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 Reverses Dangerous Expansion of Product Liability

The California Supreme Court held last week that the law does not impose liability on manufacturers of equipment used in conjunction with asbestos-containing parts made by others.  See O'Neil v. Crane Co., Cal., No. S177401 (Cal. 1/12/12).
 
Readers may recall that we posted on this case before. The Restatement of Torts (Third): Products Liability says that in the context of a final, finished product that injures a user and which is made up of components from different manufacturers, if a given component is itself defective and the defect causes the harm, then the supplier of that component is of course liable. In addition, the supplier can be liable even if the component by itself is not defective, but only if the seller substantially participates in the integration of the component into the design of the product (and the defect causes the harm). See Restatement 3d, Section 5. In essence, the doctrine holds that an entity supplying a non-defective raw material or a non-defective component part is not strictly liable for defects in the final product over which it had no control. In this respect, the Third Restatement of Torts simply codified the doctrine of various states’ common law.
 
Nevertheless, a split had existed among the lower courts in California about whether to
extend liability for asbestos-related disease beyond the manufacturers of the asbestos insulation, gaskets, and packing to which many ship workers were exposed (and which makers are now bankrupt) to the makers of the products the asbestos was used with (to find a solvent target).  So the state supreme court confronted the limits of a manufacturer’s duty to prevent foreseeable harm related to its product: When is a product manufacturer liable for injuries caused by adjacent products or replacement parts that were made by others and used in conjunction with the defendant’s product?   It held that a product manufacturer may not be held liable in strict liability or negligence for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product unless the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm, or the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.
 
Defendants made valves and pumps used in Navy warships. They were sued here for a wrongful death allegedly caused by asbestos released from external insulation and internal gaskets and packing, all of which were made by third parties and added to the pumps and valves post-sale. It is undisputed that defendants never manufactured or sold any of the asbestos-containing materials to which plaintiffs’ decedent was exposed. That is, no evidence was presented that any of the asbestos-containing dust came from a product made by defendants. Neither company manufactured or sold the external insulation or flange gaskets that the repairmen like plaintiff removed. Although the valves and pumps contained internal asbestos-containing gaskets and packing, these original components had been replaced long before plaintiff encountered them years later. There was no evidence that any of these replacement parts were made by defendants.  The Court of Appeal asserted defendants’ products were defectively designed “because they required asbestos packing and insulation.” But this factual assertion was unsupported by the record. The evidence established that the requirement for asbestos derived from military specifications, not from any inherent aspect of defendants’ pump and valve designs

Nevertheless, plaintiff claimed that defendants should be held strictly liable and found negligent because it was foreseeable that workers would be exposed to and harmed by the asbestos in replacement parts and products used in conjunction with their pumps and valves. The Court of Appeals held that the component parts defense applied only to manufacturers of “multi-use or fungible products” designed to be altered and incorporated into another product. It then concluded defendants’ products did not meet these requirements. The Court of Appeal also rejected defendants’ argument that they could not be found strictly liable because they did not manufacture or supply the asbestos-containing products that caused plaintiffs' disease. The lower court announced a broad definition of strict products liability: a manufacturer is liable in strict liability for the dangerous components of its products, and for dangerous products with which its product will necessarily be used. Even though it was replacement gaskets and packing that allegedly caused disease, the lower appeals court concluded these replacement parts were “no different” from the asbestos-containing components originally included in defendants’ products.
 

Plaintiff's claims would represent an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability, which the supreme court declined to do.  California law, like most states, has long provided that manufacturers, distributors, and retailers have a duty to see to the safety of their products, and will be held strictly liable for injuries caused by a defect in their products. Yet, the state has never held that these responsibilities extend to preventing injuries caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant’s product. Nor has the state's high court ever held that manufacturers must warn about potential hazards in replacement parts made by others when, as here, the dangerous feature of these parts was not integral to the product’s design.  From the outset, strict products liability in California has always been premised on harm caused by deficiencies in the defendant’s own product.  The reach of strict liability is not limitless; strict liability does not extend to harm from entirely distinct products that the consumer can be expected to use with, or in, the defendant’s non-defective product. Instead, the courts require proof that the plaintiff suffered injury caused by a defect in the defendant’s own product.
 
In this case, it was undisputed that plaintiff was exposed to no asbestos from a product made by the defendants. Although he was allegedly exposed to potentially high levels of asbestos dust released from insulation the Navy had applied to the exterior of the pumps and valves, defendants did not manufacture or sell this external insulation. They did not mandate or advise that it be used with their products. It is fundamental that the imposition of liability requires a showing that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by an act of the defendant or an instrumentality under the defendant’s control.
 
