• Supreme Court Decision Expands Manufacturer's Duty to Warn
  • September 12, 2012 | Authors: Kenneth M. Gorenberg; Heather M. Ignoffo
  • Law Firm: Barnes & Thornburg LLP - Chicago Office
  • In a decision potentially expanding a manufacturer’s duty to warn, the Supreme Court of Washington held that a manufacturer, not in the chain of distribution, is liable for its failure to warn of the dangers of a product.

    In Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc. the Supreme Court of Washington addressed whether respirator manufacturers were responsible for health hazards resulting from cleaning noxious materials from their used products. The case itself involved a man, Leo Macias who worked as tool keeper at Todd Shipyards in Seattle, Washington from 1978 to 2004. In the shipyard, workers wore respirators manufactured by American Optical Corporation, Mine Safety Appliances Company, and North America Safety Products USA (“defendants”) in order to filter various contaminants including asbestos. As tool keeper, Macias was responsible for collecting the used respirators and cleaning them before their reuse.

    In 2008 Macias was diagnosed with mesothelioma and in June of that same year he and his wife filed a personal injury lawsuit against the defendants asserting negligence and product liability. The defendants subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment which was denied by the trial court. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Supreme Court of Washington’s precedent in Simonetta v. Viad Corp., 197 P.3d 127 (2008) and Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings, 198 P.3d 493 (2008), precluded the suit as a matter of law because the defendants were not in the chain of distribution. The Supreme Court of Washington again reversed, holding that Simonetta and Braaten are distinguishable and do not foreclose claims against manufacturers such as the defendants because, where a product is “used exactly as intended and cleaned for reuse exactly as intended they inherently and invariably posed the danger of exposure to asbestos.” The court made special note that there is no absolute rule for finding a manufacturer strictly liable for product liability, and that the “general rule” stating that a manufacturer must be in the chain of distribution is subject to exceptions.

    The holding in Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings Inc. appears to be an unprecedented expansion of a manufacturer’s duty to warn. In addition to a four justice dissent vehemently disagreeing with the majority’s decision, Macias is also in conflict with O'Neil v. Crane Co., 53 Cal. 4th 335 (2012). In O’Neil, plaintiff sought to hold a pump manufacturer and a valve manufacturer liable for asbestos-containing replacement gaskets and external insulation added to the pumps and valves post sale. The defendant manufacturers did not manufacturer, sell or distribute the replacement gaskets or external insulation. The Supreme Court of California granted the defendants’ dispositive motions holding that a manufacturer does not have a duty to warn of dangers arising from another manufacturer's product, even if it is foreseeable the products will be used together. Id.

    The potential implications of the Macias decision are significant. Requiring manufacturers of safety products to anticipate and affirmatively warn consumers about all activities and risks associated with the use of its products is a considerable burden and one that will drastically increase a manufacturer’s liability for these products. Furthermore the court does not explicitly restrict this liability to manufacturers of safety products. Based on the court’s language, manufacturers may be liable for failure to warn consumers of any product that “inherently and invariably” poses a danger to its users even if the actual danger stems from another product entirely. The dissent anticipates these concerns and warns that this decision will likely result in one of two consequences: manufacturers may place so many warnings on its products that the warnings themselves will become meaningless; or manufacturers may cease the production of these products because the risk of liability outweighs the potential for profit.

    Ultimately the effect of Macias will depend on whether courts within Washington and in other jurisdictions follow its precedent. Minimally it encourages plaintiffs to file suits against manufacturers outside of the chain of distribution and gives them case law to defend their position in court, or to leverage a better settlement offer from a defendant.