TORTINI

For your delectation and delight, desultory dicta on the law of delicts.

Sophisticated Intermediary Defense in Asbestos Cases – Use With Discretion

May 20th, 2019

“Discretion is the better part of valor.” Shakespeare, King Henry the Fourth.

A recent asbestos case illustrates the perils of improvidently asserting a sophisticated intermediary defense, when the alleged injury is mesothelioma, and the years of exposure reach back to the 1940s. In Sawyer v. Union Carbide Corp., Foster Wheeler LLC, pleaded sophisticated intermediary and superseding cause defenses “pro forma,” in a mesothelioma case that involved asbestos exposure from 1948 through the 1970s.[1] Plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment on these two defenses, but rather than withdraw the defenses, Foster Wheeler attempted to present evidentiary support in the form of the employer’s (purchaser’s) knowledge of asbestos hazards. The employer was the Bethlehem Steel Company, at the Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point Shipyard.

Foster Wheeler certainly was able to show that Bethlehem Steel was aware of the hazards of asbestosis, going back to 1948. If the plaintiff’s alleged injury had been asbestosis, the employer’s knowledge should have sufficed. The injury alleged, however, was mesothelioma. Evidence that the Maritime Commission had warned Bethlehem Steel about the hazards of asbestosis, and to maintain a threshold limit value of 5 million particles per cubic foot, was not particularly germane or helpful in avoiding mesothelioma among employees.

Moving forward two decades, Foster Wheeler was able to show that Bethlehem Steel’s Medical Director, Dr. Paul J. Whitaker, was well aware of the connection between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, in 1968.[2] This evidence, however, left two decades of exposure, from 1948 to 1968, in which Foster Wheeler had not shown its purchaser was aware of the risk of mesothelioma.

The trial court in Sawyer, however, did not focus on the differential between an asbestosis and a mesothelioma hazard. Instead of noting the lack of knowledge with respect to mesothelioma, the trial court insisted that the supplier must have subjective awareness of the purchaser’s actual knowledge of the relevant hazards. Even the overwhelming evidence of Bethlehem’s awareness of asbestosis hazards throughout the plaintiff’s employment was thus, questionably, deemed irrelevant.

According the trial court, the sophisticated intermediary defense focuses on what “focuses on what the product manufacturer knew and the reasonableness of its reliance on the employer prior to and during the time the workers were exposed.”[3] The Sawyer court took this focus to require a showing that the defendant had actual awareness of the intermediary’s knowledge of the dangers of asbestos exposure. According to the decision, Foster Wheeler failed to establish a basis for having such actual knowledge of Bethlehem Steel’s knowledge.

The Sawyer court’s insistence upon actual awareness is not supported by its citation to the Restatement (Second) of Torts. The relevant provision for sales of products to be used by a third party states that[4]:

“One who supplies directly or through a third person a chattel for another to use is subject to liability to those whom the supplier should expect to use the chattel with the consent of the other or to be endangered by its probable use, for physical harm caused by the use of the chattel in the manner for which and by a person for whose use it is supplied, if the supplier

  • knows or has reason to know that the chattel is or is likely to be dangerous for the use for which it is supplied, and
  • has no reason to believe that those for whose use the chattel is supplied will realize its dangerous condition, and
  • fails to exercise reasonable care to inform them of its dangerous condition or of the facts which make it likely to be dangerous.”

The Restatement’s articulated standard does not call for the seller’s subjective awareness as a necessary condition. Having a reason to believe the user will realize its dangerous condition seems eminently satisfied by a generalized, reasonable belief that purchasers are sophisticated with respect to the product’s use. Foster Wheeler might have improved its evidentiary showing in opposition to plaintiff’s motion, however, by adverting to its own knowledge that there was a prevalent regulatory scheme, including the Walsh-Healy Act, which covered the safety of workers in the use of asbestos. As noted above, this knowledge would not have implicated the hazard of mesothelioma or the means to avoid it in purchasers’ workplaces.

The Sawyer decision offered virtually no support for the proposition that the seller, wishing to avail itself of the sophisticated intermediary defense, must have actual knowledge of the buyer’s awareness of the relevant hazard. Failure to warn liability for a product’s harm is predicated upon negligence law. Almost all civilized jurisdictions require plaintiff to show negligence in such cases.[5] The test for non-obviousness such that a warning might be required under the law is an objective one, which does not turn on the user’s actual knowledge of the hazard.[6]

Although standing on the sophisticated intermediary defense may have been improvident in Sawyer, there are many cases that cry out for dismissal on the strength of the defense. The facts of silica cases, for example, are radically different from early exposure asbestos cases because of the wide diffusion and general equality of knowledge of silica hazards throughout industry, labor, and government.[7]  The dangers of occupational exposure to crystalline silica were so well known that the New York Court of Appeals recognized, seventy years ago, that “[i]t is a matter of common knowledge that it is injurious to the lungs and dangerous to health to work in silica dust.”[8] This pervasiveness of knowledge about the potential hazards of industrial silica exposure has been the basis for many dispositive rulings in silica cases, even when the sellers lacked subjective awareness of the buyer’s state of mind.[9]

Product liability is defined and bounded by the scope of an essential need for warnings in the face of imbalances in knowledge between seller and buyer. When the rationale is not or cannot be satisfied, ignoring the sophisticated intermediary’s knowledge is little more than creating a “duty to pay.” In the context of industrial sales of materials and products to large, sophisticated buyers, the law recognizes that warnings are often unnecessary and even counter-productive when hazards of the materials or products are known to the buyers as well as, if not better than, to the sellers. The so-called sophisticated intermediary defense thus reflects nothing more than the rational limits of liability in situations when the chattel is widely known to be hazardous, and the seller can reasonably rely upon the intermediary to be aware of the hazard and to protect down-stream users, typically employees of the purchaser.

