In a 5-2 split decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled on June 3, that manufacturers and distributors can be held liable for failing to warn of the risks of asbestos-containing replacement components even if they did not build or sell them. In the 43-page majority opinion, Justice Barr T. Albin wrote: “Our developing common law jurisprudence, guided by principles of public policy and equity, dictates that defendants who manufacture or distribute products that, by their design, require the replacement of asbestos-containing components with other asbestos-containing components during the ordinary life of the product have a duty to give adequate warnings to the ultimate user.”
The underlying lawsuit was brought in 2018 by Arthur Whelan who sued several defendants, including Armstrong International, Burnham LLC, Carrier Corp., Cleaver-Brooks Inc., Crown Boiler Co., Ford Motor Co., and Johnson Controls, Inc., all of whom had either manufactured or distributed asbestos-containing components. The plaintiff argued that his mesothelioma was caused by his exposure to both original asbestos-containing components and asbestos-containing replacement parts. The defendants argued that Mr. Whelan could not prove his disease was caused by any part they manufactured or distributed, even though the parts had all been incorporated into their products; the plaintiff responded that it did not matter whether his exposure was to an original part or a replacement part made or sold by a third party – a duty to warn attached to both. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment but the Appellate Court reversed, stating that because the replacement parts were necessary for the functioning of their products, the defendants could be held strictly liable for failing to warn about the products’ dangers. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the Appellate Court’s decision and held that manufacturers and distributors can be held strictly liable for failing to warn, provided the plaintiffs prove (1) the manufacturer or distributor incorporated asbestos-containing components in its original product; (2) the asbestos-containing components were integral to the product and necessary for it to function; (3) routine maintenance of the product required replacing the original asbestos-containing components with similar asbestos-containing components; and (4) the exposure to the asbestos-containing components or replacement components was a substantial factor in causing or exacerbating Whelan’s disease. The case has been remanded to the trial court for resolution by a jury.