New Jersey Supreme Court Extends Asbestos Liability

In Arthur G. Whelan v. Armstrong International, Inc., (A-40/41/42/43/44/45/46-18/081810) (Decided June 3, 2020), the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled that asbestos liability can extend to third-party replacement parts. The court specifically held thatmanufacturers and distributors can be found strictly liable for failure to warn of the dangers of their products, including their asbestos-containing components and a third party’s replacement components, provided a plaintiff can prove the following: (1) the manufacturers or distributors incorporated asbestos-containing components in their original products; (2) the asbestos-containing components were integral to the product and necessary for it to function; (3) routine maintenance of the product required replacing the original asbestos-containing components with similar asbestos-containing components; and (4) the exposure to the asbestos-containing components or replacement components was a substantial factor in causing or exacerbating the plaintiff’s disease.

New Jersey Supreme Court Extends Asbestos Liability

Facts of Whelan v. Armstrong International, Inc.

Plaintiff Arthur Whelan filed suit against defendants Armstrong International, Inc., Burnham LLC, Carrier Corp., Cleaver-Brooks Inc., Crown Boiler Co., Inc., Ford Motor Co., and Johnson Controls Inc. (collectively, the defendants), who allegedly manufactured or distributed products with asbestos-containing components integral to the functioning of the products. Whelan alleges that he contracted mesothelioma while working on thedefendants’ products and, in particular, their asbestos-containing components or the asbestos-containing replacement components manufactured or supplied by third parties, who are not named as defendants. He contends that the defendants’ products were designed to be used with later-incorporated third-party asbestos-containing replacement components, which were necessary for the continued functioning of those products.

Whelan alleged that defendants had a duty to provide warnings about the dangers presented by exposure not only to the asbestos-containing components integrated into their products, but also to the required asbestos-containing replacement components. Meanwhile, the defendants maintained that they had no duty to warn about the dangers of asbestos-containing replacement components manufactured or supplied by third parties and incorporated into their products after those products left their control.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of each defendant. The court found that, although defendants had a duty to warn about the dangers of their products’ original asbestos-containing components, they could not be held liable for the replacement components manufactured or distributed by third parties — even if those components were similar to the asbestos-containing components originally integrated into their products.

The Appellate Division reversed the summary judgment order, concluding that the defendants had a duty to warn about the dangers of the asbestos-containing replacement components necessary for the continued functioning of their products. It further held that the defendants can be held strictly liable for the failure to do so, provided Whelan suffered sufficient exposure to the replacement components to contribute to his disease.

Court’s Decision in Whelan v. Armstrong International, Inc.

The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed. “We hold that manufacturers and distributors can be found strictly liable for failure to warn of the dangers of their products, including their asbestos-containing components and a third party’s replacement components, provided a plaintiff can prove the following: (1) the manufacturers or distributors incorporated asbestos-containing components in their original products; (2) the asbestos-containing components were integral to the product and necessary for it to function; (3) routine maintenance of the product required replacing the original asbestos-containing components with similar asbestos-containing components; and (4) the exposure to the asbestos-containing components or replacement components was a substantial factor in causing or exacerbating the plaintiff’s disease,” Justice Barry Albin wrote on behalf of the majority.

In reaching its decision, the court concluded that imposing liability on a manufacturer or distributor of a product for failing to provide adequate warnings about the danger of incorporating required asbestos-containing replacement components into the product during routine maintenance satisfies an abiding sense of basic fairness under all of the circumstances in light of considerations of public policy.

“In this strict-liability case, the product at issue is the aggregation of all its component parts. For failure-to-warn purposes, no distinction is made between the original asbestos-containing components and the asbestos-containing replacement components necessary for the continued operation of defendants’ integrated products — even though the replacement components are manufactured or distributed by a third party,” Justice Albin wrote. “Our developing common law jurisprudence, guided by principles of public policy and equity, dictates that defendants who manufacture or distribute products that, by their design, require the replacement of asbestos-containing components with other asbestos-containing components during the ordinary life of the product have a duty to give adequate warnings to the ultimate user.”

The New Jersey Supreme Court remanded the case back to the trial court for proceedings consistent with its opinion.

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