In the context of asbestos-exposure litigation, a federal court in Pennsylvania has determined that under maritime product liability law, a ship is not a product, and thus the shipbuilder cannot be held strictly liable for the various products aboard the ship that may have caused personal injury. Mack v. Gen’l Elec. Co., MDL No. 875, 2:10-78940-ER (U.S. Dist. Ct., E.D. Pa., decided October 3, 3012).

The plaintiff alleged that he had been exposed to asbestos aboard a number of Navy ships during the 1960s and 1970s while employed as a welder by the Department of Defense. He alleged both negligence and strict product liability against the defendants, claiming that they were liable for failing to warn him about asbestos-exposure hazards. The court allowed his negligent failure-to-warn claims to proceed, finding that he was not a sophisticated user of asbestos insulation. But the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiff’s strict liability claim because a ship is not a product.

The latter was an issue of first impression for the court, and it concluded on the basis of policy considerations that to hold a shipbuilder liable for “the thousands (if not tens of thousands) of products assembled in a Navy ship pursuant to Navy specifications, would be an undue, unmanageable, and cumulative burden likely to discourage the activity of shipbuilding.” The court also observed that the entity most knowledgeable about each of the products incorporated into a ship is its manufacturer and that “the role of the builder of Navy ships appears to be more like a provider of a service (assembly of an assortment of products) than a manufacturer or supplier of a product.”