Washington Supreme Court Expands Liability for Respirator Manufacturers in Asbestos Case

8/29/2012

In their constant effort to broaden the pool of viable defendants in asbestos cases, plaintiffs now seek compensation from manufacturers of the very products that were designed to protect them: respirators and other safety equipment. In an ill-fated retreat from its prior holdings, the Washington Supreme Court issued a decision earlier this month in Macias v. Saberhagen Holdings, Inc., No. 85535-8, 2012 WL 3207245 (Wash. Aug. 9, 2012) that opens the door to manufacturers' liability in such cases.

The plaintiff, Leo Macias, worked as a tool keeper at a shipyard in Seattle from 1978 to 2004, a position in which he maintained and supplied shipyard workers with tools and equipment, including respirators manufactured by the defendants, for use in the shipyard. These workers wore the respirators to filter air contaminants at the shipyard, including asbestos, welding fumes, paint fumes, and dust. The plaintiff's duties included cleaning the respirators and replacing the filter cartridges used by the other workers when they were returned to him at the end of each shift.

The defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that under the Washington Supreme Court's decisions in Simonetta v. Viad Corporation, 197 P.3d 127 (Wash. 2008), and Braaten v. Saberhagen Holdings, 198 P.3d 493 (Wash. 2008), product manufacturers have no duty to warn of dangers associated with products that they do not manufacture or supply. The trial court denied the motion, finding Simonetta and Braaten distinguishable.

On appeal, the Washington Supreme Court held that the general rule established in Simonetta and Braaten did not apply to respirator manufacturers because their "own products presented the inherent danger of exposure to asbestos when used as intended." The Court concluded that "the very purpose of the respirators would, of necessity, lead to high concentrations of asbestos (and/or other contaminants) in them, and in order to reuse them as they were intended to be reused, this asbestos had to be removed." The Court reasoned that Simonetta and Braaten were distinguishable because unlike the products in those cases, the defendants' respirators were "specifically designed to and intended to filter contaminants from the air breathed by the wearer," including asbestos.

The dissent in Macias criticized the majority for failing to recognize that "the safety purpose of the respirators cuts against imposing liability." As aptly noted by the dissent, the majority's decision not only rests upon faulty reasoning, but is also contrary to public policy: Imposing a duty in these circumstances results in an unwarranted expansion of liability for manufacturers of non-defective products and contravenes the fundamental policy underlying product liability law-"the promotion of safe products."

For more information regarding the Macias decision or developments with respect to the duty to warn in asbestos and other product liability cases, please contact David Governo (dgoverno@governo.com) or Corey Dennis (cdennis@governo.com).


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