The Georgia Supreme Court has weighed-in on the issue of manufacturers’ liability for take-home exposure cases. In the opinion recently issued in CertainTeed Corporation v. Fletcher, the Court drew an unexpected distinction between a manufacturer’s duty to issue warnings and its responsibility to keep harmful products out of the stream of commerce. Justice Carol Hunstein, writing for the Court, concludes that while manufacturers do not generally have a duty to warn third parties of the possible hazards of asbestos dust from its products, a manufacturer does bear the burden of proving that its product, as designed, is not defective. The opinion comes as a bit of surprise, as it seems to contradict a prior opinion issued by the Court, wherein it held that an employer owes no duty to third-party, non-employees, who come into contact with its employees’ asbestos-tainted work clothing at locations away from the work place.
Plaintiff Marcelle Fletcher filed suit in Georgia after being diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma. In her complaint, Fletcher alleges that years of laundering her father’s asbestos-tainted clothing caused her to come into contact with asbestos from cement water pipe manufactured by CertainTeed, which eventually caused her mesothelioma. When the trial court granted CertainTeed’s motion for summary judgment on Fletcher’s failure-to-warn and product defect claims, Fletcher appealed. The appellate court reversed and the Georgia Supreme Court thereafter granted review of CertainTeed’s appeal.
On appeal, the Supreme Court held that CertainTeed, as a manufacturer, owed no duty to warn Fletcher of the possible hazards of asbestos dust from its products. In reaching its conclusion the Court cited public policy concerns that could result from an expansion of the class of individuals protected by a manufacturer’s duty to warn, stating that any such duty placed on the manufacturer would ultimately shift to the product user. Looking at the facts in the case before it, the Court determined that while “Fletcher would not have seen any warning label placed on CertainTeed’s products … a warning could have permitted her father to take steps to mitigate any danger posed by the asbestos dust on his clothing.” The Court nevertheless determined that such a conclusion would be “problematic” in that it effectively makes the product-user responsible for protecting those with whom he or she comes into contact, whether those individuals were members of the same household or members of the same community. The Court reasoned that imposing such an indefinite and imprecise duty on CertainTeed to warn all individuals in Fletcher’s position would be unreasonable, classifying the scope and mechanism of such warnings as “endless.”
Regarding Fletcher’s design defect claim, however, the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s reversal of summary judgment, finding that CertainTeed had failed to prove that its product was not defectively designed. The Court’s holding seems, at first, to contradict its 2005 decision in CSK Trans. v. Williams, 278 Ga. 888, 608 SE 2d 208 (2005), wherein the Court barred take-home exposure claims against employers, holding that employers did not owe a duty to the household members of its employees. The Court in Fletcher drew a distinction between the duties owed by an employer to its employees’ household members and the duties owed by a product manufacturer to third-party, non-users of its products. The Court explained that unlike a duty to warn claim, analysis of a design defect claim centers on the conduct of the manufacturer and the reasonableness of its product’s design. Both factors are considered within the standard framework of risk-utility analysis utilized in product liability claims, including the consideration of factors such as the usefulness of the product and whether the manufacturer acted reasonably in choosing a particular product design given the seriousness of the risk posed by the product.
Moving forward, the current ruling lessens the burden on manufacturers defending take-home exposure claims in Georgia by eliminating the need for those manufacturers to prove that they issued sufficient warnings decades ago, a generally fact-sensitive determination that often hinges on witness testimony and presumably faulty memories. Manufacturers can likewise find some relief in the Court’s holding regarding design defect claims. Because the analysis of a design defect claim does not consider a plaintiff’s use of the alleged defective product but rather focuses on the manufacturer’s conduct in designing the product, manufacturers are in a position to establish and fine-tune these defenses without having to rely heavily on the specific facts of each case where it applies. Given the Court’s ruling on duty to warn claims, we expect that the State of Georgia will see an increase in design defect claims brought by take-home plaintiffs.