Because of the shift in knowledge about the causal relationship between amphibole asbestos and mesothelioma, asbestos product cases would appear unlikely applications for sophisticated intermediary defenses, at least until the knowledge of mesothelioma hazards became widely prevalent. Because of the  change in the state of the art with respect to asbestos hazards, asbestos cases involve substantial factual and legal differences from other hazardous material cases. The singular facts of some of the asbestos cases include an extreme imbalance between supplier and some purchasers in their respective knowledge of asbestos hazards. Accordingly, jurisdictions that have embraced the sophisticated intermediary defense have thus treated asbestos cases, with pre-OSHA exposures, differently from other occupational exposure cases.[10]

The OSH Act of 1970, which created OSHA, was fueled in large part by wide-spread awareness and concern about asbestos exposure and occupational cancers, such as mesothelioma. In asbestos cases involving only post-1969 asbestos exposures, courts have upheld the applicability of the sophisticated intermediary defense. Thus a federal trial court in Kentucky, applying Indiana law, granted summary judgment to a respirator manufacturer, on the basis of the sophisticated intermediary defense, in a post-OSHA asbestos lung cancer case.[11] Similarly, a Virginia state trial court, notwithstanding the application of Virginia law in the Willis and Oman federal cases upheld the sophisticated intermediary defense as a complete legal defense for asbestos sales after 1970.[12] The decisions in these asbestos cases with only post-1970 asbestos exposure emphasized the equality of knowledge of asbestos hazards, which distinguished them from earlier asbestos cases involving companies such as Johns-Manville, which had been found to suppress or hide information from purchasers and workers.[13]


[1] Sawyer v. Union Carbide Corp., Civil No. CCB-16-118, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 72215 at *33; 2019 WL 1904882 (D. Md. April 29, 2019).

[2] Sawyer at *36.

[3] Sawyer at *36 (quoting Willis v. Raymark Indus., Inc., 905 F.2d 793, 797 (4th Cir. 1990)).

[4]  § 388 Chattel Known to Be Dangerous for Intended Use, Restatement (Second) of Torts (1965).

[5] Under New York law, for instance, the duty to warn in strict liability is identical in nature and scope as the duty in negligence. Martin v. Hacker, 83 N.Y. 1, 8 n.1 (1993). New York law acknowledges that there is no meaningful distinction between negligent and strict liability failure to warn claims. See Fane v. Zimmer, Inc., 927 F.2d 124, 130 (2d Cir. 1991) (New York law) (“Failure to warn claims purporting to sound in strict liability and those sounding in negligence are essentially the same.”). See also Rainbow v. Albert Elia Bldg. Co., 49 A.D.2d 250 (4th Dept. 1974) (distinguishing manufacturing and design defects, and permitting “reasonableness” defenses, including state-of-the-art defenses, to the latter in strict products liability), aff’d, 56 N.Y.2d 550 (1981). On the equivalence between negligence and product liability for failure to warn, New York law is aligned with the law of most states. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 2, and comment I (1998); Restatement (Second) of Torts § 388 & comment n (1965); Restatement (First) of Torts § 388, comment 1 (1934).

[6] The standard for the open and obvious defense, which is many respects is a variant of the sophisticated intermediary defense, is an objective one, based on what would be obvious to the ordinary person. See Plante v. Hobart Corp., 771 F.2d 617, 620 (1st Cir. 1985) (“Where the danger involved in using a product is obvious and apparent, discernible by casual inspection, a supplier is not negligent in failing to warn of that danger.”); Fleck v. KDI Sylvan Pools, Inc., 981 F.2d 107, 119 (3d Cir. 1992) (“[W]hether a danger is open and obvious is an objective inquiry, not dependent upon the actual knowledge of the user or his actual awareness of the danger.”); Glittenberg v. Doughboy, 491 N.W.2d 208, 213 (Mich. 1992) (“Determination of the ‘obvious’ character of a product- connected danger is objective.”).

[7] See Linda Regis, “Frame the Sandbox to Sandblasting: Regulation of Crystalline Silica,” 17 Pace Envt’l L. Rev. 207, 208 n. 8 (1999); Richard Ausness, “Learned Intermediaries and Sophisticated Users: Encouraging the Use of Intermediaries to Transmit Product Safety Information,” 46 Syracuse L. Rev. 1185, 1205-07 (1996); Kenneth Willner, “Failures to Warn and the Sophisticated User Defense,” 74 Va. L. Rev. 579 (1988); Victor Schwartz & Russell Driver, “Warnings in the Workplace: The Need for a Synthesis of Law and Communication Theory,” 52 U. Cin. L. Rev. 38 (1983).

[8] Sadowski v. Long Island RR., 292 N.Y. 448, 456 (1944) (emphasis added). A few years later, the United States Supreme Court concurred and quoted Sadowski. Urie v. Tompkins, 337 U.S. 163, 190 (1949).

[9] See, e.g., Goodbar v. Whitehead Bros., 591 F. Supp. 552 (W.D. Va. 1984), aff’d sub nom. Beale v. Hardy, 769 F.2d 213 (4th Cir. 1985); Smith v. Walter C. Best, Inc., 927 F.2d 736 (3d Cir. 1990) (applying Ohio law in a silica foundry case); Bergfeld v. Unimin Corp., 319 F.3d 350 (8th Cir. 2003) (applying Iowa law to affirm summary judgment); Haase v. Badger Mining Corp., 266 Wis. 2d 970 (Wis. Ct. App. 2003), aff’d, 274 Wis. 2d 143 (2004); Damond v. Avondale Industries, 718 So. 2d 551 (La. App. 1998) (affirming summary judgment for a silica supplier on a worker’s claims for silicosis from sandblasting, which if not done carefully, can be an extremely hazardous); Cowart v. Avondale Indus., 792 So. 2d 73 (La. Ct. App. 2001) (holding that the sophisticated user defense was dispositive in a foundry workplace, which was sophisticated about the potential hazards of its silica use); Bates v. E.D. Bullard Co., 76 So.3d 111 (La.App. 2011) (affirming summary judgment for silica suppliers); Phillips v. A.P. Green Refractories Co., 428 Pa. Super. 167, 630 A.2d 874 (1993), aff’d on other grounds, Phillips v. A-Best Products Co., 542 Pa. 124, 665 A.2d 1167 (1995) (lack of proximate cause for claimed failure to warn).

