Products Liability: Replacement Parts

Taylor v. Elliott Turbomachinery Co., Inc., (1st District, February 25, 2009), 171 Cal.App.4th 564, 90 Cal.Rptr.3d 414, 09 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 2395, 2009 Daily Journal D.A.R. 2930

A former U.S. Navy sailor who had worked aboard the U.S.S. Hornet in the mid-1960s, filed an action against several manufacturers of equipment used in the ship’s propulsion system. The plaintiff contended that he had contracted mesothelioma as a result of his exposure to asbestos-containing parts contained within various metal valves and other components which he had serviced. Although the equipment had been installed in 1943 and all the asbestos-containing parts had been removed and replaced with parts made by manufacturers other than the defendants, the plaintiff contended that the original manufacturers had a duty to warn of the hazards arising from the foreseeable use of their products, as well as hazards arising from the combination of their product and products manufactured by others.

The trial court granted the manufacturers motion for summary judgment and the court of appeal affirmed, holding that the defendants owed the plaintiff no duty to warn of the dangers inherent in asbestos-containing products supplied by other manufacturers:

“Other manufacturers cannot be expected to determine the relative dangers of various products they do not produce or sell and certainly do not have a chance to inspect or evaluate. This legal distinction acknowledges that over-extending the level of responsibility could potentially lead to commercial as well as legal nightmares in product distribution. And California cases have acknowledged the need for this restraint.
. . .
Respondents were not part of the “chain of distribution” of the gaskets, packing, discs, and insulation that Mr. Taylor encountered during his service on the Hornet in the 1960s. It is undisputed that all of the original asbestos-containing materials that may have been supplied when respondents delivered their equipment to the Navy in 1943 had been removed by the time Mr. Taylor served aboard the Hornet. Even if respondents were part of the chain of distribution of these original materials, they were certainly not part of the chain of distribution for the asbestos-containing materials to which Mr. Taylor was exposed.
. . .
Our review of both the case law and relevant policy considerations persuades us that respondents have the better of this argument. Although a manufacturer may owe a duty to warn when the use of its product in combination with the product of another creates a potential hazard, that duty arises only when the manufacturer’s own product causes or creates the risk of harm.
. . .
Thus, to date, California case law has not imposed on manufacturers a duty to warn about the dangerous propensities of other manufacturers’ products. California courts will not impose a duty to warn on a manufacturer where the manufacturer’s product “did not cause or create the risk of harm.”
. . .
Adopting the rule Mrs. Taylor advocates would extend potential liability for failure to warn to persons far outside of the distribution chain of the defective product. Defendants whose products happen to be used in conjunction with defective products made or supplied by others could incur liability not only for their own products, but also for every other product with which their product might foreseeably be used. The policy considerations that militate against imposition of strict liability in this situation apply with equal force in the context of negligence.”

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