A Supreme Court Fight to Protect Manufacturers from Baseless Asbestos Lawsuits

Most reasonable people would agree that a manufacturer should not be held liable for injuries caused by another company’s products. Yet, that commonsense notion is under attack, and the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) Manufacturers’ Center for Legal Action (MCLA) is fighting back.

The case at issue involves two individuals who worked in the late 1950s on a ship that contained asbestos. They later developed lung cancer and sued 47 companies that made various parts for the ship. Although some of the companies once made asbestos parts, several other companies manufactured parts containing only metal. The ship operator combined the metal parts with other asbestos parts in the ship’s engine and other systems, but the metal parts themselves never contained any asbestos.

The metal parts manufacturers defended the lawsuit on the basis that they did not make or supply any asbestos parts and therefore could not have caused the plaintiffs’ injuries. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit rejected that defense, concluding that it was “reasonably foreseeable” that the metal parts would be combined with asbestos parts, and therefore the metal parts manufacturers could be held liable.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent for manufacturers. Any company that made parts or other products that were later used with asbestos parts could be subject to massive liability, despite never having made or sold asbestos.

That liability standard could also be applied beyond asbestos litigation to hold any manufacturer responsible for harms caused by third-party products that are later used with the company’s product. For any components used in ships, automobiles, trains, airlines, commercial buildings, homes, electronics or other multipart devices, the scope of potential lawsuits and liability could be limitless.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, Air and Liquid Systems v. DeVries. This week, the MCLA filed an amicus brief in support of the defendant companies to overturn the 3rd Circuit’s overbroad holding. Oral argument is scheduled for October 10, with a decision likely a few months later.

The MCLA continues to fight on behalf of manufacturers against overbroad product liability claims like these. Learn more about our efforts here.

Peter Tolsdorf

Peter Tolsdorf is the vice president of litigation and deputy general counsel at the National Association of Manufacturers.

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