Arthur Whelan was a plumber and infrequent auto mechanic. Decades before developing mesothelioma, Whelan alleges that he worked on numerous boilers that had asbestos components such as steam traps, fireboxes, steam valves and jacket liners. He also conducted a handful of brake jobs on Ford vehicles that involved asbestos parts. Whelan did not know whether the asbestos components in these products were original components, replacement components by the original manufacturer or replacement components by a different manufacturer. Nevertheless, Whelan sued the original manufacturers, alleging that they had a duty to warn product users of the dangers of the asbestos-containing product as initially manufactured and as asbestos-containing replacement parts were incorporated into the product.
A divided New Jersey Supreme Court held in Whelan v. Armstrong Inc. that manufacturers may be found liable for asbestos-containing replacement components that they did not build or distribute, because "it is fair for them to bear such responsibility when they profit from the parts extending the life of their original products."
The opinion provides a four-part test for holding manufacturers and distributors strictly liable for the failure to warn about the dangers of their products' asbestos-containing components:
- First, a plaintiff must prove that asbestos-containing components were included in the original products;
- Second, those components were integral to the product and necessary for it to function;
- Third, routine maintenance required replacing those parts with similar asbestos-containing components; and
- Fourth, exposure to the initial components or replacement parts was a substantial factor in causing or exacerbating the plaintiff's disease.
In reaching this decision, the court speculated that requiring the original manufacturer to provide warnings for the anticipated replacement parts of the product would not place a burden on the manufacturer. Justice Albin noted that imposing a duty to warn about asbestos-containing replacement parts, no matter who built them, "adds hardly any further burden or cost to the product manufacturers, who already have a duty to warn of the dangers of the original asbestos-containing components."
The court ruled that the manufacturer must provide warnings given the foreseeability that third parties would be the source of asbestos-containing replacement components. "Warnings on defendants' products would have provided a reliable form of protection for the ultimate user," so "[t]he lack of warnings rendered the products defective."
The decision is consistent with the recent maritime common law failure to warn case decided by the Supreme Court. In Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, 873 F. 3d 232 (2019), the Supreme Court found that in the maritime tort context, a product manufacturer has a duty to warn when (i) its product requires incorporation of a part, (ii) the manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses, and (iii) the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product's users will realize that danger. On the other hand, California and Washington, among other jurisdictions, generally restrict liability to those in the chain of commerce of the injury-producing product.
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