The bare metal defense has become a “go-to” defense for defendants involved in national asbestos litigation. Predominantly asserted by manufacturers of industrial equipment, the defense provides that those defendants that manufactured products composed only of metal have no duty to warn of asbestos-containing components later installed by others post-sale. It also rejects liability for “affixed” external materials – typically thermal insulation and flange gaskets manufactured by others – placed on the metal products by someone other than the defendant.

While the defense has been the subject of numerous cases, its application has not been uniform.  However, the decisions fall into three main categories:

  1. a defense-friendly category, holding that manufacturers have no duty to warn of asbestos-containing replacement parts supplied by a third party;
  2. a plaintiff-friendly category, holding that manufacturers have a duty to warn whenever it is foreseeable that asbestos-containing material may be used with their products; and
  3. a “middle ground,” holding that manufacturers generally have no such duty, but do have a duty to warn when the use of asbestos-containing materials (a) was specified by a defendant, (b) was essential to the proper functioning of the defendant’s products, or (c) was for “some reason so inevitable that, by supplying the product, the defendant was responsible for introducing asbestos into the environment at issue.”

Recently, the Northern District of Illinois expressly adopted the middle ground. In Quirin v. Lorillard Tobacco Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18744 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 14, 2014), the court ultimately denied Crane Co.’s summary judgment motion under an exception to the middle-ground approach, namely that the plaintiff was able to proffer evidence that Crane Co. specified the asbestos-containing replacement components or that the asbestos-containing components were necessary for the metal products to function.

Quirin arose out of the plaintiff’s alleged exposure to asbestos-containing Crane Co. valves during the plaintiff’s service in the U.S. Navy. Although the valves themselves were composed of “bare metal,” they included an internal bonnet gasket and stem packing at the time of shipment that may have contained asbestos. In addition, Crane Co. sold asbestos-containing replacement gaskets, gasket material and packing. Crane Co. moved for summary judgment, arguing that its valves were bare metal and, accordingly, Crane Co. had no duty to warn of asbestos-containing components manufactured by others and ultimately applied by the Navy, the end user of the product.

Quirin looked to other jurisdictions for guidance, expressly citing the California Supreme Court’s ruling in O’Neil v. Crane Co., 53 Cal. 4th 335 (2012), noting that “manufacturers are not required to investigate and warn of the potential risks of any other products that might be used with a Crane Co. product. The duty attaches only when the manufacturer incorporated the asbestos-containing material into its product, meaning that asbestos would inevitably be introduced into the stream of commerce along with the product.” The Quirin court, however, found that the O’Neil court “qualified its conclusion” and “left room for an exception to the rule” because the plaintiffs inO’Neil did not prove the equipment at issue needed asbestos to function.

Quirin relied on evidence that Crane Co. valves were used for high heat applications, that at least some of its valves needed asbestos-containing components to function properly, and that Crane Co. provided specifications for such use. Taken together, the court concluded that a jury could find that Crane Co. had a legal duty to warn about the hazards of asbestos exposure from working with its valves.

On one hand, the fact that the Quirin court cited the O’Neil case with approval is encouraging for equipment defendants in Illinois. However, the adoption of the middle-ground approach by the Northern District of Illinois is troubling. Practically speaking, there is minimal difference between the middle-ground approach and the plaintiff-oriented foreseeability approach, since the plaintiffs will merely proffer expert testimony to prove the “bare metal” product at issue was used for hot applications and “needed asbestos” to function properly. As presently interpreted by the Northern District, then, defendants need to be particularly aware of the bare metal defense’s limitations; it does not provide a complete bar for bare metal defendants, even those that never manufactured asbestos-containing products or provided asbestos-containing components with their products.

Fortunately, however, development of the bare metal defense is still in its infancy in Illinois.  Indeed, there has yet to be a definitive ruling rendered by an Illinois appellate court on the issue. In fact, just before the ruling inQuirin, the Asbestos MDL remanded an asbestos lawsuit to the Southern District of Illinois to determine whether the state even recognized the bare metal defense.  For now, equipment defendants in federal court in Illinois are well advised to argue the policy and rationale of O’Neil and push at the state and federal level for a bright-line rule of nonliability for other parties’ products.