New Jersey Supreme Court Affirms Manufacturer Liability for Third-Party Asbestos-Containing Component Parts

This case was initially filed in Middlesex County, NJ by the plaintiff in 2014. The plaintiff, Arthur Whelan, alleged he contracted mesothelioma from working on products manufactured by defendants, including original asbestos-containing components and asbestos-containing replacement components manufactured by other entities. At the summary judgment stage, the defendants argued the plaintiff could not establish that his exposure to asbestos was the result of any product they manufactured or distributed. Further, they denied any liability for the plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos-containing replacement parts that they did not manufacture or distribute, even though the parts were incorporated into their products. The plaintiff argued the defendants had a duty to warn, regardless if they manufactured the replacement component parts.

The trial court determined the plaintiff could not establish that he was exposed to asbestos-containing components that defendants manufactured or distributed. The court also found the defendants could not be held liable for asbestos-containing replacement components later incorporated into their products unless those components were manufactured or distributed by the defendants. The defendants’ motions for summary judgment were granted.

The plaintiff appealed the trial court’s decision. While awaiting the Appellate Court’s decision in the Whelan matter, Hughes v. A. W. Chesterton Co. was decided. 435 N.J. Super. 326, 332, 341-42 (App. Div. 2014). The Appellate Court held in Hughes that the defendant, a pump manufacturer, had a duty to warn, regardless of who manufactured the replacement components for defendant’s pumps, because the “asbestos-containing gaskets and packing posed an inherent danger in the pumps as originally manufactured” and because “it was reasonably foreseeable . . . that the gaskets and packing would be replaced regularly with gaskets and packing that contained asbestos.” Id. at 341. Ultimately, the court affirmed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment to defendants due to the plaintiff’s failure to establish medical causation. Id. at 346.

As for the Whelan Court, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision, determining the “defendants had a duty to warn about the dangers of the asbestos-containing replacement components necessary for the continued functioning of their products and that defendants can be held strictly liable for the failure to do so, provided Whelan suffered sufficient exposure to the replacement components to contribute to his disease.” See 455 N.J. Super. 569, 599, 606-08 (App. Div. 2018). The Appellate Division found that Whelan had “presented sufficient evidence detailing his exposure to asbestos,” either from defendants’ original parts, or replacement components or from a third party’s replacement parts, to withstand summary judgment. Id. at 580.

The Supreme Court granted the defendants’ petitions for certification. In affirming the Appellate Court’s decision, the court here held “for failure-to-warn purposes, no distinction is made between the original asbestos-containing components and the asbestos-containing replacement components necessary for the continued operation of defendants’ integrated products – even though the replacement components are manufactured or distributed by a third party. Our developing common law jurisprudence, guided by principles of public policy and equity, dictates that defendants who manufacture or distribute products that, by their design, require the replacement of asbestos-containing components with other asbestos-containing components during the ordinary life of the product have a duty to give adequate warnings to the ultimate user.” In finding for the plaintiff, the court established a four-part test in determining whether defendants should be held liable for asbestos-containing component parts they did not manufacture or distribute: (1) the manufacturers or distributors incorporated asbestos-containing components in their original products; (2) the asbestos-containing components were integral to the product and necessary for it to function; (3) routine maintenance of the product required replacing the original asbestos-containing components with similar asbestos-containing components; and (4) the exposure to the asbestos-containing components or replacement components was a substantial factor in causing or exacerbating the plaintiff’s disease.

In the 5-2 vote, Justice Albin wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justices Rabner, LaVecchia, Solomon and Timpone. Justice Patterson authored the dissent, joined by Justice Fernandez-Vina.