CLIENT ALERT: Dummitt/Suttner v. Crane Co. Decision May Expand Liability for Asbestos Defendants

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The New York Court of Appeals held today that “the manufacturer of a product has a duty to warn of the danger arising from the known and reasonably foreseeable use of its products in combination with a third-party product which, as a matter of design, mechanics, or economic necessity, is necessity to enable the manufacturer’s product to function as intended.”

This ruling comes out of a consolidated appeal of two juries found Crane Co., a manufacturer of valves, negligently failed to warn the plaintiffs regarding the dangers of asbestos from the use of its products with asbestos-containing packing and gaskets in high pressure, high temperature steam on Navy ships.  In evaluating the jury charges and proofs elicited at trial, the Court reviewed its prior decisions regarding the duty that a manufacturer of a defective product has towards those injured by the product, especially the Rastelli decision.  In Rastelli, the Court held that Goodyear was not liable when a non-defective Goodyear tire injured plaintiff when it was combined with a defective tire rim manufactured by another company.  Crane Co. argued at trial and in this appeal that, like Goodyear, it had no duty to warn an end user that its valves could be used with asbestos containing materials manufactured by a different company.  The Court rejected Crane’s contention that liability should only attach if the products were physically incapable of working together and distinguished Rastelli by indicated that Crane Co. “indirectly” placed asbestos-containing materials in the stream of commerce because it did not offer non-asbestos materials to be used with its products.  In so doing, the Court recognized a manufacturer has a duty to warn of “known and foreseeable joint use” of its product with another product if the products will necessarily work together.

The Court observed that Crane “endorsed” the use of asbestos-containing materials with its valves “thereby inviting” the Navy to use these materials with its products.  And while the Crane valves would have worked with non-asbestos containing materials, it never suggested to its customers that alternatives were available.  Evidence adduced from the Navy and Crane Co.’s corporate representatives demonstrated that Crane valves could not operate without gaskets and packing; other evidence indicated that asbestos-containing gaskets “routinely” used asbestos-containing gaskets in high-pressure, high temperature steam systems.

As this decision is absorbed by the lower Courts, asbestos defendants may see its liability expand if they cannot prove they provided alternates to asbestos-containing components or it did not warn end-users regarding the dangers of asbestos.

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