Federal Court Applies Bare Metals Defense in Finding Boiler Manufacturer Not Liable for Asbestos Supplied by Third Parties

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After the plaintiff’s husband died from lung cancer, the plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging strict liability and negligence due to asbestos exposure from his work insulating and maintaining boilers. It was transferred to the Pennsylvania MDL, then remanded back to Wisconsin federal court. Defendant Trane U.S., Inc. then moved for summary judgment, arguing: (1) it did not assume the liabilities of American Standard, and (2) American Standard did not manufacture, distribute or specify the asbestos materials that caused decedent’s injuries. The court granted the motion on the second ground; under the “bare metals defense,” Trane could not be held liable for injuries caused by products it did not manufacture, distribute, or specify to be used.

First, the plaintiff’s strict liability claim failed because the trial judge found that American Standard was not the manufacturer or seller of asbestos materials to which the decedent was exposed. Second, the court looked to Wisconsin law in determining the plaintiff’s negligence claim likewise failed. The plaintiff argued that American Standard’s duty of care required it to warn the decedent about harms associated with third parties’ asbestos products, because it was foreseeable that contractors and maintenance workers would use such materials on American Standard boilers. However, Wisconsin law has rejected the proposition that a defendant’s duty of care is tied to whether the plaintiff’s alleged harm was foreseeable. Further, individuals have no obligation to prevent harms that may or will befall others, regardless of the foreseeability of such harms, unless those harms are in some way attributable to the individuals’ conduct. “Courts in Wisconsin have recognized consistently that a defendant’s duty to warn is generally limited to the risks associated with its products, not the products of third-parties, regardless whether the use of those third-party products is foreseeable.”

The court found that: “Here … the asbestos-containing products that harmed plaintiff were neither manufactured nor distributed by American Standard, and their dangerous propensities were not attributable to the fact that they were used in connection with American Standard’s boilers. Moreover, there is no evidence that American Standard participated (either actually or constructively through some form of specifications) in integrating the asbestos-containing materials into the boiler. Accordingly, defendant cannot be held liable for failing to warn about the dangers associated with the third-party asbestos-containing products plaintiff handled.”

Although the plaintiff pointed to manuals and deposition testimony requiring asbestos insulation, this evidence was inadmissible because the plaintiff offered no foundation. Further, limiting Trane’s liability was consistent with Wisconsin public policy considerations; allowing recovery in this case would have “no sensible or just stopping point,” and doing so would place too unreasonable a burden upon the tortfeasor.

Read the full decision here.