U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Product Manufacturers Can Be Held Liable for Third-Party Modifications in Maritime Law Context
On March 19, the U.S. Supreme Court made an important decision regarding products liability and the ability for permits manufacturers to be sued for modifications made to their products by third parties. The lawsuit was brought by two veterans who alleged that they were injured by the asbestos present in the Navy equipment they worked with every day. Although the manufacturer did not produce the equipment with any asbestos, the Navy allegedly integrated asbestos into it after installation, pursuant to the instructions provided by manufacturers.
Lower Court Rulings
The plaintiffs argued that they should have been placed on notice concerning the presence of the asbestos, while defendant companies argued that they were not liable because they did not install any asbestos with the equipment. While the federal district court agreed with the manufacturer defendants, the US Court of Appeals reversed, leading the manufacturers to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Tests” Discussed by Court
In its decision, the Court discussed three possible approaches, or tests, when it comes to determining manufacturer liability in circumstances like these; the:
- Foreseeability approach: requiring manufacturers to provide warnings to anyone and everyone who could possibly come into contact with their product of any possible dangers, even if modified by a third party and the manufacturer did not instruct the third party to use or incorporate that other product or part that turned out to be dangerous;
- “Bare-metal” defense: preventing manufacturers from being held liable for any modifications performed by third parties, regardless of what their instructions provide; and
- Middle-ground approach: allowing manufacturers to be held liable for third-party modifications that are taken with the manufacturer’s “knowledge or intention,” where the modification would make the product dangerous.
Middle-Ground Approach: Manufacturer Can Sometimes Be Held Liable
The Court decided that the first two tests were too extreme, and the middle-ground approach was appropriate, whereby manufacturers would be held liable under some circumstances. Specifically, in the maritime context, a product manufacturer has a “duty to warn” when its product requires incorporation of a part or product that the manufacturer knows or has reason to know could be dangerous and no reason to believe that the product’s users will be aware of that danger. According to the Court, the product manufacturer is often in a better place to warn of danger because it best knows the nature of the final, integrated product.
If You Are a Manufacturer Facing a Product Liability Claim, Contact Our Defense Attorneys
If you are a manufacturer facing a product liability claim here in Texas, contact our experienced Brownsville product liability defense attorneys at Colvin, Saenz, Rodriguez & Kennamer, L.L.P. to ensure that you receive skilled, excellent representation.