If you were to buy a machine that didn’t contain asbestos but required other parts that did, who would need to warn you about that asbestos? If no one warned you, who would be liable for your exposure?
These were questions that recently made their way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, and the answers to those questions may carry sweeping consequences for future mesothelioma claims.
When manufacturers become liable
As noted by the New Jersey Law Journal, the case before the New Jersey Supreme Court concerned a man who had worked as both a plumber and auto mechanic. He cleaned oil-fired boilers and fitted replacement gaskets onto the steam traps of commercial boilers. These jobs, he claimed, exposed him to asbestos, but the manufacturers never offered a warning.
The trial court initially dismissed the man’s case after the manufacturers argued they hadn’t made the replacement parts with which the man had worked. Since they hadn’t made the materials, they couldn’t be liable.
Although the trial court agreed with the manufacturers, an appellate court reversed the dismissal, and the Supreme Court upheld the appellate court’s decision. It argued that the manufacturers knew their products required replacement parts that contained asbestos. This meant they had a duty to warn consumers that the continued use and maintenance of their products could lead to asbestos exposure.
However, in reversing the trial court’s dismissal, the Supreme Court noted that the plaintiff still had to show the defendants were liable. To do that, the man would need to show:
- The manufacturer’s original product used of parts that contained asbestos
- The product needed those parts to function
- Those parts needed to be replaced with other asbestos-containing parts during routine maintenance
- That exposure to the asbestos in those replacement parts led to the man’s disease and suffering
The Supreme Court’s decision was not unanimous. Two justices dissented, saying they thought the opinion created a new standard for liability. However, the majority claimed the opinion followed a worker-friendly tradition of duty-to-warn cases.