There is no question that a manufacturer has a duty to warn about the hazards of the products it puts into the stream of commerce. The legal precedents which established this proposition in New York State are more than fifty years old and remain good law. It is well established in New York law that a manufacturer has a duty to warn against latent dangers resulting from foreseeable uses of its products of which it knew or should have known. Latent dangers are those which, by their nature, are not so open and obvious that the user of the product could not reasonably claim to be ignorant of them. For over twenty years, however, the manufacturers of equipment, such as industrial pumps and valves, which are sold with asbestos containing internal and external components, have urged our courts that they cannot be held liable for cancers, in particular mesotheliomas and lung cancers, resulting from the maintenance and repair of their pumps and valves and other similar items. These equipment manufacturers have indeed been arguing in state courts nationwide that their “bare metal” products are merely compatible with the use of dangerous asbestos components, just as a book of matches is merely compatible with a stick of dynamite.
In 2012, Lipsitz & Ponterio represented the widow of a former employee of the General Motors plant in Tonawanda. Gerald Suttner regularly repaired and maintained steam lines. His work involved the use and manipulation of asbestos-containing gaskets and packing in and on valves manufactured by Crane Co., the defendant at trial. In October 2012, the jury delivered a verdict in favor of the Suttner family and assigned a small but significant share of the responsibility for Gerald Suttner’s mesothelioma and death to the defendant. Crane Co. appealed from the verdict and judgment to the Appellate Division of the Fourth Department, which is one level below the State’s highest Court, the New York Court of Appeals. At the heart of this appeal was Crane’s argument that, although the plaintiff claimed her husband was exposed to deadly fibers from the regular repair and maintenance of its valves, there was no evidence at trial that he was exposed to the original asbestos-containing parts for which it was responsible. At argument before the Court in Rochester, New York, the defendant conceded that it had a legal duty to warn about asbestos contained in the original component parts but that after those original parts were replaced and then replaced again with packing and gaskets sold by another manufacturer, defendant’s duty came to an end.
The defendant argued here, as it had argued successfully in the states of California and Washington, that the law of strict product liability for failure to warn could never apply to a company which did not itself make and sell the exact materials which caused the plaintiff’s injury. This argument is known as the strict stream of commerce theory of product liability. It relieves a manufacturer of liability for injuries resulting from the use of dangerous replacement parts, even though the manufacturer knows that the regular operation of its equipment will require the removal and replacement of worn out components causing the release of asbestos fibers into the worker’s breathing zone. Fortunately for workers throughout New York State, the Appellate Division of the Fourth Department finally rejected Crane Co.’s unreasonably narrow concept of the duty to warn, upheld the jury verdict in favor of our client, and remained faithful to more than fifty years of New York State legal precedent.