Washington Court Reaches Landmark Decision in Respirator Manufacturer Case
August 31, 2012
Asbestos litigation has been around for more than four decades, but there is always new ground to cover. That’s what we learned earlier this month from a Washington state court.
Some of the first asbestos cases considered whether asbestos manufacturers were legally liable for asbestos-related injuries. However, asbestos was so widely used, it soon became clear that asbestos manufacturers weren’t the only ones responsible for safeguarding the public from asbestos dangers.
Since a federal court’s 1969 decision in Borel v. Fibreboard Paper Products Corporation, it has been well-established that asbestos manufacturers have a legal duty to warn their employees and the public about asbestos dangers.
More recent cases focused on the extent to which manufacturers of other products that contain asbestos or are used with asbestos also have a duty to warn.
Now the Washington Supreme Court, in deciding Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc., has held that respirator manufacturers can be held liable for failing to warn about asbestos dangers.
Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc.
Plaintiff Leo Macias filed suit in Washington against respirator manufacturers American Optical Corporation, Mine Safety Appliances Company and North America Safety Products USA.
Macias alleges that he developed mesothelioma while working as a tool keeper at Todd Shipyards. For 26 years, he was responsible for cleaning and replacing filters on the respirators used by pipefitters, welders and other shipyard workers.
Macias claims that the respirator manufacturers had a duty to warn him about asbestos exposure while disassembling and washing the respirators, according to court documents.
He says the defendants knew that the respirators required routine cleaning and filter replacement which could potentially expose workers to asbestos fibers, court documents show. He argues that respirators should have carried warnings about the dangers and advised him to take precautions such as wearing a respirator himself.
Hoping to halt the case before trial, the defendants moved for summary judgment. They argued that under Washington law they had no duty to warn of asbestos dangers.
Asbestos, not their products, injured Macias. Accordingly, they claim there was no genuine issue at stake to warrant moving the case forward.
The defendants relied on two 2008 cases to support their argument. In Simonetta v. Viad Corporation and Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings, the Washington Supreme Court held that the defendants had no duty to warn about the dangers of their Navy ship equipment.
The court held that in order to be strictly liable in an asbestos product liability case, a defendant must be in the chain of distribution. In other words, there is generally no duty to warn about inherent dangers in a product (e.g., asbestos) unless the defendant manufactures, sells or supplies it.
In Simonetta and Braaten, there was nothing inherently dangerous about the defendants’ equipment until the U.S. Navy applied asbestos insulation to it.
Finding an Exception to the Chain of Distribution Rule
In this case, however, the court held that the defendants own products were inherently dangerous when put to their intended use. It pointed out an exception to the chain-of-distribution rule when two otherwise safe products are used together to create an unreasonably dangerous condition. In those cases, the manufacturers of both products have a duty warn.
While it’s true that asbestos is inherently dangerous and injured Macias, the respirators also played a role. According to the court, “the very purpose of the respirators would . . . lead to high concentrations of asbestos . . . and in order to reuse them as they were intended to be reused, the asbestos had to be removed.”
In other words, asbestos posed a danger, but the defendants’ reusable respirators were inherently dangerous themselves without adequate warnings.
After the landmark ruling, the case can move forward to determine whether the respirator manufacturers are liable for Macias’ injuries.
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