Product liability claims brought by mariners suffering from mesothelioma, asbestosis and other lung ailments, especially those who served in the U.S. Navy, have long been prevalent, as vessels manufactured during the first three quarters of the last century were routinely outfitted with asbestos. While aspects of federal law evenly govern parties’ rights in what has become the largest basis for product liability claims in history, most issues are governed by state law that can vary, sometimes significantly. That’s not exactly the ideal environment for federal jurisdictional concepts, such as maritime law, whose primary intent is uniformity.
Enter the scene James Mack, who recently claimed he was exposed to asbestos while employed on U.S. Navy vessels as a civilian welder, which he further claims caused him to contract asbestos-related disease. He sued a series of shipbuilders in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, but his suit was transferred to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania as part of a Multi-District Litigation program the federal courts implement for asbestos litigation for the sake of efficiency and consistency of rulings.
In moving for summary judgment, the defendants interposed the “sophisticated user” and “sophisticated purchaser” defenses, and further asserted that a Navy vessel is not a “product” for purposes of product liability. Because the alleged exposure took place during shipboard activity (giving rise to Admiralty jurisdiction), this set the stage for a collision of uniform, preemptive maritime law with state product liability law. Apparently, no one had ever asked an admiralty court whether a vessel is a “product,” or whether certain product liability defenses are available in maritime law.
The court began its analysis with a review of maritime law’s objectives which, summarily, include protection of mariners from the perils of working at sea; promotion of maritime commerce; and, of course, uniformity. In determining whether state product liability concepts should be introduced into federal maritime law – a notion that could have far-reaching implications – the court necessarily kept these jurisdictional goals in mind. Here’s what the court did.
Put perhaps too simply, most state product liability law will hold a manufacturer or supplier liable for injuries or death resulting from their product if they (1) realized, or should have realized, it would be dangerous if used as intended; (2) didn’t have reason to believe that those who use or come into contact with the product will be aware of its danger; and (3) failed to adequately warn endangered parties about the danger. The sophisticated user and sophisticated purchaser defenses are available in most states, although there is variance in how the doctrines are applied. Generally, a defendant manufacturer or supplier can get off the hook by sufficiently demonstrating that the claimant was familiar with the product’s dangers by virtue of his/her training or experience (i.e., he/she is a sophisticated user), and proceeded nonetheless.
A defense is also available when the manufacturer/supplier provides an inherently dangerous product with adequate warning to a claimant’s employer, or when the employer itself is shown to be adequately familiar with the danger by its own experience, and then the employer fails to adequately warn or protect its naïve employee. This is the sophisticated purchaser (also known as the “sophisticated intermediary”) defense. We can’t hold industry responsible for sitting down with every employee of its purchasers; at some point, the employers themselves must be responsible.
So what would adoption of these doctrines mean to the saltier side of law, which could be applied in a variety of contexts throughout the country? The court asked that question from the perspective of admiralty’s stated goals. It determined that a maritime sophisticated user doctrine would encourage the sale and provision of essential products to the shipping and defense industries by granting a measure of comfort to manufacturers and suppliers that they have a reasonable defense to product liability. It also would protect unsophisticated mariners from falling subject to it (and thereby advocating their safety and protection), as the burden of proving the defense rests with the defendants. Thus, the court adopted the sophisticated user defense into maritime law, and established a reasonableness test as to whether an end user’s training, background and experience renders him/her adequately “sophisticated.” The defense is only available on failure to warn cases, which are based on negligence standards.
However, the sophisticated purchaser defense would have a chilling effect on mariners’ interest in working at sea if they might find themselves tossed out of court their employer failed to pass along warnings to them. Many might be left without a remedy, period. That, in turn, could negatively impact maritime commerce as a whole. Also of note is the prohibitive expense of requiring manufacturers and suppliers to warn end users, as compared to the lower burden employers would face. For these reasons, the court refused to welcome the sophisticated purchaser defense into maritime law.
But what about the strict liability aspect of product liability law, which applies most frequently with defective product cases? Does it even kick in with cases against shipyards, which basically build ships out of countless component parts supplied by equally countless manufacturers? For that to happen, the court would have to conclude that a Navy ship itself is a “product.” Is it?
No, it’s not. Again, maritime law seeks to protect waterborne commerce as one of its primary goals. The policy of holding shipbuilders strictly liable would place the burden of preventing harm on a party not best equipped to do so. Component parts are the products which are most likely to cause harm, and their design, construction and marketing are in the hands of entities for which shipyards cannot reasonably be responsible without putting a huge drag on the shipbuilding industry.
Thus, the defendant shipbuilders succeeded in their motion to the extent they were relieved of strict liability for the proper functioning of their vessels, and were given the opportunity to show Mr. Mack was a sophisticated user. They actually failed in the latter task (no evidence suggested the plaintiff’s background rendered him adequately sophisticated), so his claim survives.
This isn’t the first time the concept of a uniform body of federal maritime law has encountered a glitch in application because of cross currents with state law. This case demonstrates the conceptual difficulties a rigid division of state and federal law present when it comes to a complex and inherently dangerous industry. These cases must be decided ad hoc based on the peculiarities of legal and factual circumstances, and with a mind toward achieving maritime law’s crucial goals. Given the significance of precedents issued in multi-district litigation, this decision, assuming the Third Circuit Court of Appeals doesn’t disturb it, will have significant precedential effect in maritime product liability litigation.
Ref: Mack v. General Electric Co., et al., 2012 WL 4717918 (E.D. Pa. 2012)
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