Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. Devries

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Argument: October 10, 2018

Petitioners’ Brief: Air and Liquid Systems and Ingersoll Rand

Respondents’ Brief: Devries and McAfee

Court Below: Third Circuit Court of Appeals

Court Below: Third Circuit Court of Appeals

Shippers of navy engine parts seek to escape liability: the asbestos was added later!

The widows of two navy shipmen are in the Supreme Court this week. Their husbands worked on navy ships during years when asbestos insulation was used on the ships.

When asbestos insulation is removed, particles of the dangerous product are released into the air and people can inhale it. Many cases of lung disease were caused by asbestos. The navy used asbestos insulation on their ships into the 1970s, and the product was finally banned in 1977.

Air and Liquid Systems v Devries

Liability in the “chain of manufacture”

In modern products liability law, any party in the “chain of manufacture” is liable. But these shippers claim they aren’t in that group.

Air and Liquid Systems Corp. and Ingersoll Rand — two of the defendants the widows sued — shipped engine parts for use on the navy ships. But when the companies shipped the parts, there wasn’t any asbestos involved. It was only later that asbestos insulation would be added. As the lower court explained:

A classic scenario would be if an engine manufacturer ships an engine without a gasket, the buyer adds a gasket containing asbestos, and the asbestos causes injury to a worker. May the manufacturer be held liable? 

So yes, Air and Liquid Systems and Ingersoll Rand might have been involved in the chain of production that resulted in a harmful product, but the companies claim they didn’t actually have anything to do with the harmful part. Does that count for “chain of manufacture” liability?

Two options

Either no, “bare-metal” shippers cannot be liable.

Or maybe. A “bare-metal” shipper can be liable if it knew asbestos was going to be added to its part. Suppose the companies worked as part of a regular operation in which everyone (all the parts manufacturers and assembly parties) knew asbestos was a part. So if the bare-metal shipper knew asbestos was dangerous and that its product would be used with an asbestos part, then under this second option, the bare-metal shipper would be liable.

The lower court ruled for the maybe option, in favor of the widows (the sailors). It said Air and Liquid Systems and Ingersoll Rand might still be liable.

The companies are appealing.

Maritime law factor

One factor the appeals court (the lower court) used in making its decision to support the sailors is that maritime law is especially supportive of sailors. The rules are meant to help out sailors more than regular “common law” would help plaintiffs. So when the court weighed the factors on whether or not to impose liability, it leaned a bit in favor of the sailors because the relevant law is maritime law. See if the Supreme Court will give the same weight to the maritime law factor.

The Court will hear arguments on October 10, 2018.

Additional Resources:

Products Liability: Cornell Legal Information Institute

History of “Strict Liability”: Yale Law School (George L. Priest)

Asbestos and the Navy: Sokolove Law

Recent Reports: