The plaintiff, a widow, brought claims against pump manufacturers Air & Liquid Systems, Warren Pumps, and IMO Industries (defendants) for asbestos exposure sustained by her deceased husband while serving in the Navy for 20 years, from 1956 until 1976. The decedent died of mesothelioma. The defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that they had no duty to warn of asbestos-containing replacement parts that they neither made nor placed in the stream of commerce. The circuit court granted this motion, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed, and the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed.
In accordance with Navy specifications these pumps contained asbestos gaskets and packing when the pumps were first delivered to the Navy. The decedent worked in the engine room, and consulted the instruction manuals when servicing equipment; the manuals contained no warnings regarding asbestos. The decedent changed both gaskets and packing, and was only exposed to these items after the original gaskets and packing on defendants’ pumps were removed.
At the outset the court noted that the duty to warn can form the basis of a products liability action under either negligence or strict liability, and warnings are a low cost precaution. This case was a novelty because the plaintiff asserted liability even though decedent was never exposed to asbestos dust from the original gaskets and packing. In forming its opinion, the court discussed the handful of cases which had previously addressed this issue.
Regarding negligent failure to warn, defendants argued there was no duty because they did not make or sell the injurious asbestos parts. The plaintiff argued the foreseeability of harm to a navy machinist who replaced these items weighed heavily in favor of imposing a duty to warn, and the court agreed. Further, if these parts must be replaced periodically, the foreseeability of harm was even higher. The court also analyzed other factors, which primarily fell in favor of imposing a duty; these included, among others: degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered the injury; closeness of connection between defendants’ conduct and the injury suffered. With the latter, the court followed previous decisions in finding that: “…when the noxious component of the product is essential to its intended operation, the connection factor is strengthened, and strongly favors finding a duty to warn.” Further, placing a warning in the manuals would be a minimal cost. The court also analyzed: moral blame (tilted slightly in favor of defendants); policy of preventing future harm (neutral); availability of insurance (generally available to defendants). On the whole, the balance of factors clearly favored a finding of duty. The duty to warn thus “exists in the limited circumstances when: (1) a manufacturer’s 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 of the risks from exposure to asbestos.” Although the defendants argued this was poor public policy, the court replied that this duty to warn was limited to when the product had asbestos components, the product could not function properly without these hazardous components, and a machinist would be exposed to the asbestos during necessary, periodic replacement of the parts with other asbestos-containing parts. Further, defendants’ manuals contained detailed instructions on how to replace gaskets and packing, but no warnings, which the record showed likely would have reached the decedent.
Regarding strict liability failure to warn, the court applied Restatement 402A and Comment j, which explained that a seller was only required to give a warning if he had knowledge of the product’s dangerous propensity. Defendants argued strict liability was only justified when the defendant derived an economic benefit from the component parts, as well as the ability to test and inspect the component. The court relied on the intersections between strict liability and negligent failure to warn claims in finding that a manufacturer had a strict liability “duty to warn of asbestos-containing replacement components it has not placed in the stream of commerce only where (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 of the risks from exposure to asbestos.” Although defendants argued there was no duty because the product was essentially modified after sale, the court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the duty to warn was only absolved if there was substantial modification to the product between the time of sale and when the injured party encountered the product. Since the product contained asbestos when it left the manufacturer, it was already defective, and replacing asbestos components with other asbestos components was not a substantial modification.
At the end of the opinion, the court did stress that a manufacturer was generally not strictly liable for products it had not manufactured or placed into the stream of commerce. The court declined to extend the duty to warn in all instances when a manufacturer could foresee that a defective component might be used with its product. Of note, there was also a 20-page dissent.