Sophisticated Intermediary Defense in Asbestos Cases – Use With Discretion

“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).

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