Products Liability Law Ebbs as California Supreme Court Issues Definitive O'Neil Opinion

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The California Supreme Court has issued a resounding and conclusive opinion rejecting the surging liability theory that a product manufacturer may be held liable for harmful defects in products made by third parties unless the manufacturer’s own product contributed substantially to the harm, or the manufacturer participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.

The Court’s unanimous opinion in O’Neil v. Crane Co. – issued Thursday – slammed the door on plaintiffs’ attempt to create “an unprecedented expansion of strict products liability,” and reaffirmed the “bedrock principle” that strict liability is premised on harm caused by deficiencies in the defendant’s own product.

The plaintiffs in O’Neil had postulated that the defendant valve and pump manufacturers should be liable for the harm caused by the plaintiff’s exposure to asbestos-containing insulation products (made by others) that were used on or near the defendant’s all-metal products. However, there was no evidence that asbestos insulation – as opposed to some other type of insulation material – was necessary for the defendants’ pumps and valves to function properly.

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