Earlier this month, a California appellate court held that the government contractor immunity defense applies to a boiler manufactured to United States Navy specifications, shielding the manufacturer from a design defect claim. Oxford v. Foster Wheeler LLC, Docket No. A121577 (Cal. Ct. App., September 9, 2009).
The trial court litigation involved claims that the plaintiffs’ decedent had contracted mesothelioma while serving on board a United States Navy repair vessel due to exposure to asbestos contained in boilers manufactured by the defendant. The complaint included claims for negligence and products liability.
In response, the manufacturer asserted the government contractor immunity defense. As articulated in Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988), the doctrine provides that a manufacturer of military equipment cannot be held liable for a state law design defect claim if “(1) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (3) the supplier warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not to the United States.” Boyle, supra, 487 U.S. at 512. After trial, the jury found that the defendant had proved all three elements of the defense.
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the government contractor immunity defense could not apply to boilers because they are not “military equipment,” as the defendant manufactures similar products for non-military clients. However, the court found that the boilers were not akin to an off-the-shelf product which happened to be purchased for use by the military. “The boilers were designed pursuant to exceedingly detailed and precise military specifications that required the use of asbestos in many instances,” the Court held. The court relied on an earlier California decision holding that where a product is manufactured to military specifications, and used by the military because its qualities serve a military purpose, that product is considered military equipment for purposes of the doctrine despite incidental commercial applications for the product. Jackson v. Deft, Inc., 223 Cal.App.3d 1305. Under the analysis in Jackson, the court saw “no reason” why the defendant would be precluded from asserting the government contractor immunity defense. Plaintiff also unsuccessfully argued that a negligent failure to warn claim was not within the scope of the government contractor immunity defense.