Supreme Court of Tennessee at Knoxville, January 4, 2021
On January 4, 2021, the Supreme Court of Tennessee handed down its long-awaited decision in the Coffman matter, and on an issue of first impression, adopted the bare metal defense under Tennessee law. By way of background, the trial court in Coffman granted summary judgment to several pump, valve, and steam trap defendants (Equipment Defendants), finding that they had affirmatively negated their alleged duty to warn on the plaintiffs’ claims that arose from the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing insulation and flange gaskets, and replacement internal gaskets and packing manufactured and sold by others. The plaintiffs appealed, and the appellate court reversed, holding that while the issue was one of first impression, the bare metal defense was inconsistent with Tennessee law. Instead, the court used an analysis found in prior state supreme court jurisprudence, Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Co., which required the weighing of factors such as foreseeability of harm; the possible magnitude of potential harm; the social value and usefulness of the defendant’s conduct; and the feasibility, costs, and burdens of alternatives, in determining whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff. The Equipment Defendants applied to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and the court granted their application on the following question: “Whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the Equipment Defendants had a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others.” In short, the court held, yes—the Equipment Defendants had no duty to warn, based on the facts and applicable law.
The plaintiffs’ cause of action against the Equipment Defendants sounded in the Tennessee Products Liability Act of 1978 (TPLA). The plaintiffs claimed that the Equipment Defendants were liable for the plaintiff’s injuries, because he was exposed to asbestos while working with or near the Equipment Defendants’ products, including valves, pumps, and steam traps. The plaintiffs alleged that the Equipment Defendants were subject to liability because their products were unreasonably dangerous, and because they failed to adequately warn users of potential asbestos exposure resulting from the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others, including external insulation, flange gaskets, and replacement internal gaskets and packing. The plaintiffs argued that “the Equipment Defendants were liable under a duty-to warn theory, because it was foreseeable, and even intended, that their equipment be repaired and maintained with asbestos-containing materials.”
The court noted at the outset that the answer to whether the Equipment Defendants had a duty to warn was found in the plain language of the TPLA, which supersedes common law claims, and provides extensive statutory framework for claims arising from injuries alleged to have been caused by products. Additionally, the TPLA specifically addresses the issue of duty to warn. The court noted that “[t]he TPLA specifically provides that a defendant shall not be liable under the TPLA unless the product is defective or unreasonably dangers at the time it left the defendant’s control,” and as such, “[i]n order to prevail in a products liability action, a plaintiff must prove that the product in question was either defective or unreasonably dangerous…at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller.” The plaintiffs argued that under the TPLA, a product is in a “defective condition” if it is in a condition that “renders it unsafe for normal or anticipatable handling and consumption,” and that the Equipment Defendants’ products were in a defective condition at the time they left their control, “because they were designed to use asbestos-containing materials and provided no warnings as to the dangers of asbestos.” However, in interpreting the plain language of the statute, the court found that “[t]he very definition of ‘defective condition’ states that the products condition ‘renders it unsafe for normal or anticipated handling and consumption’—the “it” meaning the defendant’s own product, not some later-included product.
The plaintiffs further noted that the TPLA states that “[i]f a product is not unreasonably dangerous at the time it leaves the control of the manufacturer or seller but was made unreasonably dangerous by subsequent unforeseeable alteration, change, improper maintenance or abnormal use, the manufacturer or seller is not liable.” This, the plaintiffs argued, would necessarily hold manufacturers liable for any foreseeable alterations, changes, improper maintenance, or abnormal use of their products. With this, Plaintiffs asserted that the Equipment Defendants not only foresaw, “but actually intended and specified that asbestos material be used with their products.” However, the court rejected this argument, declining to “read [the TPLA] in a vacuum.”
In briefly addressing the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, which rejected the bare metal defense, the court noted that the U.S. Supreme Court was not bound by any statute, and therefore had to craft its own test. In this case, the TPLA supplied the court with the analytical framework. Additionally, the court pointed out that the DeVries case related to federal maritime tort common law, and had nothing to do with the statutory interpretation of the TPLA.
In consideration of all of the above, the court concluded that “under the language of the TPLA, the Equipment Defendants cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from products they did not make, distribute, or sell.”