Warning: . . . But,This is Not My Product?

The New York Court of Appeals recently issued a decision that expands a manufacturer’s duty to warn against potential dangers in using its product together with a product that was designed and produced by a different and unrelated company.  The case is Dummitt v. A.W. Chesterton, et al., N.Y., Nos. 83, 84 (June 28, 2016).

The plaintiff, Ronald Dummitt, served in the United States Navy from 1960 to 1977 as a boiler technician.  Id. at 5.  Dummitt’s job required that he work on valves manufactured by Defendant company Crane.  Dummitt alleged that his exposure to asbestos dust occurred as a result of his routine replacement of valves, a process that required “removing lagging pads from each valve, pulling back the packing, scraping off the gaskets and blasting the assembly with compressed air” to install the replacement set.  Id.  The Crane valves at issue here were used with replacement asbestos-based gaskets and insulation that Dummitt installed.  Id. at 3 – 5.   Crane had not manufactured, designed or sold the third-party asbestos-containing products that Dummitt installed.

To determine whether a duty to warn existed, the Court considered generally whether the manufacturer was in a “superior position to know of and warn against” the hazards.  Id. at 21.  Here, the Court determined that was Crane.  Perhaps most concerning for the defense bar was the Court’s annunciation of the rule that “where one manufacturer’s product is a durable item designed for continuous use with the other manufacturer’s fungible product, which by contrast deteriorates relatively quickly and is designed to be replaced the manufacturer of the durable product typically is in the best position to guarantee that those who use the two products together will receive a warning.”  Id. at 22.  The reasoning behind this analysis is that users are more likely to inspect warnings on products that that are more durable and that they intend to use over an extended period of time.  Id.

The duty to warn standard in New York following Dummitt is “the manufacturer of a product has a duty to warn of the danger arising from the known and reasonably foreseeable use of its product in combination with a third-party product which, as a matter of design, mechanics or economic necessity, is necessary to enable the manufacturer’s product to function as intended.”  Id. at 26.  The Court emphasized that implicitly recognized in this rule is whether the manufacturer’s product can function without the third-party product that creates the hazardous joint use.  Id.  It further explained that the reason supporting the expanded duty to warn is that the manufacturer who “creates a product that cannot be used without another product as a result of the design of the product, the mechanics of the product or the absence of economically feasible alternative means of enabling the product to function” has an indirect, yet “substantial” role in placing the third-party harmful product in the stream of commerce.  Id. at 27.

In Dummitt, Crane argued that the duty to warn should only arise if the manufacturer’s product is “physically incapable of working as intended without the other company’s product.”  Id. at 31.  Because Crane’s product would work for at least a limited period of time before the asbestos-containing replacement parts were needed, it argued the duty should not attach.  The Court rejected this argument saying that Crane’s proposed rule would ignore financial necessity by imposing an “unreasonable monetary cost” exclusively on manufacturer’s customers, leaving them no affordable alternative to the asbestos-containing products.  Id. at 31.

The Court addressed other jurisdictions that decline to impose a duty to warn on manufacturers that have no control over the third-party product and thus “cannot be expected to inspect for the dangers of the synergistic use.”  Id. at 35 (internal citation omitted).  In response, it emphasized that under the facts in Dummitt,  Crane “substantially participate[d] in the integration of the two products” and thus imposing a duty to warn on Crane would not create any unfairness.  Id.

The Dummitt case leaves some room for manufacturers to argue they did not participate in placing the synergistic products on the market or that the third-party manufacturer was in a better position to warn customers of potential harms.  Regardless, manufacturers should be aware that its holding  undoubtedly expands the duty to warn for manufacturers in New York that rely on other products to create a joint use with potential hazards to customers.