer would not have had to warm. It expressly declined to "extend the duty to warn to all instances when a manufacturer can foresee that a defective component may be used with its product."

Related Documents:
NAM amicus brief  (June 4, 2015)


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