Tort Law’s Sleight of Hand – Part 6

The dissenting justices, in an opinion by Justice Gorsuch, would have affirmed the trial court’s application of the bright-line bare metal defense, in DeVries. Citing black-letter law as restated by the American Law Institute, the dissent opined that the common law precedent and policy favored a rule that “the supplier of a product generally must warn about only those risks associated with the product itself, not those associated with the ‘products and systems into which [it later may be] integrated’.”[1]

The dissent criticized the court’s retrospective imposition of a liability rule and its ignoring common law precedent, as well as the unpredictability and cost of the court’s new rule, and the breadth and the difficulty of cabining the three-part test. As part of its criticism of the majority opinion, the dissent argued that the stated rule will lead to incoherent and incongruous results, and presented a parade of horribles that might arise within the scope of the new rule:

“The traditional common law rule [which would recognize the bare metal defense] better accords, too, with consumer expectations. A home chef who buys a butcher’s knife may expect to read warnings about the dangers of knives but not about the dangers of undercooked meat. Likewise, a purchaser of gasoline may expect to see warnings at the pump about its flammability but not about the dangers of recklessly driving a car.”[2]

How telling that all the envisioned bad legal consequences involve one-on-one consumer cases, without the presence of a sophisticated employer as intermediary, operating under a complex regulatory scheme to provide a comprehensive safety program to the end user!

The dissent continues its vision of bad consequences by contemplating the substantial costs placed upon product manufacturers whose products are meant to be used with other companies’ products:

“Consider what might follow if the Court’s standard were widely adopted in tort law. Would a company that sells smartphone cases have to warn about the risk of exposure to cell phone radiation? Would a car maker have to warn about the risks of improperly stored antifreeze? Would a manufacturer of flashlights have to warn about the risks associated with leaking batteries? Would a seller of hot dog buns have to warn about the health risks of consuming processed meat?”[3]

Again, the dissent is fixated on consumer products, used by ordinary consumers, outside of a heavily regulated workplace, and without the need for a highly technical industrial hygiene safety regimen.

When the dissent considered the issue of who was in the best position to warn, Justice Gorsuch simply argued, without evidence, that the parts supplier, not the bare metal manufacturer was in the “best position” to warn:

“The manufacturer of a product is in the best position to understand and warn users about its risks; in the language of law and economics, those who make products are generally the least-cost avoiders of their risks. By placing the duty to warn on a product’s manufacturer, we force it to internalize the full cost of any injuries caused by inadequate warnings—and in that way ensure it is fully incentivized to provide adequate warnings. By contrast, we dilute the incentive of a manufacturer to warn about the dangers of its products when we require other people to share the duty to warn and its corresponding costs.”[4]

Of course, in McAffee’s case, the asbestos insulation manufacturers had been warning for over a decade before he started his service in the Navy. As documented by the plaintiffs’ own expert witness, Barry Castleman:

“In 1964, Johns-Manville (“J-M”) was among the first companies to provide warnings with its asbestos-containing products, namely its asbestos insulation. During and after this time frame, J-M sold asbestos insulation to the United States military. In any extensive review of J-M documents, which have included visits to the J-M archives in Denver, Colorado, I have never seen any evidence that J-M removed or altered the warning labels that appeared on its asbestos insulation for sales to the United States military.”[5]

As for the argument without evidence about which party, bare metal manufacturer or asbestos-insulation manufacturer, can “best” warn, all the justices ignored the party that can truly best warn, the government. Placing liability on any supplier dilutes the incentive for the Navy to carry out its statutory duties. As Justice Gorsuch acknowledged:

“Tort law is supposed to be about aligning liability with responsibility, not mandating a social insurance policy in which everyone must pay for everyone else’s mistakes.”[6]

It really is time for remote suppliers to stop having to pay for injuries caused by their purchasers, especially when the purchasers are knowledgeable and have duties to protect their employees from the injuries claims.

As disconnected as the justices in DeVries were from the realities of military service-related and industrial injuries, there is some good news to come out of the high court. First, despite the suggestions of why there might be a duty, the  Court did not hold that there was a duty; it provided three considerations for the trial court’s determining whether a duty exists, on remand.

Second, the Court located the relevant considerations for the existence and scope of a putative duty in Section 388. Although all the justices missed the relevance of this section to the three-way industrial situation, the case law under Section 388 is voluminous, and speaks directly to the situation of a “chattel to be supplied for the use of another.” In fairness to the Court, and to the parties, the case did not go up on appeal on the basis of a “sophisticated intermediary” defense. Summary judgment had been granted below on the simple notion that a seller should not be responsible for warning of another company’s product. The manufacturer appellants did extensively discuss Navy knowledge or changing “state of the art,” in their briefs. At best, the appellants’  discussions were tangential. The shape of the initial summary judgment motion may have been shaped by an earlier decision of the asbestos MDL court, which rejected the sophisticated intermediary defense under maritime law.[7] The Supreme Court’s embrace of Section 388, and its incorporation of 388’s standards, into the three articulated conditions for the existence of a duty (and particularly into the third condition, “the manufacturer has no reason to believe that the product’s users will realize that danger.”).

Third, there is a renewed summary judgment motion now pending before the MDL court. In addition to now explicitly raising a government contractor defense,[8] the defendants have carefully marshaled the evidence of Navy knowledge to show that the third condition of DeVries must necessarily fail: the manufacturer had ample reason to believe that the product’s users will realize the relevant danger.[9]


[1]  DeVries, 139 S.Ct. at 997 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (quoting from Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability § 5, Comment b, p. 132 (1997)).

[2]  DeVries, 139 S.Ct. at 998 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

[3]  DeVries, 139 S.Ct. at 999 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

[4]  DeVries, 139 S.Ct. at 999 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (citing Steven Shavell, Economic Analysis of Accident Law 17 (1987); Guido Calabresi, The Costs of Accidents 135 & n. 1 (1970); Italia Societa per Azioni di Navigazione v. Oregon Stevedoring Co., 376 U.S. 315, 324 (1964)).

[5]  Declaration of Barry L. Castleman (July 18, 2008), in Joint Appendix, vol. 2,  at 462, in Air and Liquid Systems Corp. v. DeVries, No. 17-1104 (filed July 9, 2018), available at <http://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/17/17-1104/52622/20180709143550603_17-1104%20JA%20Vol.%20II.pdf>

[6]  DeVries, 139 S.Ct. at 999 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting).

[7]  Mack v. General Electric Co., 896 F. Supp. 2d 333 (E.D. Pa. 2012).

[8]  Boyle v. United Technologies Corp., 487 U.S. 500 (1988).

[9]  See Memorandum of Law in support of Defendant General Electric Company’s Renewed Motion for Summary Judgment, in DeVries v. General Elec. Co., no. 5:13-cv-00474-ER, docket entry no. 396 (E.D. Pa. filed April, 1, 2020).

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