New Jersey’s Appellate Division Finds Manufacturer Has a Duty to Warn of Asbestos Risk in Foreseeable Replacement Component Parts

by Wilson Elser
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On April 23, 2014, New Jersey’s Appellate Division held that a pump manufacturer had a duty to warn that replacement component parts contained asbestos. In two consolidated cases, the trial court granted summary judgment dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims alleging exposure to replacement component parts subsequently installed on pumps manufactured by the defendant, Goulds Pumps, Inc. By the time the plaintiffs allegedly worked on the Goulds pumps, the original gaskets and packing had been replaced and the identity of the manufacturers/suppliers of the replacement parts was unknown. In dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims, the trial court emphasized New Jersey’s long-standing rule that the defect must exist when the product leaves the defendant’s control so that liability is limited to those in the chain of distribution of a defective product. The plaintiff appealed the dismissal.

Although the Appellate Division ultimately affirmed the dismissal, it nonetheless found that under the facts of the case, it was “reasonable, practical, and feasible to impose a duty to warn upon Goulds.” The Appellate Division acknowledged that the replacement parts were installed up to 30 years after the sale of the pumps and were not specified by Goulds nor required for the operation of its pumps. However, the Appellate Division emphasized that (1) the pumps as originally sold by Goulds had gaskets and packing that contained asbestos; (2) Goulds knew at the time it sold its pumps that the gaskets and packing would have to be replaced as part of routine maintenance; (3) there was evidence that workers were exposed to asbestos when the gaskets and packing were replaced; and (4) Goulds admitted that it was unaware of any substitutes for replacement parts that did not contain asbestos.

The Appellate Division was clear to note that based upon such facts, a duty to warn existed because the asbestos-containing gaskets and packing posed an inherent danger in the pumps as originally manufactured and it was reasonably foreseeable that component parts would be replaced regularly as part of routine maintenance. The Court further explained that the cost of including a warning at the time of the original marketing would have been minimal.

Despite the finding of a duty to warn, the Appellate Division ultimately affirmed the dismissal because the plaintiffs still failed to prove causation. That is, the plaintiffs failed to prove that they came into contact specifically with the asbestos-containing replacement parts. The Appellate Division rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that they sufficiently proved causation by demonstrating that they came into contact with the pumps in general. The Court explained that plaintiffs must identify “exposure to an injury-producing element in the product that was manufactured or sold by [the] defendant.” Here, the plaintiffs were unable to identify the manufacturers/suppliers of the replacement parts. Relying on New Jersey’s long-standing standard for causation announced in Sholtis v. American Cynamid Co., 238 N.J. Super. 8 (App. Div. 1999), the Court noted that “there must be evidence of exposure to a specific product on a regular basis over some extended period of time in proximity to where the plaintiff actually worked.”

What does this ruling mean for equipment manufacturers sued in New Jersey? Equipment manufacturers may now be subject to liability for failure to warn of replacement component parts neither manufactured nor required by them years after their original sale. Thus, focus should be turned to evidence illustrating that (1) it was not foreseeable that their products would be used with asbestos-containing replacement parts and (2) even if it were arguably foreseeable that asbestos-containing replacement parts would be used, the plaintiffs cannot identify any injury-producing exposure to an asbestos-containing replacement part. Equipment manufacturers and plaintiffs may now be required to conduct more discovery into the maintenance history of equipment with asbestos-containing replacement parts to meet the causation threshold set by the Court.

 

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Wilson Elser
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