Washington Supreme Court expands toxic-tort liability by broadening a product manufacturer's duty to warn
Yesterday the Washington Supreme Court expanded potential liability under negligence and strict products liability for asbestos-related exposures. In Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc., plaintiff Leo Macias alleged that he developed mesothelioma from breathing asbestos dust that had collected on respirators. Macias worked in a shipyard's tool room, and other shipyard workers would deliver their used respirators there for cleaning. Macias would clean the respirators and the filters, a process that exposed him to asbestos dust from insulation and other asbestos-containing products. Many years later, he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and filed suit against several respirator manufacturers.
The respirator manufacturers moved for summary judgment, arguing that Simonetta v. Viad and Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings required Macias to prove that the respirator manufacturers manufactured or sold the products that contained the asbestos Macias was exposed to. In Simonetta and Braaten, the Washington Supreme Court limited a product manufacturers liability to those products within the manufacturer's "chain of distribution" -- those products the manufacturer sold, manufactured, or otherwise required to be used with its products. In Macias, the respirator manufacturers concluded that they did not have a duty to warn about asbestos, because the only product within their "chain of distribution" (the respirators) did not contain asbestos. The respirator manufacturers claimed that they did not have a duty to warn about any asbestos hazards with other asbestos-containing products they did not manufacture or sell.
Washington’s Division II Court of Appeals agreed, and dismissed the claim, but Washington’s Supreme Court reversed in a 5-4 decision. The Supreme Court first recognized the “general rule” – stated in Simonetta and Braaten – that a defendant must be in the chain of distribution for the allegedly defective product. Even though the respirator manufacturers were not in the chain of distribution for the asbestos that harmed Macias, they nevertheless had a duty to warn about asbestos hazards, because the respirators were, “specifically designed to and intended to filter contaminants from the air breathed by the wearer, including asbestos.” The court further noted that the respirators were designed for re-use, and that the manufacturers had a duty to make sure the respirators could be safely cleaned. Thus, the product at issue was not the asbestos-containing products that left asbestos dust on the respirators, but the respirators themselves. Because the respirator manufacturers were within the chain of distribution for the respirators, Macias had a valid claim for failure to warn. In this way, the Macias court distinguished Simonetta and Braaten, which it characterized as involving products that did not require the use of asbestos.
In dissent, four justices rejected the majority's attempt to distinguish Simonetta and Braaten. The dissent stated that the defendants in Simonetta and Braaten were no different than those sued by Macias. None of those defendants manufactured or sold any product that contained asbestos. It did not matter to the dissent that the respirators were “specifically designed to be used with asbestos,” as the majority held, because some of the products at issue in Simonetta and Braaten also were designed to be used with asbestos. The dissent concluded that the majority was basing its duty to warn on the foreseeability of harm from asbestos, something that Simonetta and Braaten had held was insufficient to support that duty.
While Macias affirmed the "general rule" of Simonetta and Braaten (only product manufactures in the chain of distribution are liable for a product defect), we expect Washington's trial courts will have some difficulty reconciling Macias with Simonetta and Braaten, which could present challenges for defendants in obtaining summary judgement.