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Products Liability

February 28, 2020

Products Liability

Case: Carolyn Coffman et al. v. Armstrong International, Inc. et al.

Facts: Plaintiffs sued multiple defendants for their alleged involvement in the exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Among the defendants were the “Equipment Defendants” who “purchased asbestos-containing gaskets and/or packing from other manufacturers and incorporated those asbestos components into some of their equipment pre-sale.” The trial court granted summary judgment to the equipment defendants after finding that they affirmatively negated their alleged duty to warn, which the court determined was an essential element of plaintiffs’ negligence and strict liability claims.

Appellate decision: The intermediate court reversed the grant of summary judgement based on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s holding in Satterfield v. Breeding Insulation Company, which it noted “has been subject to enduring criticism” but remains binding precedent. Under the Satterfield analysis, the court held that “the degree of foreseeable harm and the gravity of potential harm outweighed the burden that the equipment defendants would have suffered by warning about the post-sale integration of” the products, so “the equipment defendants did have a duty to warn about the dangers associated with those later-added products.”

Review granted: February 20, 2020. The Supreme Court’s Order granting review requested briefing on the following issue: “Whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the Equipment Defendants had a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others.

Prediction: Ben thinks the Supreme Court will affirm the reversal of summary judgment, but on different grounds. First, the Supreme Court will abrogate the Satterfield decision and replace it with the U.S. Supreme Court’s standard in Air & Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries, 139 S. Ct. 986 (2019), which recognizes a duty to warn when the manufacturer directs that the part be incorporated, makes the product with a part it knows will require replacement with a similar part, or the product would be useless without the part.  Under that standard, there would appear to be at least a question of fact as to liability.