In a 6-3 ruling on March 19, 2019, the United States Supreme Court held that, under maritime law, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn when its “bare metal” product requires incorporation of a part the manufacturer knows or has reason to know is likely to be dangerous, such as asbestos-containing components.

In Air & Liquid Systems Corp., et al. v. DeVries, No. 17-1104, 586 U.S. ___ (2019), the Supreme Court examined the scope of a manufacturer’s duty to warn of the dangers of asbestos when its own bare metal products are later combined with asbestos-containing parts that the manufacturer did not make or sell. Plaintiffs Kenneth McAfee and John DeVries (“Plaintiffs”) filed suit in state court against a number of product manufacturers alleging that they developed cancer as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing equipment, including pumps, blowers, and turbines manufactured by the defendants, while serving on U.S. Navy vessels.[1] Plaintiffs asserted, inter alia, that defendants were negligent in failing to adequately warn of the dangers associated with the use of their equipment, even though the defendant-manufacturers of the equipment at issue did not always incorporate asbestos into their products and instead delivered much of the equipment to the Navy without asbestos, in a condition known as “bare metal.” Defendants removed to federal district court under maritime jurisdiction and subsequently moved for summary judgment based on the “bare-metal defense.” The District Court granted the motions for summary judgment, and Plaintiffs appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated and remanded, holding that “a manufacturer of a bare-metal product may be held liable for a plaintiff’s injuries suffered from later-added asbestos-containing materials” if the manufacturer could foresee that its product would be used with later-added asbestos-containing parts. In re Asbestos. Prods. Litig., 873 F.3d 232, 240 (3d Cir. 2017). The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve inconsistency among the Courts of Appeals regarding the validity and application of the bare-metal defense under maritime law.
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Imagine this scenario:  Company X manufactures a “bare-metal” product. After the product is sold, the buyer adds defective asbestos-containing insulation manufactured by Company Y to the product, which is sold for its proper function. Unfortunately, an end-user is then injured by the insulation manufactured by Company Y.  The “bare-metal defense” suggests that the bare-metal manufacturer, Company X, would not be liable for this injury.  In practice, the intuitive logic of the bare-metal defense is not always followed.  Thus, the short answer to the question of the bare-metal manufacturer’s liability is, “it depends.”

Some courts apply a bright-line rule, holding that a bare-metal product manufacturer is never liable for asbestos-related injuries, while other courts assess the foreseeability that hazardous asbestos materials would be added to the manufacturer’s bare-metal product. The Supreme Court has not yet addressed this issue, and neither had the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, until October 3, 2017, in In re:  Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI).

What is the “Bare-metal Defense”?

In simplest terms, the “bare-metal defense” contends that equipment manufacturers are not liable for the potential hazards of asbestos-related injuries, when the source of the asbestos exposure comes from aftermarket replacement component parts or insulation that the equipment manufacturer neither manufactured nor placed into the stream of commerce. Some courts have applied the defense when considering causation, concluding that the bare-metal manufacturer was not the proximate cause of an asbestos-related injury.  Others courts have analyzed similar issues when evaluating whether a bare-metal manufacturer had a duty to act with reasonable care with respect to reasonably foreseeable asbestos-related risks. Although slightly different, both analyses hinge upon foreseeability.

The Third Circuit addressed the application of the “bare-metal defense,” and in particular, whether to use a bright-line rule or a fact-specific standard, in a maritime negligence claim.

The Third Circuit’s Decision in In re: Asbestos Products Liability Litigation (No. VI)

            Two widows of former Navy servicemen alleged that their husbands were exposed to asbestos from insulation and other components that were added onto engines, pumps, boilers, and other equipment manufactured by defendants. Many of the defendants made their products “bare-metal” and without any asbestos-containing insulation, which was later added. These same defendants asserted the “bare-metal defense” and were granted summary judgment by the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, because they shipped their products without asbestos-containing insulation and therefore could not be liable for asbestos-related injuries.

Both widows appealed the summary judgment to the Third Circuit. In tackling this issue, the Court reviewed the four main tenets of maritime law:

  • Maritime law is deeply concerned with the protection of sailors;
  • Maritime law is built on “traditions of simplicity and practicality;”
  • Maritime law has a “fundamental interest” in “the protection of maritime commerce;” and
  • Maritime law seeks out “uniform rules to govern conduct and liability.”

The Third Circuit found only the first tenet to be dispositive of the “bare-metal defense,” and stated that none of the other tenets weigh heavily in either direction. Maritime law
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