Component Parts Supplier Case to Watch

The California Supreme Court has agreed to review a lower appeals court's ruling on the application of the component parts doctrine in a metal worker's suit claiming lung  injury. See Ramos, et al. v. Brenntag Specialties Inc., et al., No. B248038 (Cal. review granted 7/9/14).

In Ramos v. Brenntag Specialties, Inc. , 224 Cal.App.4th 123, the court had disagreed with the well-reasoned opinion in Maxton v. Western States Metals, 203 Cal.App.4th 81 (2012). 

Generally, suppliers of raw materials to manufacturers cannot be liable for negligence, or under a strict products liability theory, to the manufacturers‘ employees who sustain personal injuries as a result of using the raw materials in the manufacturing process. Only in extraordinary circumstances —such as when the raw materials are contaminated, the supplier exercises substantial control of the manufacturing process, or the supplier provides inherently dangerous raw materials— can suppliers be held liable. Product components include raw materials, bulk products, and other constituent products sold for integration into other products. The products at issue in these cases clearly are mere raw materials because they could be used in innumerable ways, and they were not sold directly to consumers in the market place. Rather, they were sold to plaintiff‘s employer for the purpose of using them to manufacture other products. 

Under California law, component and raw material suppliers are not liable to ultimate consumers when the goods or material they supply are not inherently dangerous, they sell goods or material in bulk to a sophisticated buyer, the material is substantially changed during the manufacturing process, and the supplier has a limited role in developing and designing the end product. When these factors exist, the social cost of imposing a duty to the ultimate consumers or users far exceeds any additional protection provided. The rationale for not imposing liability on a supplier of product components is a matter of equity and public policy. Such suppliers ordinarily do not participate in developing the product components into finished products for consumers. Imposing liability on suppliers of product components would force them to scrutinize the buyer-manufacturer‘s manufacturing process and end-products in order reduce their exposure to lawsuits. This would require many suppliers to retain experts in a huge variety of areas, especially if the product components are versatile raw materials. Courts generally do not impose this onerous burden on suppliers of product components because the buyer- manufacturer is in a better position to ensure safety.

In Ramos, a different lower appellate court rejected the argument that raw material suppliers are not liable for injuries caused by finished products that use those raw materials. Hopefully, the California Supreme Court will clarify.

State Supreme Court Takes Controversial Asbestos Case

The California Supreme Court agreed last week to review an asbestos case involving an important failure to warn theory. See Webb v. Special Electric Co. Inc., No. S209927 (Cal., 2013).

Plaintiff Webb was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which he attributed to his exposure to asbestos products, including Transite pipe allegedly manufactured by Johns-Manville at its plant in Long Beach,
California, which allegedly contained asbestos supplied to it by Special Electric.  Transite pipe was four inches in diameter, and came in five-foot and sometimes ten-foot lengths. It was typically used for water-heater venting. Webb alleged he used no gloves or respiratory protection when handling the pipe. 

After trial, the lower court decided it would hear Special Electric's motions for nonsuit and directed verdict, both of which argued, inter alia, that Special Electric had no duty to warn Johns-Manville of the dangers of asbestos, either because Johns-Manville had been warned of those dangers, or because the dangers were obvious and known to Johns-Manville, a sophisticated user of asbestos. Special Electric argued also that it had no duty to take measures to warn allegedly unsophisticated downstream users of products containing its asbestos, such as Webb, because Special Electric could rely on Johns-Manville to provide those warnings. The trial court agreed, concluding that "telling Johns-Manville about asbestos is like telling the Pope about Catholicism." In so doing, the trial court relied on the well-settled rule that sophisticated users of dangerous products need not be warned about dangers of which they are already aware, derived from Restatement Second, Torts, section 388.

Plaintiff appealed, and the court of appeals reversed. Much of the discussion was on procedural issues (timing and notice, etc.) but our focus is on the alternative ruling on the merits.  The court of appeals agreed that Johns-Manville was a sophisticated user of asbestos, one which needed no warning about its dangers. But, nevertheless, reversed, finding that whether all the asbestos shipped to Johns-Manville had warnings, whether the warnings were adequate, and whether reasonable efforts to warn downstream
users could have been undertaken by Special Electric, were issues of fact. The jury found that Webb had
been exposed to asbestos sold or supplied by Special Electric; that the risks of its asbestos products were known or knowable to Special Electric; and that the risks of Special Electric‘s asbestos products presented a substantial danger to consumers, that ordinary consumers would not recognize. Special Electric‘s duty to warn foreseeable potential users such as Webb, said the court, arose as a matter of law, as seen from the jury‘s fully supported findings.  Because Special Electric‘s duty existed as a matter of law, the jury was entitled to—and did—find from the evidence that Special Electric breached that duty and that its breach was a substantial factor in causing Webb‘s harm, whether some other factors (such as superseding cause) terminated Special Electric‘s share of liability, and the appropriate apportionment of liability between the various actors.

