TORTINI

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

Tort Law’s Sleight of Hand

August 1st, 2020

The last century’s landmark cases, which established products liability as it currently exists in the United States, involved consumer products.[1] The consumer products were sold to, or were designed to be used by, ordinary consumers, without any technical training or knowledge. The consumer products that gave rise to advent of products liability as we know it were not products that required technical supervision or were subject to regulatory oversight with the potential for governmental inspections to ascertain safe use.

Justice Roger Traynor’s classic concurrence in Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Company provided the initial rationale for what became strict products liability. In addition to deterrence of marketing harmful products and the prevention of injury, Traymor observed that:

“public policy demands that responsibility be fixed wherever it will most effectively reduce the hazards to life and health inherent in defective products that reach the market. It is evident that the manufacturer can anticipate some hazards and guard against the recurrence of others, as the public cannot.”[2]

This difference in ability to know about and anticipate some hazards has become the doctrinal foundation for broad liability rules for consumer products. The complexity of products and the processes of their manufacture places consumers into a position of forced reliance upon manufacturers.[3]

Courts would later add a “deep pocket” explanation, a blatant appeal to a felt need to place liability with the party with greater financial resources. By marketing products and realizing at least a potential to profit from the marketing indicated the manufacturer as the appropriate source of compensation for the injured consumer.[4] More thoughtfully, some scholars sought to impose tort liability on the “cheapest cost avoider,” the party who could reduce the risks of accidents and their costs most efficiently and effectively.[5] In 1965, the march towards strict products liability reached a major success in the Restatement (Second) of Torts. Section 402A embraced the economic and moral rationales to support the application of strict liability to products sold “in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer”.

The industrial customer is frequently very different from the consumer as imagined by the landmark tort cases that led up to the Restatement (Second) of Torts. Some of the key characteristics of the industrial customer that differentiate it from the so-called “ordinary” consumer include:

  1. The customer is at least as knowledgeable about the latent hazards as the seller.
  2. The customer typically has employees who will use the product.
  1. The customer is often more knowledgeable than the seller about the actual circumstances of the product’s use by the purchaser’s employees, and what preventive measures can be and have been taken;
  2. The customer is itself an industrial concern with economic resources, often greater than those of the seller.
  3. The customer is often in a better position to distribute the costs of injuries than the seller.
  4. The customer, qua employer, has common law, statutory, and regulatory duties to provide a safe workplace, often specifically with reference to the product at issue.
  5. The customer stands to profit from the use of the product, and the customer has the most to gain from ignoring known hazards in terms of speeding up its production.
  6. The customer, qua employer, is in the best position to, and often the only person who can, assess and determine the hazard, intervene to prevent the hazard, determine and implement the appropriate safety measures, and supervise its employees to ensure compliance with its safety measures (many of which are mandated by state or federal law).

As a generality, the facts and circumstances of the use of many industrial products are quite different from those in which consumer products are used. Historically, tort law has recognized the relevance of the differences in the form of the sophisticated intermediary, government contractor, bulk seller, component part, and bare metal defenses. In the context of industrial products, involving a manufacturer-seller, an industrial buyer, and an injured employee of the industrial buyer, none of the doctrinal rationales for strict liability work particularly well. The buyer may have greater financial resources and greater ability to spread the cost of injuries. Almost always, the buyer will have greater ability to avoid the risk by implementing known or knowable precautions that are required in any event by state and federal law. The buyer as employer will see deviations from safety rules and can correct them before injuries result. In the wake of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, however, many courts have fallen into the error of treating the industrial accident with the same rules and rationalia that were developed for consumer cases.


[1]  See, e.g., MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050, 145 N.Y. Supp. 462 (N.Y. 1916) (car); Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal. 2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944) (soft drink bottle); Henningsen v. Bloomfield Motors, Inc., 32 N.J. 358, 161 A.2d 69 (1960) (car); Greenman v. Yuba Power Prods., Inc., 59 Cal. 2d 57, 377 P.2d 897 (Cal. 1963) (power tool designed for home use). Two of these decisions (MacPherson and Escola) are discussed in Robert L. Rabin, “Past as Prelude: The Legacy of Five Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Injury Law for the Future of Torts,” chap. 2, in M. Stuart Madden, Exploring Tort Law 52 (2005). Professor Rabin does not include any tort decisions that involved liability by remote suppliers to industrial workplaces.

[2]  Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal. 2d 453, 150 P.2d 436, 440-41 (1944) (Traynor, J., concurring) (positing in addition to the majority’s decision based upon negligence that the bottle manufacturer should be “strictly liable” to consumers for a bottle defectively made).

[3]  Id. at 443. See RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 402A (1965), cmt. c (“[T]he justification for the strict liability has been said to be that the seller, by marketing his product for use and consumption, has undertaken and assumed a special responsibility toward any member of the consuming public who may be injured by it . . . .”).

