The Supreme Court ordered March 19, 2019 that Navy contractors must warn consumers if replacement parts for their products may contain asbestos, USA Today reports.
The case that sparked the ruling was filed by two Navy veterans and their families. The veterans allegedly developed cancer and died after they were exposed to asbestos products during their service.
The suit was brought against 5 companies that manufactured ship equipment, including:
- Air & Liquid Systems Corporation
- Foster Wheeler
- General Electric
- Ingersoll Rand
These companies made turbines, propellers, blowers and other mechanisms, according to USA Today. The Insurance Journal notes that this equipment did not contain asbestos-based products.
However, the companies knew that third parties like the Navy could possibly add asbestos components to them later on, specifically to replace damaged parts.
The court ultimately ruled that manufacturers had to warn consumers of possible dangers of asbestos-based replacement parts. The four Democratic members of the Supreme Court were joined by Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts in the decision.
The dissenting Supreme Court Justices said that it would be confusing for manufacturers to warn about products from third parties, USA Today stated.
However, the court ultimately ruled that manufacturers will know what parts may need to be replaced since they made the products in the first place. As a result, the court said that it would not be a burden to warn about the potential dangers of third-party products.
The Navy and Asbestos
According to Supreme Court documents both Navy vets served on ships that contained asbestos products for several years. Kenneth McAfee served on the U.S.S. Wanamassa from 1977 to 1980. He also served on the U.S.S. Commodore from 1982 to 1986. John DeVries served on the U.S.S Turner from 1956 to 1960.
Both McAfee and DeVries claimed that their Navy service exposed them to asbestos and caused them to develop cancer. Neither of them lived to see the final outcome of the case.
Sadly, their claims are not unusual. Asbestos-related diseases are all too common among Navy veterans today.
Asbestos was used by every branch of the military from the 1930s to the late 1970s, and the Navy was no exception. In fact, almost every Navy vessel from the 1930s to the late 1970s contained asbestos parts.
The dangers of asbestos had become a public health concern by the 1980s. However, it still took most of the decade for asbestos products to be removed from all military assets, including Navy ships.
By then, thousands of Navy personnel had already been exposed to the potentially deadly material.
Early Starts and Setbacks
The veterans’ cases had a long history. Initially, the manufacturers argued they were not liable for the illnesses, citing the “bare-metal defense.”
They claimed that their products had been delivered without asbestos-based products — just metal. As a result, they could not be liable if asbestos parts were added later.
This defense initially worked in Pennsylvania state court and on appeal to the Third Circuit Court. However, a second appeal to the Third Circuit noted that the makers of bare-metal products could be held liable if they knew that replacement parts could contain asbestos.
It was at this point the Supreme Court decided to review the case and make a final decision.
A Final Decision
In their verdict, the Supreme Court sided with the veterans but limited the earlier decision from the Third Circuit. The Supreme Court ultimately found that manufacturers are liable for asbestos-caused illnesses stemming from replacement parts.
However, their ruling only extends to maritime law, as the justices found the Third Circuit’s decision too broad. This means it is only helpful for those exposed to asbestos while at sea.
The silver lining is that, since Navy veterans have the greatest risk of asbestos-related diseases, the decision still has the potential to help many victims and their families.
Each year, thousands of Navy veterans are diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases like cancer. These diseases develop without notice over several decades but are very dangerous. Asbestos-caused cancers can be fatal in a year — or less — without treatment.
Treatments for asbestos-caused cancers can be very expensive, but Navy veterans can afford them by filing for VA benefits and filing legal claims. By extending the liability to these additional manufacturers, the Supreme Court has given Navy vets a better chance at getting the money they need for their treatments.