[10] Virginia law, which governed the Willis case cited by the Sawyer court is illustrative. Compare Oman v. Johns-Manville Corp., 764 F.2d 224 (4th Cir. 1985) (applying Virginia law, which embraces § 388, but refusing to apply the doctrine because the employer was unaware of asbestos hazards during plaintiffs’ employment before 1964), cert. denied sub nom. Oman v. H.K. Porter, 474 U.S. 970 (1985), with Beale v. Hardy, 469 F.2d 213 (4th Cir. 1985) (holding that Section 388 was a complete defense in silicosis cases under Virginia law). Michigan, another industrialized state with well-developed case law, also illustrates the disparate treatment of asbestos cases. Compare Russo v. Abex Corp., 670 F. Supp. 206, 208 (E.D. Mich. 1987) (holding that “asbestos-containing product manufacturers have an absolute duty to warn because of the unique and patent dangers of asbestos”) with Jodway v. Kennametal, Inc., 207 Mich. App. 622, 525 N.W.2d 883 (Mich. Ct. App. 1994) (applying Section 388 in hard-metal (cobalt) lung disease case); Kudzia v. Carboloy Division, 190 Mich. App. 285, 475N.W.2d 371 (1991) (same), aff’d, 439 Mich. 923, 479 N.W.2d 679 (1992); Tasca v. GTE Products Corp., 175 Mich. App. 617, 438 N.W.2d 625 (Mich. Ct. of App. 1989) (same). See also Antcliff v. State Employees Credit Union, 414 Mich. 624, 640 (1982); Ross v. Jaybird Automation, Inc., 172 Mich. App. 603, 607 (1988); Rasmussen v. Louisville Ladder Co., Inc., 211 Mich. App. 541, 547-48 (1995); Portelli v. I.R. Construction Products Co., 218 Mich. App. 591, 599 (1996); Mills v. Curioni, 238 F. Supp. 876, 894-96 (E.D. Mich. 2002).

[11] Triplett v. Minnesota Mining & Mfg. Co., 422 F. Supp. 2d 779 (W.D. Ky. 2006).

[12] Bean v. Asbestos Corporation, Ltd., 1998 WL 972122 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1998).

[13] See also Gottschall v. General Electric Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 151563 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 8, 2011) (MDL 875) (California law; granting summary judgment when the Navy’s knowledge of asbestos hazards was equal to that of defendant), rev’d, No. 14-15379, 14-15380, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 17248 (9th Cir. 2016).

History of Silicosis Litigation

January 31st, 2019

“Now, Silicosis, you’re a dirty robber and a thief;
Yes, silicosis, you’re a dirty robber and a thief;
Robbed me of my right to live,
and all you brought poor me is grief.
I was there diggin’ that tunnel for just six bits a day;
I was diggin’ that tunnel for just six bits a day;
Didn’t know I was diggin’ my own grave,
Silicosis was eatin’ my lungs away.”

Josh White, “Silicosis Is Killin’ Me (Silicosis Blues)” (1936)

Recently, David Rosner, labor historian, social justice warrior, and expert witness for the litigation industry, gave the Fielding H. Garrison Lecture, in which he argued for the importance of the work that he and his comrade-in-arms, Gerald Markowitz, have done as historian expert witnesses in tort cases.1 Although I am of course grateful for the shout out that Professor Rosner gives me,2 I am still obligated to call him on the short-comings of his account of silicosis litigation.3 Under the rubric of “the contentious struggle to define disease,” Rosner presents a tendentious account of silicosis litigation, which is highly misleading, for what it says, and in particular, for it omits.

For Rosner’s self-congratulatory view of his own role in silicosis litigation to make sense, we must imagine a counterfactual world that is the center piece of his historical narrative in which silicosis remains the scourge of the American worker, and manufacturing industry is engaged in a perpetual cover up.

Rosner’s fabulistic account of silicosis litigation and his role in it falls apart under even mild scrutiny. The hazards of silica exposure were known to Josh White and the entire country in 1936. Some silicosis litigation arose in the 1930s against employers, but plaintiffs were clearly hampered by tort doctrines of assumption of risk, contributory negligence, the fellow-servant rule. To my knowledge, there were no litigation claims against remote suppliers of silica before the late 1970s, when courts started to experiment with hyperstrict liability rules.

Eventually, the litigation industry, buoyed by its successes against asbestos-product manufacturers turned their attention to silica sand suppliers to foundries and other industrial users. Liability claims against remote suppliers of a natural raw material such as silica sand, however, made no sense in terms of the rationales of tort law. There was no disparity of information between customer and supplier; the customer, plaintiffs’ employer was not only the cheapest and most efficient cost and risk avoider, the employer was the only party that could control the risk. Workers and their unions were well aware of the hazards of working in uncontrolled silica-laden workplaces.

Although employer compliance with safety and health regulations for silica exposure has never been perfect, the problem of rampant acute silicosis, such as what afflicted the tunnel workers memorialized by Josh White, is a thing of the past in the United States. The control of silica exposures and the elimination of silicosis are rightly claimed to be one of the great public health achievements of the 20th century. See Centers Disease Control, “Ten Great Public Health Achievements — United States, 1900-1999,” 48 Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report 241 (April 02, 1999).

Interestingly, after World War II, silicosis has been a much greater problem in the communist countries, such as China, the countries that made up the Soviet Union. Rosner and Markowitz, however, like the leftist intellectuals of the 1950s who could not bring themselves to criticize Stalin, seem blind to the sorry state of workplace safety in communist countries. Their blindness vitiates their historical project, which attempts to reduce occupational diseases and other workplace hazards to the excesses of corporate capitalism. A fair comparison with non-capitalist systems would reveal that silicosis results from many motives and conditions, including inattention, apathy, carelessness, concern with productivity, party goals, and labor-management rivalries. In the case of silicosis, ignorance of the hazards of silica is the least likely explanation for silicosis cases arising out of workplace exposures after the mid-1930s.

