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
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.
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