United States District Court, D. Maryland, April 29, 2019

MARYLAND — The plaintiff brought suit against several defendants including Foster Wheeler alleging her decedent, Mr. Morris, developed and passed from mesothelioma as a result of his occupational exposure to asbestos while working at Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point Shipyard from 1948-1970’s. Foster Wheeler asserted various defenses in its amended answer including the defenses of sophisticated user and superseding cause. The plaintiff moved for summary judgment on those two defenses.

The court started its analysis by noting the standard for summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. The sophisticated user defense “insulates suppliers of dangerous or defective products from liability for failing to provide a warning to users of the product if the supplier reasonably relied on an intermediary to provide a warning.” Maryland law “focuses on the conduct of the supplier of the dangerous product, not the conduct of the intermediary.” The fact that the intermediary comprehended the risk is not enough to “absolve” the supplier to warn. According to the court, the analysis is fact heavy. Foster Wheeler argued that Bethlehem Steel knew of exposure to asbestos. However, the court pointed out that Foster Wheeler did not establish that it “was aware of Bethlehem Steel’s knowledge of asbestos related health risks, or that it was reasonable for Foster Wheeler to rely on Bethlehem Steel to warn its employees about these health risks.” Although Foster Wheeler put forth evidence of Bethlehem Steel’s knowledge of the dangers of exposure to asbestos, it did not illustrate Bethlehem Steel’s knowledge of the risks. The court also noted that Foster Wheeler’s argument missed the point of the inquiry into reasonableness. For the sophisticated user defense, a defendant must illustrate that it “reasonably relied” upon the intermediary to warn its employees. Consequently, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion as to the sophisticated user defense.

As for the superseding cause defense, the test reviews the intermediary’s conduct rather than the supplier’s. In other words, “a superseding cause is an act of a third person or other force by which its intervention prevents the actor from being liable for harm to another which his antecedent negligence is a substantial factor in bringing about.” Here, Foster Wheeler argued that Bethlehem Steel knew about the risks of asbestos exposure as early as the 1940’s. Bethlehem Steel’s failure to warn its employees was a superseding cause according to Foster wheeler. The court disagreed and stated that the evidence showed a possibility of the risks associated with exposure to asbestos. Moreover, the evidence illustrated that Foster Wheeler representatives were onsite while Mr. Morris was working without a respirator yet took no action. Accordingly, the court concluded that Foster Wheeler had not established evidence to assert the defense of superseding cause.

Read the case decision here.