In the United States, silicosis litigation has been infused with fraud and deception, not by the defendants, but by the litigation industry that creates lawsuits. Absent from Rosner’s historical narratives is any mention of the frauds that have led to dismissals of thousands of cases, and the professional defrocking of any number of physician witnesses.  In re Silica Products Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1553, 398 F.Supp. 2d 563 (S.D.Tex. 2005).

Nor does Rosner deign to discuss the ethical and legal breaches committed by the plaintiffs’ counsel in conducting radiographic screenings of workers, in the hopes of creating lawsuits. With the help of unscrupulous physicians, these screenings were unnaturally successful not only in detecting silicosis that did not exist, but in some cases, in transmuting real asbestosis into silicosis.4

Many silicosis cases in recent times were accompanied by more subtle frauds, which turned on the “failure-to-warn” rhetoric implicit in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 402A. Consider the outbreak of silicosis litigation in western Pennsylvania, in the mid-1980s. Many of the men who claimed to have silicosis had significant silica exposure at the Bethlehem and U.S. Steel foundries in the Johnstown areas. Some of the claimants actually had simple silicosis, although discovery of these claimants’ workplace records revealed that they had been non-compliant with workplace safety rules.

The Johnstown, Cambria County, cases were not the result of unlawful medical screenings, paid for by plaintiffs’ lawyers and conducted by physicians of dubious integrity and medical acumen. Instead, the plaintiffs’ lawyers found their claimants as a result of the claimants’ having had previous workers’ compensation claims for silicosis, which resulted after the workers were diagnosed by employer medical screening programs.

Cambria County Courthouse in Ebensburg, PA (venue for an outbreak of silicosis litigation in the 1980s and early 1990s5)

The first of the foundrymen’s cases was set for trial in 1989, 30 years ago, in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. The silica cases were on the docket of the President Judge, the Hon. Joseph O’Kicki, who turned out to be less than honorable. Just before the first silica trial, Judge O’Kicki was arrested on charges of corruption, as well as lewdness (for calling in his female staff while lounging in chambers in his panties).

As a result of O’Kicki’s arrest, the only Cambria Country trial we saw in 1989 was the criminal trial of Judge O’Kicki, in Northampton County. In April 1989, a jury found O’Kicki guilty of bribery and corruption, although it acquitted him on charges of lewdness.6 Facing a sentence of over 25 years, and a second trial on additional charges, O’Kicki returned to the land of his forebears, Slovenia, where he lived out his days and contributed to the surplus population.7

Whatever schadenfreude experienced by the defendants in the Cambria County silicosis litigation was quickly dispelled by the assignment of the silica cases to the Hon. Eugene Creany, who proved to be an active partisan for the plaintiffs’ cause. Faced with a large backlog of cases created by the rapacious filings of the Pittsburgh plaintiffs’ lawfirms, and Judge O’Kicki’s furlough from judicial service, Judge Creany devised various abridgements of due process, the first of which was to consolidate cases. As a result, the first case up in 1990 was actually three individual cases “clustered” for a single jury trial: Harmotta, Phillips, and Peterson.8 To poke due process in both eyes, Judge Creany made sure that one of the “clustered” cases was a death case (Peterson).

Jury selection started in earnest on April 2, 1990, with opening statements set for April 4. In between, the defense made the first of its many motions for mistrial, when defense lawyers observed one of the plaintiffs, Mr. Phillips, having breakfast with some of the jurors in the courthouse cafeteria. Judge Creany did not seem to think that this pre-game confabulation was exceptional, and admonished the defense that folks in Cambria County are just friendly, but they are fair. Trial slogged on for four weeks, with new abridgments of due process almost every day, such as forcing defendants, with adverse interests and positions, into having one direct- and one cross-examination of each witness. The last motion for mistrial was provoked by Judge Creany’s walking into the jury room during its deliberations, to deliver doughnuts.

At the end of the day, in May 1990, the jury proved to be much fairer than the trial judge. Judge Creany instructed the jury that “silica was the defect,” and on other novel points of law. Led by its foreman, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers, the jury returned a defense verdict in the Peterson case, which involved a claim that Mr. Peterson’s heart attack death case was caused by his underlying silicosis. In the two living plaintiffs’ cases, the jury found that the men had knowingly assumed the risk of silicosis, but at the judge’s insistence, the jury proceeded to address defendants’ liability, and to assess damages, in the amount of $22,500, in the two cases.

Pennsylvania’s appellate courts took a dim view of plaintiffs’ efforts to hold remote silica suppliers responsible for silicosis arising out of employment by large, sophisticated steel manufacturers. The Superior Court, Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court, reversed and remanded both plaintiffs’ verdicts. In Mr. Harmotta’s case, the court held that his action was collaterally estopped by a previous workman’s compensation judge’s finding that he did not have silicosis. In Mr. Phillip’s case, the court addressed the ultimate issue, whether a remote supplier to a sophisticated intermediary can be liable for silicosis that resulted from the intermediary’s employment and use of the supplied raw material. In what was a typical factual scenario of supply of silica to foundry employers, the Superior Court held that there was no strict or negligence liability for the employees’ silicosis.9 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to hear Harmotta’s appeal on collateral estoppels, but heard an appeal in Phillips’ case. The Supreme Court pulled back from the sophisticated intermediary rationale for reversal, and placed its holding instead on the obvious lack of proximate cause between the alleged failure to warn and the claimed harm, given the jury’s special finding of assumed risk.10

One of plaintiffs’ counsel’s principal arguments, aimed at the union organizer on the jury, was that even if a warning to the individual plaintiffs might not have changed their behavior, a warning to the union would have been effective. The case law involving claims against unions for failing to warn have largely exculpated unions and taken them out of the warning loop. Given this case law, plaintiffs’ argument was puzzling, but the puzzlement turned to outrage when we learned after the first trial that Judge Creany had been a union solicitor, in which role, he had regularly written to U.S. Steel in Johnstown, to notify the employer when one of the local union members had been diagnosed with silicosis.