[4]  Greenman v. Yuba Power Prods., Inc., 59 Cal. 2d 57, 377 P.2d 897, 901 (Cal. 1963) (“The purpose of such liability is to insure that the costs of injuries resulting from defective products are borne by the manufacturers that put such products on the market rather than by the injured persons . . . .”); Restatement (Second) of Torts §402A, cmt. c (1965) (“public policy demands that the burden of accidental injuries caused by products . . . be placed upon those who market them”).

[5]  Guido Calabresi & Jon T. Hirschoff, “Toward a Test for Strict Liability in Torts,” 81 Yale L.J. 1055 (1972).

More Rosner & Markowitz Faux History of Workplace Safety

July 9th, 2020

Historians, often of the subspecies social, labor, or Marxist, have frequently been recruited by the lawsuit industry to support their litigation efforts. One such historian, David Rosner, sometimes with his friend Gerald Markowitz, seems to show up everywhere, including the infamous Ingham case, in which he served largely as a compurgator and moralist.

Given the role that such historians are permitted to play in high-stakes litigation, it is important to look at their more professional work in the journals for insights into their methodology. A couple of years ago, David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, published a story about governmental regulation of workplace safety before the passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970.[1] Their article is an interesting case study of how to bias an historical analysis by leaving out material facts, a modus operandi in their litigation work as well.

The abstract gives a brief flavor of their tendentious narrative:

“The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Workers Right to Know laws later in that decade were signature moments in the history of occupational safety and health. We have examined how and why industry leaders came to accept that it was the obligation of business to provide information about the dangers to health of the materials that workers encountered. Informing workers about the hazards of the job had plagued labor–management relations and fed labor disputes, strikes, and even pitched battles during the turn of the century decades. Industry’s rhetorical embrace of the responsibility to inform was part of its argument that government regulation of the workplace was not necessary because private corporations were doing it.”

The authors attempt to tell a one-sided story that only “voluntary” warnings were assumed by employers before OSHA, without the force of law. The enterprise perpetuates a common myth of plaintiffs’ advocates that pre-OSHA occupational safety was based upon employers’ voluntary assumption of responsibility, and that it was not until the passage of the OSH Act that employers were subject to legal obligations to warn.

In terms of scholarship, Rosner and Markowitz break no new ground; indeed, the topic was presented with more historical acumen by scientists in an article that predated the Rosner and Markowitz article by a decade.[2] More damning, however, the historians laureate of the plaintiffs’ bar contradict their thesis that manufacturers had only voluntary commitments to their worker safety by pointing to the law of the 1930s, which placed a common law duty of care on employers:

“As one judge in the New Jersey Supreme Court opined at the time, ‘It was the duty of the defendant company to exercise reasonable care that the place in which it set the deceased at work . . . should be reasonably safe for the plaintiff, and free from latent dangers known to the defendant company, or discoverable by an ordinary prudent master, under the circumstances’.”[3]

Of course, legal historians are well aware that there has been a common law duty of reasonable care owed by “masters” (employers) to their “servants” (employees), including a duty to protect them from occupational hazards such as overexposure to dusts, including respirable crystalline silica.[4] There was nothing voluntary about the common law duty.

What makes Rosner and Markowitz’s account egregiously wrong is its complete omission of the extensive state governmental regulation of occupational exposures in advance of OSHA. Taking New York (where Rosner and Markowitz live and teach) as an example, we can see that the state had occupied the field of regulating workplace safety many decades before the enactment of OSHA.

The industrial use of crystalline silica provides an example of a “hot” issue in early 20th century industrial hygiene.  Initial efforts in New York state, starting as early as 1913, focused on the most prevalent industrial exposures, such as foundries, where whole grain and ground silica was used in metal casting and cleaning. New York’s long-recognized common law duty of employers to provide a safe workplace was statutorily codified in 1921.[5] By 1935, silicosis became a compensable disease under New York law, in all industrial settings.

New York’s efforts to protect industrial workers from silica exposure achieved national recognition in 1940, when LIFE magazine published a description of measures taken by the state to safeguard workers on an 85-mile tunnel aqueduct project. The project required thousands of workers to drill through quartzite rock (composed of almost entirely of crystalline silica). Intent on avoiding a repeat of the Hawk’s Nest tragedy, the state imposed safety measures on the project, including wet drilling, elaborate ventilation, and air sampling. LIFE declared the New York state precautions to be “[a] triumph of preventative medicine.”[6]

New York courts also have been in the forefront of recognizing the hazards of silica exposure, and addressing the legal implications of knowledge of those hazards. In 1944, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, held, in a silicosis personal injury case, 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, a fact which defendant was bound to know.”[7]

From the 1950s on, New York comprehensively regulated the use of crystalline silica in the industrial workplace. In 1956, New York promulgated “Industrial Code Rule No. 12 – Control of Air Contaminants,” which governed “all processes and operations releasing or disseminating air contaminants in any workroom or work space” (§ 12.1), and clearly defined the employer’s duties to protect workers, regardless of the industry sector or manufacturing process.

