By Dan Jaffe on October 7, 2016
New York’s highest court recently held in two asbestos cases (Dummit v. A. W. Chesterton and Suttner v. A. W. Chesterton) that a manufacturer of valves had a duty to warn of the hazards arising from the use of its valves with asbestos-bearing gaskets and packing materials which it neither manufactured nor distributed. In re New York City Asbestos Litigation, 27 N.Y.3d 765, N.E.3d, 2016 WL 3495191 (2016) (“Asbestos Cases”). Both cases involved valves manufactured by Crane Company. Crane’s valves did not contain asbestos or other hazardous materials, but they could not practically function in a high-pressure, high-heat environment without asbestos-containing gaskets, insulation and packing.
Dummitt was a boiler technician who worked with Crane valves and the associated gaskets and packing. Suttner worked as a pipefitter at a GM engine plant on its steam pipe system also using Crane valves with asbestos-based materials. Both plaintiffs claimed exposure to asbestos from 1960 to the late 1970s when they serviced Crane valves by replacing the original gaskets and packing materials with third-party asbestos-based materials which were neither manufactured nor supplied by Crane.
Crane’s technical drawings for its valves specified the use of asbestos-based sealing components. Crane knew that due to high pressure, high temperature use the asbestos-based materials would wear out and have to be replaced. During the period in which Crane sold these valves, it marketed and recommended in its catalogs issued between 1923 and 1962 a material called “Cranite”, an asbestos-based sheet material that could be used to produce replacements for the asbestos-containing gaskets and packing originally sold with its valves. Crane assisted the Navy in preparing its manuals which also recommended the use of asbestos-based materials. Crane knew of the relationship between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma by the early 1970’s. Beginning in the late 1970s Crane sought substitutes for asbestos-based sealing components used with its valves but had difficulty finding suitable substitute materials. Crane never warned of asbestos related hazards.
Both cases were tried with jury instructions stating that Crane had a duty to warn of the dangers of joint use of its valves with other manufacturers’ asbestos-containing materials, and both juries returned verdicts against Crane. Crane appealed, relying on Rastelli v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 79 N.Y. 2d 289, 591 N.E.2d 222 (1992) and other authorities. Rastelli involved the use of a Goodyear tire on a multi-piece rim made by others. It held that a manufacturer has no duty to warn about another manufacturer’s product “when the first manufacturer produces a sound product which is compatible for use with a defective product of the other manufacturer.” 79 N.Y.2d 389, 298.
In the Asbestos Cases, the New York Court of Appeals stated that, “consistent with the Rastelli decision,” a manufacturer’s duty to warn of combined use of its product with another product depends in part on whether the manufacturer’s product can function without the other product. It held, “the manufacturer of a product has a duty to warn of the danger arising from the known and reasonably foreseeable use of its product in combination with a third-party product which, as a matter of design, mechanics or economic necessity, is necessary to enable the manufacturer’s product to function as intended,” and that given the evidence of Crane’s affirmative steps to integrate its valves with third-party asbestos-containing products and other relevant evidence, the lower courts properly applied this principle. 27 N.Y.3d 765, 778. Accordingly, it affirmed in both cases.
The Asbestos Cases decision thus stands for the proposition that where a manufacturer knows, or has reason to know of a danger which arises from the necessary use of its product in combination with a third party’s product, it has a duty to warn about a hazard that arises from the third party’s product. By contrast, in Rastelli Goodyear had no control over the production of the subject rim, had no role in placing it in the stream of commerce, derived no benefit from its sale, and use of defective rims was not necessary for the tires to function. The different result in the Asbestos Cases arises from these materially different facts.