By Pamela C. Maloney, J.D.
Manufacturers of equipment used in a chemical plant did not have a duty to warn an equipment mechanic who developed mesothelioma of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing parts that were manufactured and sold by other manufacturers, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in a case of first impression (Coffman v. Armstrong International, Inc., January 4, 2021, Page, R.).
The mechanic was employed in a chemical plant where his primary duties required him to repair and replace equipment that included pumps, valves, steam traps, gaskets and piping while working around asbestos-containing packing and insulation. The worker was diagnosed with and later died from mesothelioma allegedly caused by exposure to asbestos in three ways: (1) breathing in dust created by asbestos-containing insulation; (2) breathing in dust created by the removal of asbestos-containing gaskets; and (3) breathing in dust created by the removal of asbestos-containing packing. The worker and his spouse filed products liability claims against the manufacturers of the equipment he repaired, alleging that the equipment manufacturers were subject to liability under the Tennessee Products Liability Act (TPLA) because their products were unreasonably dangerous and because they failed to adequately warn users of potential asbestos exposure resulting from the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others. According to the mechanic, it was foreseeable and even intended that the original equipment would be repaired and maintained with asbestos-containing materials.
The trial court granted the equipment manufacturers’ motion for summary judgment but the appellate court reversed, holding that the equipment manufacturers owed a common law duty to warn about the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing products manufactured and sold by others. The equipment manufacturers appealed.
Duty to warn. The high court noted that the question of whether there was a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing parts that were manufactured and sold by others was an issue of first impression in Tennessee, and explained that the products at issue did not contain asbestos when they left the equipment manufacturers’ control, but rather an end user integrated or used asbestos-containing materials with the equipment manufacturers’ products after their final sale. Under the plain language of the TPLA, product manufacturers cannot be liable under the Act unless the product was defective or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the manufacturer’s control. The manufacturer’s duty to warn also is measured at the time the product left its control, the court explained, holding that the language of the TPLA and accompanying case law supported a finding that a manufacturer’s duty to warn consumers about the condition of a product arises only if the product was defective or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the manufacturer’s control. Thus, there was no liability on the part of the equipment manufacturers to warn of the post-sale incorporation of asbestos-containing products because the products were incorporated into the equipment after it had left their control.
The state high court rejected the mechanic’s argument that language in the TPLA supported his assertion that the equipment manufacturers’ products were in a defective condition at the time they left their control because they were designed to use asbestos-containing materials, yet the manufacturers had provided no warnings as to the dangers of asbestos. The provisions cited by the mechanic still linked a manufacturer’s liability to its own product, not to the product of another manufacturer. In viewing the TPLA as a whole, the high court found it dispositive that the end-products at issue were neither made nor sold by the equipment manufacturers. Instead, the case at bar dealt solely with equipment manufacturers in situations in which there was a post-sale integration of asbestos-containing parts made and sold by others. Several provisions of the TPLA stated that a manufacturer or seller’s duty to warn was limited to products actually made or sold by them and, therefore, the interpretation used by the appellate court and proposed by the mechanic was inconsistent with the plain language of the TPLA and with the high court’s prior decisions, the high court opined, declaring that the court of appeals’ inquiry into whether a common law duty exists was in error.
Dissent. Judge Sharon Lee dissented, saying that the majority’s holding undercut the duty to warn in Tennessee products liability law, because even if a manufacturer knew that its product would have to undergo some future change or replacement, and knew the change or replacement would likely make the product unreasonably dangerous, the manufacturer had no duty to warn. According to Judge Lee, the better interpretation of the language of the TPLA was that a manufacturer of a product had a duty to warn when the manufacturer (1) knew or should have known that its product required aftermarket integration with another product, such as a replaceable component part, to function properly; and (2) knew or should have known that this aftermarket integration would likely render the final integrated product unreasonably dangerous. While admitting that the majority’s no-duty-to-warn rule provided clarity and predictability, Lee warned that the court should be cautious of erecting absolute rules to bar products liability claims, which in their arc over the past century have slipped the formalistic bonds of privity of contract to ensure substantive justice. In this case, the equipment manufacturers admitted that they sold the products which were later integrated with asbestos to which the mechanic was exposed. The question before the court was whether the equipment manufacturers’ products were unreasonably dangerous when they left the manufacturers’ control. In the majority’s view, they were not, because the equipment manufacturers themselves did not incorporate any asbestos into the product. In the dissent’s view, the products were unreasonably dangerous, because the equipment manufacturers knew that someone else would incorporate asbestos into the product, yet they warned no one.
Judge Lee called unfounded the equipment manufacturers’ concern that requiring them to warn about foreseeable alterations that caused their products to become unreasonably dangerous would lead to "near limitless liability." Under the dissent’s interpretation of the TPLA, a manufacturer would not be liable for failing to warn of any alteration that made a product unreasonably dangerous. Instead, a manufacturer would be responsible only for alterations that made a product unreasonably dangerous if those alterations were foreseeable because the manufacturer knew or should have known that the alterations were required to make the product function properly.
The case is No. E2017-01985-SC-R11-CV.
Attorneys: H. Douglas Nichol (Nichol & Associates, Attorneys at Law) for Carolyn Coffman. James A. Beakes III (Butler Snow Law Firm) for Armstrong International, Inc.
Companies: Armstrong International, Inc.
MainStory: TopStory WarningsNews AsbestosNews TennesseeNews
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