Supreme Court to Decide New Level of Asbestos Liability Under Maritime Law

The Supreme Court will be ruling on a groundbreaking case next term that will determine whether manufacturers are liable when they produce products that are later modified with asbestos.

In Air and Liquid Systems Corp. vs. Devries, the Court will decide whether a manufacturer could have reasonably foreseen that the United States Navy would use asbestos with their products and whether that makes them liable.

For the past several decades, the U.S. Navy has purchased metals and other materials from suppliers and manufacturers. In some instances, these materials were meant to be used in combination with asbestos, putting sailors at risk of asbestos-related diseases.

The Bare-Metal Defense

The Bare-Metal Defense is an argument in asbestos law that arose from O’Neil vs. Crane Co.—it states manufacturers can’t be held liable if their product is used with asbestos. Many state courts and lower trial courts have upheld the Bare-Metal Defense and used it to alleviate manufacturers of any responsibility throughout the course of numerous trials.

The upcoming Devries case reopens some of the questions that the Bare-Metal Defense had previously answered.

Are manufacturers responsible for how their product is used at later stages in the supply chain?

At first glance, this may seem obvious. If someone takes a piece of metal and later adds asbestos to it then, of course, that isn’t the metal manufacturer’s fault. But what if that piece of metal was specifically meant to be combined with asbestos? What if the manufacturer could foresee asbestos being added? Suddenly, the perspective changes.

Perhaps manufacturers should be liable when they participate in the creation of an end-product that is likely to cause harm to others. On March 8, 2018, the Court of Appeals For The Third Circuit decided exactly that.

Third Circuit and Maritime Law

The Opinion of the Court from the case’s appeal in the Third Circuit used some interesting logic to determine that manufacturers should be held liable if their products cause harm. Leaning on Maritime Law, the Court was able to ignore the rulings previously made under the common law.

Instead, they made a groundbreaking decision in favor of asbestos victims.

In his written summary, Circuit Judge Thomas Vanaksie explained, “Maritime law is deeply concerned with the protection of sailors, due to a historic and ‘special solicitude’ for the welfare of those men who undertook to venture upon hazardous and unpredictable sea voyage. This ‘special solicitude’ developed ‘unknown to the common law,’ and so Maritime law is at times more lenient toward a sailor than a state’s common law may be to a similarly situated plaintiff.”

It was this Maritime law that allowed the Third Circuit to decide that looking after sailors is not a set of strict dos and don’ts—instead, it’s a guiding idea that sailors should be kept safe whenever and wherever possible.

In exposing sailors to asbestos, manufacturers did not keep sailors safe and violated Maritime Law.

But even in terms of Maritime law, this was a fascinating decision on asbestos law. There’s prior history of Maritime law siding with manufacturing companies on the Bare-Metal Defense, not plaintiffs. Devries is the first notable case to use Maritime law to hold manufacturing companies to a higher standard in asbestos-related cases and will be the first time the Supreme Court faces the Bare-Metal Defense.

Criticisms of The Case

Not everyone agrees with the Third Circuit’s new decision on asbestos law. Critics of the case feel that the Third Circuit’s argument takes liability too far. Devries is the first case of its kind but there are likely many to follow if it’s upheld, making manufacturers vulnerable to a whole new wave of liability. Expanding the law is a can of worms that most manufacturers would prefer to keep closed.

Also, if Devries rules in favor of the plaintiffs, the law becomes less clear. Cases that strictly applied The Bare-Metal Defense will suddenly contradict a new precedent, which makes future outcomes harder to predict. The use of Maritime law further muddles the issue, as a Supreme Court decision under Maritime law may not be directly applicable to common law cases. As a result, the legal system will have to determine the right course of action with less clarity than in the past.

It’s also been suggested that pursuing the manufacturers is a desperate, last-ditch attempt to pin the blame on anyone. Afterall, the Navy is a government organization that can’t be sued, while the original asbestos manufacturers have long been bankrupt. Critics accuse victims of simply trying to get compensation from a system that has very little left to give.

Of course, all of these criticisms are easy to speak from the sidelines, when critics aren’t directly suffering from an asbestos-related disease like mesothelioma. Only victims and their family members can truly understand what it’s like to suffer because of manufacturers’ selfish oversights.

Upcoming Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision on Air and Liquid Systems Corp. vs Devries sometime this term, and in doing so will determine whether the Third Circuit’s interpretation of Maritime law and manufacturer liability should be upheld. Regardless of what happens, one thing is for certain: asbestos law will never be the same.

If you have questins about asbestos law and compensation for mesothelioma, contact our Justice Support team today. Or request our FREE Mesothelioma Justice Guide to better understand your next steps.