The state Supreme Court will consider the issues now, and tell us what happened to the sophisticated user doctrine.  The concern is that the court of appeals appears to be saying that it can be a tort to fail to tell a customer something they already know, and that it can also be a tort to fail to impose on a direct customer a contractual duty to do something with their customer they already have a tort duty to do. On causation, the dissent offered a cogent analogy: if a defendant in an automobile collision breached the duty of care by driving a car with nonfunctioning headlights, then the plaintiff cannot prove causation merely by demonstrating that the defendant’s car caused the plaintiff‘s injuries when they collided. Rather, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s driving with nonfunctioning headlights caused the plaintiff’s injuries (because, for example, the accident happened in the dark of night rather than in broad daylight). The case arguably can be limited to unique facts, procedural posture, and some strange jury instructions, but perhaps the high court will clarify that the California courts cannot ignore the sophisticated user doctrine and its impact on duty to warn. 


Sophisticated User/Bulk Supplier Defenses Applied In Chemical Case

In a wrongful death suit brought by the family of a chemical plant employee, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia predicted last week that West Virginia would allow the application of the “sophisticated user” and “bulk supplier” defenses to the plaintiff's product liability claim. Roney, et al. v. Gencorp, et al., No. 3:05-cv-00788 (S.D. W.Va. Sept. 4, 2009).

From 1965 until 1982, Mr. Roney worked at the Pantasote Corporation/Gencorp Inc. Polyvinyl Chloride plant in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. There, he worked extensively with vinyl chloride monomer (“VCM”) – a major raw component of Polyvinyl Chloride (“PVC”). VCM is now associated in some scientific studies with the particular form of liver cancer – angiosarcoma – to which Mr. Roney succumbed. Mr. Roney’s estate filed suit against the defendants for failure to disclose their alleged full knowledge of the danger of VCM and for failing to warn Mr. Roney of its hazardous nature.

Such cases raise, as readers of MassTortDefense know, the related and difficult issues of the duty and ability of a remote supplier of a bulk product to warn downstream users, the customers or employees of their actual customers.  The issue is complicated by the duty of the supplier's immediate customer, in its own right, to warn its customers and to provide a safe workplace for its own workers.  When should that independent or separate duty, imposed on a party who is arguably in a more direct position to pass on effective warnings, cut off the chain of causation flowing up to the remote supplier?  And what about when the employer/intermediate customer is itself an expert in the potential hazards of the product?

Here, in defense of the failure to warn claim, the main product supplier asserted that it had no duty to warn because that duty was obviated by the employer’s own duty to warn its workers. Such a defense, commonly referred to as a “sophisticated user” defense, is available in many states but had not been explicitly adopted or rejected in the state courts of West Virginia. In some jurisdictions the stress is on the bulk supplier aspect and the practicability of warning downstream users; in others the emphasis is in the knowledge of the customer.  Here, the court addressed both aspects.

Section 388 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts addresses a supplier’s potential liability
for a “Chattel Known to Be Dangerous for Intended Use.” Comment n of this section is commonly cited as the basis for the sophisticated user defense: There is necessarily some chance that
information given to the customer will not be communicated by him to those who are to use the
chattel. This chance varies with the circumstances existing at the time the chattel is turned over to the person, including the known or knowable character of the third person and the purpose for which the chattel is given. "Modern life would be intolerable unless one were permitted to rely to a certain extent on others' doing what they normally do, particularly if it is their duty to do so."

Plaintiff relied on the fact that the West Virginia Supreme Court has rejected the learned intermediary doctrine, a defense plaintiff claimed was similar to the sophisticated user defense. See State ex Rel. Johnson & Johnson Corp. v. Karl, 647 S.E.2d 899 (W.Va. 2007). The reasoning of that decision, questionable in its own right, is not applicable to a scenario outside of the prescription pharmaceutical context and the rise of direct-to-consumer advertising. In deciding Karl, the court had recognized that through such DTC advertising pharmaceutical companies had arguably gained direct access to patients, a relationship starkly different than that which had existed when the learned intermediary doctrine was developed – when patients received drug information exclusively through their doctors. And starkly different from the industrial context. Chemical workers would typically have had little opportunity to influence the choice of products to which they would be exposed. Instead, they relied upon their employer to determine the scope of their duties and their role in the production process. They were insulated from the manufacturer of the chemicals they used, much as the patient used to be insulated from the drug manufacturer, observed the court.

The duty to warn, said the federal court, involved an analysis of the reliability of the third party as a conduit of necessary information about the product; the magnitude of the risk involved; and the burdens imposed on the supplier by requiring that it directly warn all users. That, in turn, included the degree to which the danger related to the particular product is clearly known to the  purchaser/employer. Thus, West Virginia would recognize a sophisticated user defense.

As with the sophisticated user defense, the bulk supplier notion is rooted in Restatement § 388
comment n. While the sophisticated user defense focuses on the reasonableness of reliance on the employer, the bulk user defense concerns the burden which would be imposed on the supplier if it were bound to directly warn all downstream users.  The impracticability of the manufacturer getting a warning for a chemical shipped in tank trucks or rail cars to the employees of the customer would also be recognized as a defense in the state, predicted the federal court.

The court rejected the defendant's third assertion that the dangers of vinyl chloride monomer are “open and obvious," as the connection between cancer and VCM is not readily known outside scientific, medical and industrial communities, said the court.