Affirming limits on the duty to warn third parties of toxic exposure risks, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that a manufacturer of asbestos-laden pipes had no duty to warn the daughter of a worker who serviced the pipes about the dangers of asbestos dust inhalation. See Certainteed Corp. v. Fletcher, 794 S.E.2d 641 (Ga. 2016). The Plaintiff laundered her father's work clothing, which was covered in asbestos dust, for years. After developing mesothelioma, the Plaintiff sued the pipe manufacturer, alleging negligent design and negligent failure to warn. The trial court granted summary judgment to the manufacturer, but the Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed, holding in part that the question of the duty to warn was one for the jury.
On review, the Supreme Court of Georgia emphasized that the scope of the duty to warn is not resolved by the foreseeability of third-party exposure to toxic hazards. Rather, public policy considerations addressing the practical effect of a duty to warn may recommend against imposing a duty. The court noted that the Plaintiff would not have seen warning labels on the manufacturer's pipes, which would ultimately have placed the burden of conveying the warning on the worker. Moreover, it found that the scope of the third-party warning sought by Plaintiff "would be endless" and would expand traditional tort concepts beyond acceptable limits. Accordingly, the court reversed in part and declined to require a manufacturer warning. The decision is consistent with an earlier opinion in which the Georgia Supreme Court found that an employer does not owe a duty to third-party, non-employees exposed to asbestos-tainted work clothing. See CSX Transp. v. Williams, 608 S.E. 2d 208 (Ga. 2005).
By contrast, the Plaintiff’s defective design claim survived, illustrating that negligent design and negligent failure to warn claims are not co-extensive. The court found that the risk-utility analysis governed, which asks whether the manufacturer reasonably chose the particular product design in light of factors including alternative models. At summary judgment, the defendant could not meet its burden of showing the absence of evidence of defective design; the court therefore held that the defendant’s summary judgment motion should have been denied on that ground.