California Supreme Court delivers important asbestos ruling

The California Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the plaintiff in an asbestos-related lawsuit. In today’s post, we’ll discuss The Court’s opinion and how it could affect future products liability cases (not just those related to asbestos).

In 2011, a California man sued his former employer, the Johns-Manville Corporation, for the asbestos exposure that led him to develop mesothelioma. He also filed suit against the company that supplied raw asbestos to his employer, the Special Electric Company. In both cases, the plaintiff alleged, the companies had not adequately warned him of the dangers he was being exposed to in working with a particularly carcinogenic form of asbestos known as crocidolite.

When the case originally went to trial, the jury found that Johns-Manville was primarily liable, while SEC was considered 18 percent liable. Before the jury’s ruling, however, SEC had already obtained summary judgment in its favor (basically absolving it of responsibility as a matter of law).

At issue in the case was the sophisticated intermediary doctrine. This is the idea that a supplier of a dangerous product (asbestos in this case) can be released from its duty to warn end-users (the plaintiff) if it sells the product to a “sufficiently sophisticated buyer” or provides adequate warnings to the intermediary (Johns-Manville).

An important element of the doctrine, according to the Supreme Court, is that the supplier must have some assurance that the sophisticated intermediary actually knows the full dangers and that it will pass that information along to the end-user. SEC had originally invoked the sophisticated intermediary doctrine successfully. But the Court held that SEC failed to show that Johns-Manville knew of the particular dangers of crocidolite.

Although the average person reading about this case could get bogged down by legal minutia, the important takeaway message is simple. Manufacturers and suppliers of dangerous products have a duty to warn immediate buyers and end-users unless they can be sure that the immediate buyers are aware of the dangers and will pass that information along.