Generally speaking, manufacturers have a duty to warn consumers about the hazards inherent in their products. The requirement’s purpose is to inform consumers about a product’s hazards and faults of which they are unaware, so that they can refrain from using the product altogether or evade the danger by careful use. Typically, under California law, manufacturers are strictly liable for injuries caused by their failure to warn of dangers that were known to the scientific community at the time they manufactured and distributed their product. The supreme court has never held that a manufacturer’s duty to warn extends to hazards arising exclusively from other manufacturers’ products. Plaintiff's alleged exposure to asbestos came from replacement gaskets and packing and external insulation added to defendants’ products long after their installation; there was no dispute that these external and replacement products were made by other manufacturers.
 
So the supreme court reaffirmed that a product manufacturer generally may not be held strictly liable for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product. The only exceptions to this rule arise when the defendant bears some direct responsibility for the harm, either because the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm or because the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.   Plaintiffs sought to expand these exceptions to make manufacturers strictly liable when it is foreseeable that their products will be used in conjunction with defective products or even replacement parts made or sold by someone else. However, the mere foreseeability of harm, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for imposing strict liability on the manufacturer of a non-defective product, or one whose arguably defective product does not actually cause harm.
 
The decision was supported by common sense. A manufacturer cannot be expected to exert pressure on other manufacturers to make their products safe and is not able to share the costs of ensuring product safety with these other manufacturers. It would be unfair to require  manufacturers of non-defective products to shoulder a burden of liability when they derived no economic benefit from the sale of the products that injured the plaintiff.  And a contrary rule would require manufacturers to investigate the potential risks of all other products and replacement parts that might foreseeably be used with their own product and warn about all of these risks. Such a duty would impose an excessive and unrealistic burden on manufacturers. Such an expanded duty could also undermine consumer safety by inundating users with excessive warnings. “To warn of all potential dangers would warn of nothing.”
 
 
 
 

 

Component Part Seller Liability At Issue In Asbestos Case

California's high court is preparing to address a split among the state's lower courts on what seems to be a straightforward issue of product liability law governing component parts.

The Restatement of Torts (Third): Products Liability says that in the context of a final, finished product that injures a user and which is made up of components from different manufacturers, if a given component is itself defective and the defect causes the harm, then the supplier of that component is of course liable. In addition, the supplier can be liable even if the component by itself is not defective, but only if the seller substantially participates in the integration of the component into the design of the product (and the defect causes the harm). Restatement 3d, Section 5.

In essence, the doctrine holds that an entity supplying a non-defective raw material or a non-defective component part is not strictly liable for defects in the final product over which it had no control.  In this respect the Third Restatement of Torts simply codified the doctrine of various states’ common law. E.g., TMJ Implants Products Liability Litigation, 872 F. Supp. 1019 (D. Minn. 1995), aff’d, 97 F.3d 1050 (8th Cir. 1996) (applying Minnesota law)); Kealoha v. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., 844 F. Supp. 590 (D. Hawaii 1994), aff’d, Kealoha v. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., et al., 82 F.3d 894 (9th Cir. 1996) (applying Hawaii law); Jacobs v. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., 67 F.3d 1219 (6th Cir. 1995) (applying Ohio law); Apperson v. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., 41 F.3d 1103 (7th Cir. 1994) (applying Illinois law); Crossfield v. Quality Control Equip. Co., Inc., 1 F.3d 701 (8th Cir. 1993) (applying Missouri law); Childress v. Gresen Mfg. Co., 888 F.2d 45 (6th Cir. 1989) (applying Michigan law); In Re: Silicone Gel Breast Implants Products, 996 F. Supp. 1110 (N.D. Ala. 1997); Travelers Ins. Co. v. Chrysler Corp., 845 F. Supp. 1122 (M.D.N.C. 1994); Sperry v. Bauermeister, 786 F. Supp. 1512 (E.D. Mo.1992); Estate of Carey v. Hy-Temp Mfg., Inc., 702 F. Supp. 666 (N.D. Ill. 1988); Orion Ins. Co., Ltd. v. United Tech. Corp., 502 F. Supp. 173 (E.D. Pa. 1980); Mayberry v. Akron Rubber Machinery Corp., 483 F. Supp. 407 (N.D. Okla. 1979); Artiglio v. General Electric Co., 61 Cal.App.4th 830 (Cal. Ct. App. 1998); Bond v. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., 868 P.2d 1114 (Colo. Ct. App. 1993); Shaw v. General Motors Corp., 727 P.2d 387 (Colo. Ct. App. 1986); Castaldo v. Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Co., Inc., 376 A.2d 88 (Del. 1977); Depre v. Power Climber, Inc., 263 Ill.App.3d 116 (Ill. App. Ct. 1994); Curry v. Louis Allis Co.,
Inc., 100 Ill.App.3d 910 (Ill. App. Ct. 1981); Murray v. Goodrich Eng’g Corp., 30 Mass. App. Ct. 918 (Mass. App. Ct. 1991); Welsh v. Bowling Electric Machinery, Inc., 875 S.W.2d 569 (Mo. Ct. App. 1994); Zaza v. Marquess & Nell, Inc., 144 N.J. 34 (N.J. 1996); Parker v. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., Inc., 121 N.M. 120 (N.M. Ct. App. 1995); Munger v. Heider Mfg. Corp., 90 A.D.2d 645 (N.Y. App.
Div. 1982); Hoyt v. Vitek, Inc., 134 Ore. App. 271 (Or. Ct. App. 1995); Moor v. Iowa Mfg. Co., 320 N.W.2d 927 (S.D. 1982); Davis v. Dresser Indus., Inc., 800 S.W.2d 369 (Tex. App. 1990); Bennett v. Span Indus., Inc., 628 S.W.2d 470 (Tex. App. 1982); Westphal v. E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co., 192 Wis. 2d 347 (Wis. Ct. App. 1995); Noonan v. Texaco, Inc., 713 P.2d 160 (Wyo. 1986).

