In an opinion issued this week, the Supreme Court of the United States expanded a manufacturer’s duty to warn under maritime tort law. Under the new rule, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn users of potential harm when a product requires integration with a dangerous part, even when the product is not dangerous as manufactured. Justice Kavanaugh authored the 6-3 opinion in Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, with Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito dissenting.
The facts of the case follow two Navy sailors who were exposed to asbestos on ships and subsequently developed cancer. The manufacturers produced ship equipment that did not itself contain asbestos but required that asbestos insulation be applied by the purchaser in order to function as intended. The veterans alleged that exposure to this asbestos caused their cancer and contended that the manufacturers failed to warn of the dangers of asbestos in the integrated products.
The Court agreed with the sailors, finding that manufacturers have a duty to warn when a product requires the incorporation of a part, the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended use, and the manufacturer does not have reason to believe that users will realize the dangers associated with the integrated product.
In rejecting the manufacturer’s “bare metal defense" — which would absolve manufacturers from liability if the manufacturer did not make, sell, distribute, or incorporate the part into the product — the Court emphasized maritime law’s “longstanding solicitude for sailors.”
If there was any doubt before, this case demonstrates that the Supreme Court continues to take seriously its responsibility to protect the wards of admiralty. With this in mind, all eyes are fixed on next week’s oral argument in Dutra Group v. Batterson, Dkt. No. 18-266, which will determine whether Jones Act seamen may be awarded punitive damages in personal injury suits alleging unseaworthiness.