In an opinion written by new Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the United States Supreme Court held that maritime products liability law imposes on a manufacturer a duty to warn when i) its product requires incorporation of a part; ii) the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended use; and iii) the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize the danger.
The plaintiffs were two Navy veterans, who served upon Navy ships with equipment that required asbestos insulation or asbestos parts in order to function as intended. The defendants were the manufacturers of equipment such as pumps, blowers, and turbines that was used on Navy ships. When used as intended, that equipment can cause the release of asbestos fibers into the air. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant equipment manufacturers were negligent in failing to warn about the dangers of asbestos. The defendants countered that they were not always the ones that incorporated the asbestos into their products, but rather delivered them without asbestos, in a condition known as “bare-metal.” The Navy later added asbestos to the equipment.
The Court reasoned that for a manufacturer of a product, a duty of care includes “a duty to warn when the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that its product is likely to be dangerous for the uses for which is supplied and the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger.” The issue then became what should be the scope of a manufacturer’s duty to warn when its product requires later incorporation of a dangerous part in order for the integrated part to function as intended.
The Supreme Court established a middle ground approach that imposes on a manufacturer of a product the duty to warn when its products require incorporation of a part and the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses. The Court reasoned that the product manufacturers “will often be in a better position than the parts manufacturer to warn of the dangers from the integrated product” as they are “typically more aware of the risks associated with the integrated product.” In declaring this new rule in the context of maritime torts, the Court made a point to reaffirm the “special solicitude for the welfare of those who undertake to venture upon hazardous and unpredictable sea voyages.”
Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Alito, dissented on the basis that the three-party duty to warn test suffered from the same vagueness and uncertainty of the foreseeability rule.