Sometimes the issue is analyzed as one of no duty on the part of the component seller; other courts view it as an absence if causation.  The policy reasons behind the component parts doctrine are well established. Multi-use component and raw material suppliers should not have to assure the safety of their materials as used in other companies' finished products. That would require suppliers to retain experts in a huge variety of areas in order to determine the possible risks associated with each potential use. And finished product manufacturers know exactly what they intend to do with a component or raw material and therefore are in a better position to guarantee that the component or raw material is suitable for their particular applications.  In the drug and device area, liability is inconsistent with the FDA regulatory scheme because suppliers cannot warn consumers of dangers created by the design of the finished product; the FDA controls who warns and what the warning says.

But when a component manufacturer sufficiently participates in designing a defective and unreasonably dangerous final product, the component manufacturer may be held liable for injuries caused by the final product even though the component itself was not defective or unreasonably  dangerous.  Which raises the question what is ‘‘substantial participation.’’ The Restatement suggests the courts look at whether: (1) the manufacturer or assembler of the integrated product invited the component manufacturer to design a component that would perform specifically as a part of the integrated product;  (2) the component part manufacturer assisted the seller in modifying the design of the integrated product so that it would accept the component part, or (3) the component part manufacturer played a substantial role in deciding which component best serves the requirements of the seller’s integrated product.

A common mass tort battleground for these issues is asbestos.  In O'Neil v. Crane Co., 177 Cal.App.4th 1019, 99 Cal.Rptr.3d 533 (2009)(review granted 12/23/09), the plaintiffs, the widow and children of a naval officer who died of mesothelioma, sued the manufacturers of shipboard pumps and valves, alleging that asbestos insulation used with those components caused the injury.  The trial court dismissed the claims under the component part make doctrine, but last Fall, a panel of the Second Appellate District overturned the trial court's dismissal and said the pump and valve makers could be liable for the officer's death.

The court found that the defendants did not supply a “building block” material, dangerous only when incorporated into a final product over which they had no control. Rather, they sold finished valves and pumps, which needed insulation of some kind. That analysis did not give sufficient attention to the notion that the steam system of the ship ought to be viewed as the finished product, as that term is used in the context of the component parts defense. And it gave insufficient weight to the basic policy underlying the compnent part doctrine.

The panel disagreed with the trial court and with two other appellate decisions going the other way. The state's First Appellate District in Taylor v. Elliott Turbomachinery Co., 171 Cal. App. 4th 564 (2009), found  that pump and valve manufacturers were not liable —as manufacturers of non-defective component parts of a greater whole, and as manufacturers of separate products from those (asbestos) that actually caused the alleged harm. And a different panel of the Second District, Merrill v. Leslie Controls Inc. (Cal. Ct. App., 2d App. Dist., No. B200006, 11/17/09), had also declined to find liability in similar circumstances. See generally Lindstrom v. A-C Product Liability Trust, 424 F.3d 488 (6th Cir.2005)(no liability; causation focus). 

That a component seller knew or should have known that the product maker might use potentially hazardous materials in its design should never be sufficient to impose liability for the design that is the responsibility of the finished product seller.  It makes no sense to have suppliers act as "design police" for every possible item their non-defective part could possibly be combined with in a finished product. 

Under a proper analysis, a warning claim should fare no differently. See Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings, 198 P.3d 493 (Wash. 2008); Simonetta v. Viad Corp., 197 P.3d 127 (Wash. 2008)(no liability for failure to warn of the hazards of exposure to another manufacturer's asbestos insulation).  The Washington court found the duty to warn under common law negligence was limited to those in the chain of distribution of the hazardous product. Because the defendants did not manufacture, sell, or supply the asbestos insulation, the defendants could not be found liable for breaching a duty to warn. The defendants were not strictly liable because only a product's manufacturer, seller, or marketer is in the position of knowing its dangerous aspects.  To hold a defendant strictly liable for another party's product would be manifestly unfair.

The California Supreme Court has recently agreed to review the issue. O'Neil v. Crane Co., Cal., No. S177401, (petition for review granted 12/23/09).  Here's hoping the doctrine is applied correctly, and this does not become another "asbestos" law exception to common sense rules.