ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) – A Maryland appeals court has ruled that a manufacturer did not have a duty to warn of the hazards associated with asbestos-containing component parts, concluding that foreseeability alone does not establish a duty.
Judge Kevin Arthur delivered the Oct. 3 opinion in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, affirming the lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Judges Christopher Kehoe and Patrick Woodward joined.
Arthur wrote that the court had one question to review: Did the trial court err in granting summary judgment as to whether defendants had a duty to warn of the hazards associated with replacement parts for the products they sold? The court ruled that the answer is no.
In this case, plaintiff Philip Royce May served in the U.S. Navy from 1956 until 1976 as a machinist mate on Navy vessels. As part of his duties, May was responsible for replacing asbestos gaskets and packing in the pumps that “pumped superheated steam through the ships’ steam population system.”
May was diagnosed with mesothelioma in January 2012.
Defendants Air & Liquid Systems Corp., Warren Pumps LLC and IMO Industries Inc. manufactured the steam pumps used on the Navy ships. They alleged that they neither required nor recommended any particular replacement parts. They also claimed they did not require the use of asbestos-containing products.
As a result, the defendants moved for summary judgment, alleging they had no duty to warn of the dangers of asbestos-containing replacement parts that they neither manufactured nor placed into the stream of commerce.
The court agreed.
Arthur wrote that May had no evidence showing any of the defendants manufactured or sold the asbestos-containing gaskets or packing May was allegedly exposed to.
“It was undisputed that May was exposed to asbestos only because of his exposure to replacement parts that the manufacturer-defendants neither made nor placed into the stream of commerce,” he wrote.
Arthur relied on the Ford Motor Co. v Wood decision from 1998, where the appeals court held that an automobile manufacturer could not be held liable for failing to warn of the latent dangers of asbestos-containing replacement parts that it neither manufactured nor sold.
In the Wood case, the plaintiff claimed her late husband developed mesothelioma, which caused his death, as a result of his exposure to asbestos fibers while working in a garage where employees repaired and replaced the brakes and clutches on older-model Ford trucks.
The appeals court determined that summary judgment was proper because the plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence that her husband was exposed to the defendant’s products with a degree of frequency, proximity and regularity.
May dismissed the Wood decision, arguing that the case’s lengthy discussion of liability for defective replacement or component parts is “mere dicta.”
Arthur and his colleagues disagreed, stating that the Wood court determined that a manufacture typically has no liability for defective replacement or component parts that it did not manufacture or sell.
Therefore, the appeals court concluded that the defendants had no duty to warn of the hazards associated with the asbestos-containing replacement parts at issue.
May further argued that the defendants had a duty to warn because it was foreseeable that those parts would be incorporated into the defendants’ pumps.
However, Arthur held that according to Maryland law, foreseeability does not suffice to establish a duty on its own.
“To the contrary, even when a person’s conduct could foreseeably result in harm to others, the court of appeals has repeatedly refused to recognize a duty in tort if it would expose a person to liability to ‘an indeterminate class of people,’” Arthur wrote.
The appeals court held that foreseeability of harm is neither dispositive nor material to the existence of a duty.
“We agree with the courts that have held that, despite the alleged foreseeability of harm from defective replacement parts that are made or manufactured by others, a person generally is liable only for harm caused by products that it manufactured or otherwise introduced into the stream of commerce,” Arthur wrote.
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