Federal Court Outlines Alternative Standard to Bare Metal Defense

William Bell alleged routine exposure to asbestos while serving as an engine man, machinery repairman, and a machinist mate in the United States Navy in the 1960s. Bell further alleged he was exposed to asbestos both while serving at sea on four ships as well as while training at a land-based Navy facility in Idaho. After being diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015, Bell sued various companies that manufactured a wide range of products including pumps, valves, condensers, compressors, and turbines located on the Navy vessels upon which Bell served. Each of those products was allegedly used in conjunction with asbestos components, but the defendants had varying involvement in the manufacture and installation of those asbestos components. Bell passed away in 2016, and his executor and brother (“the plaintiffs”) further pursued wrongful death and survivorship claims.

The defendants (10 total) filed motions for summary judgment, alleging that the plaintiffs failed to establish that defendants made, sold, or otherwise controlled the asbestos components that released asbestos fibers that caused Bell’s mesothelioma; or what is commonly known as the “bare metal defense.” The defendants relied upon the Sixth Circuit’s view that a manufacturer is not liable unless the manufacturer made, sold or otherwise controlled the precise aftermarket asbestos components that released the asbestos fibers. Because identification of that manufacturer is often nearly impossible, the Sixth Circuit’s interpretation has “the practical effect of precluding recovery in most instances.” [Citation Omitted]. Accordingly, defendants argued that this court should apply the Sixth Circuit’s understanding of the bare metal defense and hold that a company can never have any liability for a product that it did not make, sell, or otherwise control.

In turn, the plaintiffs argue that the mere foreseeability that a company’s product may be used in conjunction with asbestos gives rise to a duty to warn regarding another company’s product. Further, the plaintiffs suggest that the court apply the somewhat narrower standard recognized by the Northern District of Illinois in Quirin, wherein a company has a duty to warn regarding the hazards of asbestos when the company makes “a product that, by necessity, contained asbestos components, where the asbestos-containing material was essential to the proper functioning of the defendant’s product, and where the asbestos-containing material would necessarily be replaced by other asbestos-containing material.” [Citation Omitted]. The plaintiffs also relied upon decisions in several other jurisdictions that rejected the Sixth Circuit’s view of the bare metal defense.

Therefore, a prerequisite to deciding defendants’ motions, this Federal Court was tasked to determine whether it agreed with the Sixth Circuit’s view of the bare metal defense or whether or agreed with the courts rejecting the Sixth Circuit’s view. In the end, this court ultimately disagreed with both sides of the split in authority. Rather, moving away from a one-size-fits-all test, the court applied a more granular standard addressing both (A) the liability of the manufacturer that incorporates asbestos into its finished product and (B) the liability of a bare metal component part manufacturer:

(A) Liability of Manufacturer That Incorporates Asbestos Into Its Finished Product

When a plaintiff alleges liability against a manufacturer of a finished product that incorporates asbestos components, the extent of the manufacturer’s liability primarily turns on whether (i) the harm was caused by a component added by the manufacturer or (ii) an aftermarket component added by the user. If the harm is caused by an asbestos component added to the product by the manufacturer, then, through the uncontroversial application of products liability law, the manufacturer may be liable in both strict liability and negligence actions. However, if the harm is caused by an aftermarket asbestos component, the manufacturer is not liable in a strict products liability action. Likewise, if the harm comes from an aftermarket asbestos component, the manufacturer may also face liability under a negligent misrepresentation theory if the manufacturer negligently recommended the use of a defective aftermarket product.

(B) Liability of A Bare Metal Component Part Manufacturer

When a plaintiff alleges liability against a manufacturer of a bare metal component part that was used in conjunction with an asbestos product, then the manufacturer’s liability turns on whether the manufacturer did something beyond manufacturing of the component part that was used in conjunction with the asbestos. If a component part manufacturer simply designs a component to its buyer’s specifications, and does nothing else, then the manufacturer faces no liability unless the component part is defective in itself. However, if the component part manufacturer does something beyond simply designing and manufacturing a component part, then the manufacturer may be liable under one of the following theories:

(i) If the bare metal component part manufacturer “is substantially involved in the integration of the component into the design of the integrated product, the component seller is subject to liability when the integration results in a defective product and the defect actually causes harm to the plaintiff.” [Citation Omitted]. The component part manufacturer’s liability in such a circumstance would lie in both negligence and strict liability.

(ii) If the bare metal component part manufacturer supplies directly or through a third person a component part for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know to be likely because of his youth, inexperience, or otherwise, to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm to himself and others whom the supplier should expect to share in or be endangered by its use, then the manufacturer is subject to liability for physical harm resulting to them. However, a manufacturer’s liability in such circumstances would lie only in negligence.

(iii) If the bare metal component part manufacturer recommends the use of a hazardous part in conjunction with the manufacturer’s component part, then the manufacturer can face liability if the recommendation negligently gives false information to another, and “harm results” to either (1) the recipient of the information or (2) “third persons” that the manufacturer should expect to be put in peril by the negligent recommendation. Here, the manufacturer is liable only in a negligence action.

Finally, if the component part manufacturer does not make a bare metal product, but instead makes a component part containing asbestos, the component part manufacturer can be liable for that asbestos.

Due to this court’s alternative view of the bare metal defense, all motions were denied without prejudice. With this new standard in place, the court gave the parties the ability to re-brief their summary judgment contentions. New dates were issued in that defendants should re-file their summary judgment briefs no later than October 18, 2016 and the plaintiffs’ responses due no later than November 4, 2016.

Read the full decision here.