The next natural step seemed to list Judge Creany as a percipient fact witness to the pervasive knowledge of silicosis among the workforce and especially among the union leadership. Judge Creany did not take kindly to being listed as a fact witness, or being identified in voire dire as a potential witness. Still, the big lie about failure to warn and worker and labor union ignorance had been uncovered. Judge Creany started to delegate trials to other judges in the courthouse and to bring judges in from neighboring counties. The defense went on win the next dozen or so cases, before the plaintiffs’ lawyers gave up on their misbegotten enterprise of trying to use Pennsylvania’s hyperstrict liability rules to make remote silica suppliers pay for the fault of workers and their employers.

You won’t find any mention of the Cambria County saga in Rosner or Markowitz’s glorified accounts of silicosis litigation. The widespread unlawful screenings, the “double dipping” by asbestos claimants seeking a second paycheck for fabricated silicosis, the manufactured diagnoses and product identification do not rent space in Rosner and Markowitz’s fantastical histories.


2 See, e.g., Nathan A. Schachtman, “On Deadly Dust and Histrionic Historians: Preliminary Thoughts on History and Historians as Expert Witnesses,” 2 Mealey’s Silica Litigation Report Silica 1, 2 (November 2003); Nathan Schachtman & John Ulizio, “Courting Clio:  Historians and Their Testimony in Products Liability Action,” in: Brian Dolan & Paul Blanc, eds., At Work in the World: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on the History of Occupational and Environmental Health, Perspectives in Medical Humanities, University of California Medical Humanities Consortium, University of California Press (2012); Schachtman, “On Deadly Dust & Histrionic Historians 041904,”; How Testifying Historians Are Like Lawn-Mowing Dogs” (May 15, 2010)A Walk on the Wild Side (July 16, 2010); Counter Narratives for Hire (Dec. 13, 2010); Historians Noir (Nov. 18, 2014); Succès de scandale – With Thanks to Rosner & Markowitz” (Mar. 26, 2017). And of course, I have experienced some schadenfreude for when one of the Pink Panthers was excluded in a case in which he was disclosed as a testifying expert witness. Quester v. B.F. Goodrich Co., Case No. 03-509539, Court of Common Pleas for Cuyahoga Cty., Ohio, Order Sur Motion to Exclude Dr. Gerald Markowitz (Sweeney, J.).

3 “Trying Times” is the sixth Rosnowitz publication to point to me as a source of criticism of the Rosner-Markowitz radical leftist history of silicosis in the United States. See David Rosner, “Trying Times: The Courts, the Historian, and the Contentious Struggle to Define Disease,” 91 Bull. History Med. 473, 491-92 & n.32 (2017); Previously, Rosner and Markowitz have attempted to call me out in four published articles and one book. See D. Rosner & G. Markowitz, “The Trials and Tribulations of Two Historians:  Adjudicating Responsibility for Pollution and Personal Harm, 53 Medical History 271, 280-81 (2009); D. Rosner & G. Markowitz, “L’histoire au prétoire.  Deux historiens dans les procès des maladies professionnelles et environnementales,” 56 Revue  D’Histoire Moderne & Contemporaine 227, 238-39 (2009); David Rosner, “Trials and Tribulations:  What Happens When Historians Enter the Courtroom,” 72 Law & Contemporary Problems 137, 152 (2009); David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, “The Historians of Industry” Academe (Nov. 2010); and Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution at 313-14 (U. Calif. rev. ed. 2013). 

4 Nathan A. Schachtman, “State Regulators Impose Sanction Unlawful Screenings 05-25-07,” Washington Legal Foundation Legal Opinion Letter, vol. 17, no. 13 (May 2007); “Silica Litigation – Screening, Scheming, and Suing,” Washington Legal Foundation Critical Legal Issues Working Paper (December 2005); Medico-Legal Issues in Occupational Lung Disease Litigation,” 27 Seminars in Roentgenology140 (1992).

5 by Publichall – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

6 Assoc’d Press, “Pennsylvania County Judge Guilty of Corruption,” (April 18, 1989).

7 U.P.I., “Facing Prison, Convicted Judge Skips Bail,” (Mar. 8, 1993); “Judge O’kicki Declared Fugitive; May Be In Slovenia,” The Morning Call (April 20, 1993).

8 Harmotta v. Walter C. Best, Inc., Cambria Cty. Ct. C.P. No. 1986-128; Phillips v. Walter C. Best, Inc., Cambria Cty. Ct. C.P. No. 1987-434(b)(10); Peterson v. Walter C. Best, Inc., Cambria Cty. Ct. C.P. No. 1986-678.

9 Phillips v. A.P. Green Co., 428 Pa. Super. 167, 630 A.2d 874 (1993).

10 Phillips v. A-Best Products Co., 542 Pa. 124, 665 A.2d 1167 (1995).

The Webb of Unsophistication in Products Liability Law

May 29th, 2016

The Heart of the Matter

The classic early cases in products liability law were about consumers hurt by consumer products, sold by manufacturers or dealers directly to consumers. The key component of these cases was inequality of bargaining power, of knowledge about latent defects or hazards, and of control over the discovery of latent hazards or defects. American products liability law was created around consumer products.  Just think of Henningsen, Escola, and MacPherson.[1]  These were all consumer products for which the rhetoric about inequality of bargaining, knowledge, and control over design, manufacturing, and latent hazards sometimes makes sense. The paradigmatic model for products liability, however, frequently does not work for the three-way relationship of sales of products to large industrial employers. The model especially does not work when the product is a raw material used throughout a factory, or incorporated into another product.

Many courts have failed to come to grips with the inadequacy of the consumer model for products liability cases in instances of occupational harm to industrial employees.  Courts have been trying to ram this square peg into a round hole since the early asbestos litigation (which perhaps made some sense because there was inequality between Johns Manville and most vendees), but makes no sense when John Manville is itself the purchaser.

