Intermediary doctrine not appropriate in asbestos case, Tenn. SC says

John O'Brien Jun. 7, 2011, 3:00pm


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (Legal Newsline) - A trial court erred in ruling that the seller of asbestos-containing products could not be held liable for a man's injuries if a jury found his employer knew the risks, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The decision affirmed the state's Court of Appeals in the case of Hugh Todd Nye, who died in 2006 from mesothelioma allegedly caused by his years of work at a DuPont facility. A trial court had ruled that North Brothers, which did not manufacture asbestos but sold it, was not subject to a strict liability suit.

The jury had found that North Brothers was at fault, but Nye's wife received no damages because the jury found DuPont was responsible for damages sustained by Nye and his wife.

"In summary, we hold that the learned intermediary doctrine is not applicable under the circumstances of this case," says the Supreme Court's opinion, authored by Justice Sharon Lee.

"The trial court's jury instruction based on that doctrine, absolving North Brothers of liability for Mr. Nye's injury upon a finding that DuPont was already aware of the dangers of the asbestos-containing products or that adequate warnings were given to DuPont of such dangers, was erroneous and was not otherwise proper under the law of causation."

The learned intermediary doctrine allows a seller in a failure-to-warn case to rely on an intermediary to convey warnings about a dangerous product, the court wrote. It has not been adopted in Tennessee on products liability cases other than those involving pharmaceuticals and medical products, Nye's wife argued.

"Tennessee courts have not previously applied the learned intermediary doctrine to product liability actions arising in the workplace, and we do not find it appropriate to do so now," the court wrote.

"The rationale for the doctrine limits its application to the unique circumstances of the medical arena where a physician seeks to find the optimal treatment for a particular patient."

North Brothers argued that even if the doctrine wasn't appropriate in the case, the trial court's instruction properly allowed the jury to find that DuPont was the sole cause of Nye's injuries.

"It was proper for the jury to consider the actions of DuPont in determining whether DuPont was the cause in fact of Mr. Nye's injuries," the court wrote. "However, it does not follow that it was also proper to instruct the jury that if DuPont was aware of any dangers in connection with the use of the products it purchased from North Brothers, North Brothers could not be held liable for failure to warn"

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