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Sometimes asbestos is contained in a component part of a larger product. When these component parts require regular maintenance or replacement, the person responsible for the maintenance may be exposed to asbestos. Courts are currently determining whether the manufacturer of the larger product can be held liable for injuries arising from such exposure. The Maryland Court of Appeals recently found that it can, in limited circumstances.
In May v. Air & Liquid Systems Corp., the plaintiff was the widow of a man who had served active duty in the Navy from 1956 through 1976. The respondents in the appeal were manufacturers of steam pumps that had been sold to the Navy. At the time of delivery, the pumps had asbestos gaskets and packing because the asbestos could withstand the high pressure and temperatures.
The plaintiff’s husband had testified that he reviewed the instruction manuals for the equipment he serviced. The manuals for the steam pumps in question did not have any warning about the hazards of asbestos or instructions to wear protective gear. The plaintiff’s husband was exposed to asbestos fibers when he replaced the asbestos gaskets and packing. He used tools that generated dust when he removed the gaskets. He also generated dust when he shaped the replacement into the proper size. He testified that he had removed “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of gaskets.”
Although he had been exposed to asbestos gaskets and packing, he was not exposed to the asbestos gaskets and packing the respondents had placed in their products. The gaskets and packing used by the respondents had already been replaced by other mechanics with components acquired from other parties before the man had even entered the Navy.
The plaintiff’s husband was diagnosed with mesothelioma in January 2012. The husband and wife filed suit against several defendants, including the manufacturers of the replacement gaskets and packing. After discovery, the respondents moved for summary judgment, arguing that they did not have a duty to warn about the dangers of replacement parts that they had not manufactured or placed into the stream of commerce. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.
Maryland case law has established a number of non-exclusive factors to determine if a duty to warn exists. The appeals court examined the facts of this case in light of those factors. In negligence cases, foreseeability is the primary determining factor. The court noted that foreseeability is strong if the manufacturer knew or should have known that asbestos-containing components were necessary for the product to function properly. There was testimony indicating that there had not been a suitable alternative to the asbestos gaskets and packing at the time the man had been exposed. The court noted that even if the pump’s design did not specifically require the use of asbestos gaskets and packing, the gaskets and packing would still have to have been replaced with other gaskets and packing containing asbestos because there was not any other material that could be used with the pumps and withstand the high heat. The appeals court found that this fact supported a finding that there was foreseeability of harm, as well as a close connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury.
Ultimately, the appeals court found that foreseeability and four other factors supported imposing a duty in this case, while one factor was neutral and only one supported not imposing a duty. The appeals court therefore held that there is a duty to warn when the manufacturer’s product contains asbestos components, there is no safer material available, asbestos is critical to the product as sold by the manufacturer, the product requires periodic maintenance that involves handling the asbestos-containing component, and the manufacturer knew or should have known of the hazards of asbestos exposure.
As to the strict liability claim, the appeals court noted that negligence concepts have been applied to strict liability failure to warn cases. Therefore, the same circumstances would impose a duty to warn under a strict liability theory as the court found would impose a duty under the negligence theory. The appeals court further noted that replacing the gaskets and packing with identical parts did not constitute a substantial modification. Additionally, the appeals court noted that the elements it set forth ensured that the substantial modification doctrine was addressed. The manufacturer’s product must contain asbestos, making it defective at the time of sale. Additionally, the requirement that the product does not properly function without using asbestos means that the product remains defective.
The appeals court noted that it did not extend the duty to warn to all circumstances in which a manufacturer can foresee the use of a defective component in its product. A manufacturer is generally not liable for parts containing asbestos that it did not manufacture or put into the stream of commerce, but in certain narrow circumstances, the manufacturer may be liable for injuries arising from component parts in Maryland.
The appeals court reversed the Court of Special Appeals’ affirmance of the summary judgment in favor of the respondents and remanded the case to the circuit court.
Asbestos exposure cases can be very complex. Our mesothelioma attorneys understand that it can be difficult to identify the viable defendants, but we have the knowledge and experience to determine which potential defendants should be pursued.
May v. Air & Liquid Systems Corp., December 18, 2015, Court of Appeals of Maryland
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