The Tangled Webb in California Law

The Webb case received some attention after the California Court of Appeals reversed a trial court’s entry of JNOV for defendant Special Electric on the so-called sophisticated intermediary defense.  SeeCalifornia Supreme Court Set To Untangle Webb” (July 7, 2013); “Big Blue & The Sophisticated User and Intermediary Defenses” (Sept. 27, 2014); G. Jeff Coons, What a Tangled Webb We Weave: Court Imposes Failure to Warn Liability On Supplier to Johns-Manville” (April 2013). Special Electric petition for review, and eventually the California Supreme Court called for full briefing and oral argument in the Webb case.

The wheels of justice grind slowly in California. Special Electric filed its opening brief on the merits, on September 10, 2013. Webb’s widow answered in December 2013, and Special Electric replied in February 2014. Several amici curiae joined the fray in April 2014. Mark A. Behrens filed a brief on behalf of the Coalition for Litigation Justice, Inc., Chamber of Commerce, NFIB Small Business Legal Center, and American Chemistry Council. The Pacific Legal Foundation also filed, as did Elementis Chemicals Inc.

After mulling over the briefs for two years, the California Supreme Court heard argument on March 1, 2016, and then in surprisingly short order, affirmed the intermediate appellate, earlier this week. The Supreme Court’s ruling upheld a Court of Appeal’s decision that reversed a judgment for defendant Special Electric, based upon a jury verdict in favor of William Webb, who was exposed to crocidolite sold by Special Electric, and which caused him to develop mesothelioma in 2011. The Supreme Court’s opinion[2] held that sophisticated intermediary doctrine was a complete legal defense, even potentially for an asbestos supplier, but declined to apply it to the benefit of Special Electric, which had misrepresented facts about crocidolite and offered no evidence that its purchaser was sophisticated about crocidolite asbestos and its unique relationship with mesothelioma. [Slip opinion cited here as Webb.] Webb v. Special Elec. Co., Inc., 2016 BL 163642, Cal., No. S209927, 5/23/16).

The majority opinion[3] fortunately was able to separate the poorly framed and supported defense by Special Electric from the basic tenets of tort law and the sophisticated intermediary defense. To the extent that anyone doubted the validity of the sophisticated intermediary defense, the Webb Court formally adopted the doctrine as the law of California, as set out in the Second and Third Restatements of Tort Law. Webb at 15-16. According to the Court, a defendant may set up sophisticated intermediary doctrine as a complete defense, to failure to warn claims for known or knowable product risks, sounding in negligence or in strict liability, when the defendant supplier:

“(1) provides adequate warnings to the product’s immediate purchaser, or sells to a sophisticated purchaser that it knows is aware or should be aware of the specific danger, and

(2) reasonably relies on the purchaser to convey appropriate warnings to downstream users who will encounter the product.”

Webb at 16 (emphasis in original).[4]

As an affirmative defense, the defendant supplier must carry its burden of showing that it adequately warned the intermediary, or that it knew the intermediary knew or should have known of the specific hazard, and that it reasonably relied upon the purchaser to transmit warnings. Id.

On appeal, the California Supreme Court held that defendant Special Electric failed to preserve its entitlement to the sophisticated intermediary defense because “it never attempted to show that it actually or reasonably relied on Johns-Manville to warn end users. Nor did Special Electric request a jury instruction or verdict form question on the sophisticated intermediary doctrine.” Webb at 23.

Alternatively, on the assumption that Special Electric preserved the defense, the Court held that this defendant failed to establish the defense as a matter of law because:

“[a]lthough the record clearly shows Johns-Manville was aware of the risks of asbestos in general, no evidence established it knew about the particularly acute risks posed by the crocidolite asbestos Special Electric supplied. In addition, plaintiffs presented evidence that at least one Special Electric salesperson told customers crocidolite was safer than other types of asbestos fiber, when the opposite was true.”

Webb at 23.

The Webb Court reviewed the Tort Restatements’ embrace of the sophisticated intermediary defense in both the Second and Third editions.  The Webb Court noted that the Third Restatement demonstrated the continued validity and vitality of the defense, as had been expressed in the Section 388 of the Restatement Second of Torts.[5] The Court noted and followed the Third Restatement’s recitation of guiding considerations for invoking and sustaining the defense:

“There is no general rule as to whether one supplying a product for the use of others through an intermediary has a duty to warn the ultimate product user directly or may rely on the intermediary to relay warnings. The standard is one of reasonableness in the circumstances. Among the factors to be considered are the gravity of the risks posed by the product, the likelihood that the intermediary will convey the information to the ultimate user, and the feasibility and effectiveness of giving a warning directly to the user.”

Webb at 15 (citing Restatement 3d Torts, Products Liability, § 2, com. i, at p. 30.) Citing California precedent, the Webb Court noted that

“[t]he focus of the [sophisticated intermediary] defense . . . is whether the danger in question was so generally known within the trade or profession that a manufacturer should not have been expected to provide a warning specific to the group to which plaintiff belonged.”

Webb at 9-10 (quoting from Johnson v. American Standard, Inc. 43 Cal.4th 56, 72 (2008).  The pertinent legal test is whether a reasonable supplier would have known of the intermediary’s sophistication with respect to the relevant risk. Webb at 20.[6] Of course, the existence of a pervasive regulatory control of risk creation, detection, and mitigation in the workplace would count heavily in this objective test.  “Every person has a right to presume that every other perform his duty and obey the law.” Webb at 21 (internal citation omitted) (emphasis added).

The Restatement factors, however, did not support Special Electric’s invocation of the defense in a case involving:

(1) crocidolite asbestos, one of the most hazardous substances known,

(2) defendant’s affirmative and blatantly false misrepresentations of the relative safety of crocidolite relative to chrysotile asbestos,[7] and

(3) a complete failure of proof that the purchaser, Johns Manville, knew that crocidolite was especially hazardous with respect to the causation of mesothelioma.

