Product liability litigation requires overwhelming amounts of context, and courts can often take years to fully sort out applicable precedents for manufacturers to follow.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in the case of Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries addressed whether an equipment manufacturer has a legal duty to warn about a product manufactured by someone else that is added to its equipment years after manufacturing and selling that equipment. The Supreme Court ultimately said “yes” under certain circumstances but limited its decision to very specific instances related solely to maritime cases and not to product liability cases in general.
The decision in Devries challenges the long-standing view under tort law principles that entities are only required to warn about the hazards of products they either manufactured or supplied.
Because of this, manufacturers and other industrial professionals need to understand the Devries decision and how plaintiffs will try to manipulate this holding to expand liability beyond the maritime context (i.e., the “slippery slope”). There are applicable takeaways and best practices to help safeguard against this type of product liability claim and potentially avoid costly litigation.
The Devries Ruling
Devries involved the surviving spouses and estates of two sailors (John Devries and Kenneth McAfee) alleged to have been injured by asbestos-containing materials added to the defendant’s equipment after being sold to the U.S. Navy. The contractor did not manufacture, sell, or supply the materials in question, but the lawsuit argued that the machines could not function without the asbestos-containing parts, and, therefore, the defendant had a duty to warn about the risks associated with these integral parts.
The petitioners originally won both cases on summary judgment, but the third circuit reversed on appeal. The appeal process then took the case to the Supreme Court.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court expressly rejected “the Third Circuit’s holding that an equipment manufacturer could be held liable for an injury caused by a third-party asbestos-containing product simply because it was foreseeable that the product would be used with the defendant’s equipment” but also rejected “the Sixth Circuit’s bright-line rule under which an equipment manufacturer could never be held liable for asbestos exposures involving later-added third-party products.”
Instead, the Supreme Court limited its view to “negligence-based liability” under “certain narrow circumstances” and created a three-factor test that would determine when a legal duty would exist that is important for manufacturers and other industrial operators to understand:
- [The equipment manufacturer’s] product requires incorporation of a part;
- The [equipment] manufacturer knows or has reason to know that the integrated product is likely to be dangerous for its intended uses; and
- The [equipment] manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger.
Why this matters to other manufacturers
Product liability litigation has a long track record of narrow decisions that were applied more liberally and beyond their intended purpose, often further muddying the legal waters for manufacturers and industrial professionals.
Historically, tort law holds that a manufacturer has no “duty to warn or instruct about another manufacturer’s products, though those products might be used in connection with the manufacturer's own products.” More generally, manufacturers typically operate under a presumption that warnings need only include the characteristics of the manufacturer’s own products.
The increased integration of systems and technologies, however, along with the Devries opinion — even when considering its limit in scope — may require a change in that thinking.
More and more, manufacturers should consider the design of products and what other external parts or systems are likely to be integrated into their products or used in conjunction with the product itself. If sufficient warnings for likely uses or misuses associated with the product cannot be developed internally, manufacturers should coordinate with legal counsel and associated manufacturers to identify applicable warning language to help protect against potential legal liability.
Manufacturers are often in the best position to understand and warn about their own products’ risks, as courts have held over and over again, but consulting with other manufacturers or experts to show due diligence concerning appropriate instructions for use and warnings builds in additional safeguards and defenses to lawsuits considered by end users.
While courts have previously questioned the incentive to provide adequate warnings, rulings like Devries should prompt action. The prevention could be costly, but the costs likely pale in comparison to the costs, both economic and to the company’s reputation and brand, associated with a class action or mass tort lawsuit — even when the claims have little or no merit.
Thinking more broadly
In the Devries case, asbestos-containing gaskets were added to equipment years after it was manufactured and sold, and the equipment manufacturer did not manufacture or supply the gaskets in question.
In crafting its three-prong conjunctive test, the Supreme Court clarified that the “requirement” prong demands proof from the plaintiff that the manufacturer directed the use of the alleged dangerous outside product. This means manufacturers need to be fully aware of the systems and parts likely needed to be replaced or serviced and provide adequate directions on what to use — and perhaps more importantly what not to use — when making upgrades or repairs.
This becomes especially critical when equipment cannot function without the use of specific products manufactured by another entity. Absent such proof, claims would likely still fall outside the context of this opinion and fail.
The rule of law established in Devries specifically states that proof the defendant knew of a general danger related to asbestos would not be sufficient. Instead, the plaintiff must prove the manufacturer knew or reasonably should have known the third-party product would make the integrated product dangerous within its intended use or uses. That means manufacturers have a duty to understand the potential hazards of its products, including how a third-party product added many years later might increase risk and create a legal duty to warn.
The third prong is satisfied if the plaintiff can prove the defendant had reason to believe that the product’s users did not appreciate the dangers inherent in those third-party products and failed to warn. That is, if the product user should be aware of the danger, then liability does not attach.
When legal defense is needed
Devries, applied more broadly and beyond the narrow set of circumstances with which the Supreme Court was dealing, potentially creates liability beyond what traditional Tort law mandated. In essence, it could require that a manufacturer warn about a product it did not manufacture or supply.
Determining where duty to warn begins and ends raises complicated questions, but, ultimately, manufacturers should be cognizant of potential inherent dangers posed by their products — including later added third-party products — and proactively assess those risks at the introduction and through the life cycle of the product. These dangers need to be assessed in the context of what warnings should be given without excessive fine print and duplicative warnings that lead to consumer confusion and, perhaps, render the warnings meaningless or open the door to that argument by an adversary.
Understanding the complex nuances of rulings like Devries will remain important, especially if broader application occurs at some point in the future.