On August 9, 2012, the Washington Supreme Court reversed an appellate court’s grant of summary judgment to a group of respirator manufacturers in a suit brought by a tool keeper who cleaned shipyard workers’ respirators and replaced respirator filter cartridges. The appellate court had held that no duty to warn existed because the defendants did not manufacture the products that were the source of the asbestos to which the tool keeper was exposed. In reversing, Washington’s highest court has signaled that manufacturers may no longer rely on the well-established rule that a manufacturer must be in the chain of distribution to find strict liability in a products liability case.
Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc. et al., No. 85535-8, — P 3d. –, 2012 WL 3207245 (Wash. Aug. 9, 2012) involves a personal injury suit brought by Leo Macias and his wife after Mr. Macias developed mesothelioma, a type of cancer associated with asbestos exposure. The Macias brought suit against a host of respirator manufacturers, all of whom manufactured respirators that were used by workers at Todd Shipyards, where Mr. Macias was employed as a tool keeper. In this position, Mr. Macias was responsible for cleaning the respirators used by the shipyard workers to filter contaminants from the air they breathed, including asbestos, welding and paint fumes, and dust, and then replacing the respirators’ filter cartridges. Mr. Macias maintained that he did not know he was at risk from exposure to the asbestos dust coating the used respirators or filters, and that he never saw a warning to take precautions when handling and maintaining them, such as wearing a respirator himself or wetting the respirators before disassembling them. During discovery, he testified that if he had been warned, he would have taken greater precautions. The Macias also presented evidence that the respirator manufacturers knew that inhalation of asbestos was potentially harmful to humans and that the respirators needed to be routinely cleaned and the filter cartridges replaced.
In the trial court, the respirator manufacturers moved for summary judgment, arguing that they did not manufacture the products containing the asbestos to which Mr. Macias was exposed, and that pursuant to recent failure-to warn decisions Simonetta v. Viad Corporation, 197 P. 3d 127 (Wash. 2008) and Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings, 198 P. 3d 493 (Wash. 2008), they owed no duty to warn Mr. Macias about the dangers associated with a product they did not manufacture, sell, or supply. The trial court denied the motion, and the respirator manufacturers appealed. The appellate court reversed, holding that under Simonetta and Braaten, the defendants had no duty to warn Mr. Macias. The Macias appealed.
Washington has long acknowledged that, in general, the manufacturer must be in the chain of distribution in order to be held strictly liable in a product liability case. This general rule was reiterated by the Washington Supreme Court in Simonetta and Braaten, cases in which the defendants were manufacturers of an evaporator, pumps, and valves that were installed on Navy ships, which the Navy then encased in asbestos insulating materials. When the defendants’ products were subjected to routine maintenance or replacement parts were installed, workers broke through the insulation in order to service the equipment or replace parts. The plaintiffs in both cases were exposed to asbestos during such maintenance, developed lung cancer and mesothelioma, and sued the manufacturers, arguing that they had a duty to warn of exposure. Applying the common law, the Court held in both cases that the manufacturers were not in the chain of distribution of the asbestos insulating products and thus had no duty to warn of the danger of asbestos exposure during servicing. The Court noted that it made no difference if the manufacturers could foresee that the products would be used in conjunction with asbestos insulation.
The Macias’ appeal (as well as their opposition to the manufacturers’ summary judgment motions) focused on the fact that their claims were fundamentally different from those in Simonetta and Braaten—namely, that their claims “rest squarely on the respirator product in and of itself, and specifically on the inadequate warnings and instructions on the respirator product, without reference to any other manufacturer’s products.” The Court agreed, noting that “[u]nlike the valves, pumps, and evaporator in Simonetta and Braaten, which only happened to be insulated by asbestos products because the Navy chose to insulate the equipment on its ships with asbestos products, the respirators at issue here were specifically designed to and intended to filter contaminants from the air breathed by the wearer, including asbestos, welding fumes, paint fumes, and dust,” as well as being re-used in contaminated environments, which necessitated safe cleaning and maintenance. It is this distinction—that the respirator manufacturers’ own products presented the inherent danger of exposure when used as intended—that the court found most persuasive. In holding that the trial court properly denied the manufacturers’ motions for summary judgment and that the manufacturers are proper defendants for purposes of the Macias’ failure-to-warn claims, the court noted that Simonetta and Braaten merely reiterated a general rule to which there are exceptions, and did not narrow the class of manufacturers who may have a duty to warn of inherent dangers in products.
Manufacturers, particularly safety product manufacturers, should take note of this landmark decision. The Court has indicated an expansion of liability to manufacturers of safety equipment for harm caused by other manufacturers’ products, which means that these manufacturers must now serve a “watchdog” function and warn users of risks from products they do not put into the marketplace. As noted by the dissent, this expansion of liability could be viewed by safety product manufacturers as a “strong disincentive to continue making safety products,” which could impact these products’ “availability and affordability.” This decision also signals the Court’s openness to expanding who may have a “duty to warn,” which could have far-reaching implications beyond safety products. Finally, this decision may spur more lawsuits over asbestos-related exposure injuries, as Washington has distinguished itself from many other states that limit asbestos liability more strictly.