Webb at 23-24. Factors one and two were givens for defense counsel, but factor three speaks to unnecessary coyness on the part of the defense.  Showing that Johns Manville was well aware of the extraordinarily great hazard of crocidolite would have been relatively easy to do from past transcripts, articles, speeches, and litigation conduct of the Johns Manville companies. Despite the extreme hazards from uncontrolled asbestos exposures, the Webb case explained that the sophisticated intermediary defense was not per se inapplicable to asbestos cases, and went so far as to disapprove an earlier California Court of Appeals decision that refused to apply the defense in the asbestos personal injury context when no warnings had been given.[8] “Sophistication obviates the need for warnings because a sophisticated purchaser already knows or should know of the relevant risks.” Webb at 17-18.

The Webb case acknowledged that defective design claims against raw material suppliers are incoherent and invalid, whether for the raw material itself, or for downstream design defect claims against for the product with the incorporated raw material. “[A] basic raw material such as sand, gravel, or kerosene cannot be defectively designed.” Webb at 11-12 (quoting from Restatement 3d Torts, Products Liability, § 5, com. c, at p. 134).[9]

The Webb Court also evinced a healthy disrespect for the notion that tort law is only about spreading risk and compensating injured persons. The Court acknowledged that in some instances, there were competing policies of compensating persons injured by products and “encouraging conduct that can feasibly be performed.” Webb at 2. The Court also acknowledged that there were hazards to warning when none was needed or when the absence of a warning would not be a legal cause of harm:

“Because sophisticated users already know, or should know, about the product’s dangers, the manufacturer’s failure to warn is not the legal cause of any harm. A sophisticated user’s knowledge is thus the equivalent of prior notice. The defense serves public policy, because requiring warnings of obvious or generally known product dangers could invite consumer disregard and contempt for warnings in general.”

Webb at 9 (internal citations omitted) (emphasis added). Furthermore, the sophisticated intermediary defense balances the need for the worker-consumer’s safety with “the practical realities of supplying products.” Webb at 17.

The Webb decision puts California in line with the majority rule that recognizes the validity of the sophisticated intermediary defense, and embraces real-world truth that:

“[in] some cases, the buyer’s sophistication can be a substitute for actual warnings, but this limited exception only applies if the buyer was so knowledgeable about the material supplied that it knew or should have known about the particular danger.”

Webb at 17.[10] The Court noted and agreed with the Restatement Third’s observation that imposing liability upon raw material suppliers for failure to warn can be unduly and unfairly burdensome when such liability would require remote suppliers

“to develop expertise regarding a multitude of different end-products and to investigate the actual use of raw materials by manufacturers over whom the supplier has no control.”

Webb at 12 (quoting from Restatement 3d Torts, Products Liability, § 5, com. c, at p. 134).

Concurrence

Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, along with Justice Ming W. Chin, concurred in the result, but dissented from the majority’s rationale as overly broad. The concurring justices insisted that a supplier reasonably relies upon its purchaser only when the purchaser has actual awareness of the product’s risks. Webb concurrence at 4. Even this stingier approach noted that one of the purpose of warnings is

“to enable the consumer or others who might come in contact with the product to choose not to expose themselves to the risks presented.”

Webb Concurrence at 3 (citing Restatement3d Torts, Products Liability, § 2, com. i, at p. 30).  In many sophisticated intermediary contexts involving occupational exposures to fumes, vapors, and dusts, workers (consumers) cannot appreciate whether they might come in contact with the product such that they have actual risks unless the sophisticated intermediary measures its specific workplace exposures, given its actual engineering, administrative, and person protection controls.

Commentary

The Webb Court failed to address in any meaningful form how Special Electric could discharge a duty to warn Mr. Webb directly, when it sold blue asbestos to Johns-Manville, which then incorporated that fiber, along with other recycled asbestos into transite pipes. To this extent, the Webb decision carries forward the glib belief in efficacy of warnings, without any evidence or critical thought.

It is hard to imagine an industrial purchaser that was unaware of the special hazards of crocidolite by 1970, and yet Special Electric apparently failed to offer evidence on the issue whether Johns-Manville had such awareness. A court might take judicial notice of Johns-Manville sophistication, but there is not even the suggestion that Special Electric attempted to supplement the vacuous record with a request for judicial notice.

If the California Supreme Court’s recitation of the facts of the case is correct, then we are left with an unflattering inference about Special Electric’s trial strategy and execution.  Perhaps Special Electric was coyly trying to avoid a downside outcome in which it was responsible for 99.99% of the verdict because its blue asbestos was by far the most important cause of Mr. Webb’s tragic disease, a disease that would have almost certainly been avoided had never had exposure to blue asbestos. The propensity of crocidolite to cause mesothelioma is orders of magnitude greater than chrysotile, which by itself may not even be a competent cause of the harm suffered by Mr. Webb.

In the final analysis, the Webb Court correctly adopted the sophisticated intermediary principle as an essential limit to tort liability, but denied its benefit to Special Electric.  The sophisticated intermediary doctrine should not, however, be conceived of as an affirmative defense.  The scope of the rule is defined by the rationale for its existence, and the sophisticated intermediary situation lies outside the realm and rationale of protecting, by warning, consumers against latent hazards.  It is time that courts recognize that much litigation brought to its doors is really the result of labor-management issues within the workplace, and not the doings or responsibility of remote suppliers of raw materials.


[1] See, e.g, MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050 (1916) (holding that privity of contract did not bar suit and that product manufacturers could be liable to consumers for injuries); Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358, 161 A.2d 69 (1960); Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal. 2d 453, 150 P. 2d 436  (1944).

[2] See Steven Sellers, “California Ruling Defines Asbestos Supplier’s Duty to Warn,” BNA Product Safety & Liability Reporter (May 24, 2016).

[3] The majority opinion was written by Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan, and joined by Associate Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Goodwin Liu, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra R. Kruger.