Silica was specifically covered by these 1956 regulations. Section 12.2 of the Rule, “Responsibility of employers,” requires:

“Every employer shall observe and effect compliance with the provisions of this rule relating to prevention of air contamination and to providing, installing, operating and maintaining control or protective equipment, and shall instruct his employees as to the hazards of their work, the use of such control or protective equipment and their responsibility for complying with this rule.”

Section 12.25 specifically identified industrial processes that create “air contaminants,” such as free silica.

New York law imposed correlative obligations upon workers. Under § 12.3, the employee’s responsibility was to use the controls and equipment provided by his employer for his protection.

New York’s 1956 regulations, like the federal regulations that would follow in the early 1970s, focused on avoiding exposure to hazardous substances such as crystalline silica in the first instance. Section 12.7, “Prevention,” requires that

“[a]ll processes and operations where practicable shall be so conducted or controlled as to prevent avoidable creation of air contaminants.”

Section 12.9, General control methods, specifies “[o]ne or more of the following methods . . . control dangerous air contaminants:

  1. Substitution of a material which does not produce air contaminants;
  2. Local exhaust ventilation at the source of generation of the air contaminant;
  3. Dilution ventilation in any work space in which air contaminants are generated or released;
  4. Application of water or other wetting agent to prevent air contaminants;
  5. Other methods approved by the board.”

Section 12-29, “Maximum allowable concentrations – evidence of dangerous air contaminants,” provides that air contaminants in quantities greater than those listed “shall constitute prima-facie evidence that such contaminants are dangerous air contaminants.” In a chart entitled “Mineral Dusts,” the 1956 regulations specifically imposed a maximum exposure for free crystalline silica, depending upon the percentage concentration of silica in the total dust.

In 1958, New York revised Rule 12, with its extensive regulation of silica, to provide an even more detailed description of employer responsibilities of employers for air monitoring, ventilation, respiratory programs, and worker education. Section 12.6 of the 1958 Regulations, “Prevention of air contamination,” mandated that

“[a]ll operations producing air contaminants shall be so conducted that the generation, release or dissemination of air contaminants is kept at the lowest practicable level.”

Rule 12 was revised again in 1963, and in 1971, each time with greater specificity of the employer’s responsibility for safe handling of air contaminants, which was always defined to include silica dust. These state regulations never restricted their application to any particular industry. Crystalline silica was thus regulated in every industry conducted within New York.

New York state recruited and employed some of the leading scientists in the field of industrial hygiene and occupational medicine to serve in its Department of Labor’s Division of Industrial Hygiene. Leonard Greenberg, who was a graduate of Columbia College of Engineering, and who received his Ph.D. and M.D. degrees from Yale, served as the executive director of the New York State Division of Industrial Hygiene 1935 to 1952. He later served as an official on pollution control until 1969.[8] While at the New York Department of Labor, contributed widely to scientific publications on occupational health,[9] as did many other scientists under his supervision.[10]

Omission of material facts seems to be a key aspect of the faux historian’s methodology, and very useful in litigation if your conscience permits it.


[1]  David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, “‘Educate the Individual . . . to a Sane Appreciation of the Risk’: A History of Industry’s Responsibility to Warn of Job Dangers Before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration,” 106 Am. J. Pub. Health 28 (2016).

[2]  See John L. Henshaw, Shannon H. Gaffney, Amy K. Madl , and Dennis J. Paustenbach, “The Employer’s Responsibility to Maintain a Safe and Healthful Work Environment: An Historical Review of Societal Expectations and Industrial Practices,” 19 Employee Responsibility & Rights J. 173 (2007).

[3]  Rosner & Markowitz at 30 (quoting Frederick Willson, “The Very Least an Employer Should Know About Dust and Fume Diseases,” 62 Safety Engineering 317 (Nov. 1931) (quoting in turn an unidentified New Jersey court decision).

[4]  See, e.g., Bellows v. Merchants Dispatch Transp. Co., 257 A.D. 15 (4th Dept. 1939) (holding that employer failed to provide a safe work environment with proper ventilation to employee who contracted silicosis).

[5]  New York Labor Law § 200 (enacted 1921).

[6]  “Silicosis,” Life (April 1, 1940).

[7]  Sadowski v. Long Island R.R., 292 N.Y. 448, 456 (1944),

[8]  “Leonard Greenberg, Pollution Official, Dies,” New York Times (April 12, 1991).

[9]  See, e.g., Leonard Greenburg, “Pneumoconiosis,” 33 Am. J. Pub. Health 849 (1943); Leonard Greenburg, “The Dust Hazard in Tremolite Talc Mining,” 19 Yale J. Biology & Med. 481 (1947).

[10]  See, e.g., James D. Hackett, Silicosis, N.Y. Dep’t Labor & Industry Bull. 11 (Dec. 1932); Frieda S. Miller, Industrial Commissioner, “Detection and Control of Silicosis and Other Occupational Diseases” (1940); Adelaide Ross Smith, “Silicosis and Its Prevention, Special Bulletin No. 198,” (1946).

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).