[4] See also Webb at 2 (“Under the sophisticated intermediary doctrine, the supplier can discharge this duty if it conveys adequate warnings to the material’s purchaser, or sells to a sufficiently sophisticated purchaser, and reasonably relies on the purchaser to convey adequate warnings to others, including those who encounter the material in a finished product. Reasonable reliance depends on many circumstances, including the degree of risk posed by the material, the likelihood the purchaser will convey warnings, and the feasibility of directly warning end users.”); Webb at 6 (“[T]he sophisticated intermediary doctrine provides that a supplier can discharge its duty to warn if it provides adequate warnings, or sells to a sufficiently sophisticated buyer, and reasonably relies on the buyer to warn end users about the harm.”). Webb at 17 (“If a purchaser is so knowledgeable about a product that it should already be aware of the product’s particular dangers, the seller is not required to give actual warnings telling the buyer what it already knows.”).

[5] See Webb at 15 (“The drafters intended this comment to be substantively the same as section 388, comment n, of the Restatement Second of Torts.”) (citing Restatement 3d Torts, Products Liability, § 2, com. i, reporter’s note 5, at p. 96; Humble Sand & Gravel Inc. v. Gomez, 146 S.W.3d 170, 190 (Tex. 2004). See also Webb at 9 (citing Restatement 2d Torts, § 388 (b), com. k, at pp. 306-307) (“Courts have interpreted section 388, subdivision (b), to mean that if the manufacturer reasonably believes the user will know or should know about a given product’s risk”).

[6] Relevant considerations may include the general dissemination of knowledge of relevant risks, the intermediary’s knowledge of those risks, and the intermediary’s reputation for care. Webb at 20.

[7] Webb at 3, 23.

[8] See Webb at 17-18 (disapproving of the holding in Stewart v. Union Carbide Corp., 190 Cal. App. 4th 23, 29-30 (2010)).

[9] See also Webb at 12 (quoting from Restatement 3d Torts, Products Liability, § 5, com. c, at p. 134) (“Inappropriate decisions regarding the use of such materials are not attributable to the supplier of the raw materials but rather to the fabricator that puts them to improper use.”).

[10] citing approvingly Cimino v. Raymark Industries, Inc., 151 F.3d 297, 334 (5th Cir. 1998) (holding that raw asbestos supplier did not need to warn asbestos product manufacturer Fibreboard, which was “a sophisticated, expert, and knowledgeable manufacturer” of insulation products, about asbestos risks); Higgins v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 671 F. Supp. 1055, 1061-1062  (D. Md. 1987) (exculpating supplier when purchaser was a highly sophisticated manufacturer with knowledge from independent sources, as well as its suppliers), aff’d, 863 F.2d 1162 (4th Cir. 1988).

Putting the Liability Spotlight on Employers

November 30th, 2015

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that employers could be directly liable to employees for injuries that become manifest outside the time limits (300 weeks) of the Commonwealth’s workman’s compensation statute. Tooey v. AK Steel Corp., 81 A.3d 851 (Pa. 2013). The implications for so-called long latency, toxic tort claims were obvious, and the generated some commentary. SeePennsylvania Workers Regain Their Right of Action in Tort against Employers for Latent Occupational Diseases” (Feb. 14, 2014); “The Erosion of Employer Immunity in Tort Litigation” (Jan. 20, 2015).

The Legal Intelligencer has now reported the first “cashing in” or “cashing out” on the change in Pennsylvania law. Plaintiff’s lawyer, Benjamin Shein, took an employer to trial on claims that the employer was responsible for alleged asbestos exposure that caused John F. Busbey to develop mesothelioma. Bobbie R. Bailey of Leader & Berkon, in Los Angeles, defended. The case was tried before Philadelphia Judge Lisette Shirdan-Harris and a jury. After a three week trial, on November 10, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff, against the employer defendant, in the amount of 1.7 million dollars. Busbey v. ESAB Group, Phila. Court of Common Pleas, No. 120503046. Max Mitchell, “Employer Found Liable In Asbestos Verdict: Busbey v. ESAB Group $1.7 Million Verdict,” The Legal Intelligencer (Dec. 1, 2015).

For witnesses, Shein called frequent litigation-industry testifiers, Dr. Steven Markowitz on occupational disease, and Dr. Daniel Dupont, a local pulmonary physician. Shein also called one of the pink panther historians, Gerald Markowitz. SeeNarratives & Historians for Hire” (Dec. 15, 2010). The employer defendant called an industrial hygienist, Delno D. Malzahn.

According Ben Shein, the verdict represented the first trial win in Pennsylvania for an asbestos claim against an employer, since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Tooey in 2013. From the Legal Intelligencer’s account, and the line-up of litigation industry witnesses, the plaintiff’s trial evidence on exposure and standard of care seems shaky, and the winner may not be discernible until the appellate review is concluded.

In Illinois, an intermediate appellate court held out the prospect of a legal change similar to Tooey. In 2014, the Illinois Court of Appeals held that workman compensation petitioners, whose claims fell outside the Illinois statute were not barred by the exclusive remedy provisions that gave employers immunity from civil suit. Folta v. Ferro Engineering, 2014 IL App (1st) 123219. See Patrick W. Stufflebeam, “Folta v. Ferro Engineering: A Shift in Illinois Workers’ Compensation Protection for Illinois Employers in Asbestos Cases,” News & Press: IDC Quarterly (Mar. 11, 2015).

The Illinois Supreme Court allowed an appeal, as well as extensive amicus briefings from the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, the Illinois AFL-CIO, the Illinois Self-Insurers’ Association, the Illinois Defense Trial Counsel, a joint brief from insurers,[1] and a joint brief from various manufacturing companies.[2]

Earlier this month, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed and held that even though claims fell outside the Illinois workman’s compensation statute, those claims were still barred by the Act’s exclusive remedy provisions that gave employers immunity from civil suit. Folta v. Ferro Engineering, 2015 IL 118070 (November 4, 2015).


[1] the American Insurance Association, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, and the Travelers Indemnity Company.

[2] Caterpillar Inc., Aurora Pump Company, Innophos, Inc., Rockwell Automation, Inc., United States Steel Corporation, F.H. Leinweber Company, Inc., Driv-Lok, Inc., Ford Motor Company, and ExxonMobil Oil Corporation.