Southern District of Illinois Court Denies “Bare Metal Defense,” Applying Maritime Law
On September 23, 2015, in Kochera v. Foster Wheeler, LLC, No. 3:14-cv-00029 (S.D.Ill. 2015), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, applying maritime law, denied Ingersoll-Rand Company’s motion for summary judgment in an asbestos products liability case on the grounds that Ingersoll-Rand designed its products to be used with asbestos-containing materials.
Ingersoll-Rand argued that it is not liable for injuries caused by products it did not manufacture or distribute and that “it is undeniable that a metal valve does not contain or give off any asbestos dust or asbestos fibers.” This is referred to as the “bare metal defense” (citing Quirin v. Lorillard Tobacco Co., 17 F.Supp.3d 760, 769-770 (N.D.Ill. 2014)). The Northern District of Illinois in Quirin stated that “consistent with the bare metal defense, a manufacturer is not liable for materials it did not supply. But a duty may attach where the defendant manufactured a product that, by necessity, contained asbestos components, where the asbestos-containing material was essential to the proper functioning of the defendant’s product, and where the asbestos-containing material would necessarily be replaced by other asbestos-containing material, whether supplied by the original manufacturer or someone else.”
In Quirin, the Court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, saying that the record contained sufficient information for a jury to conclude that the defendant’s valves required asbestos-containing components to function in the high-heat applications for which they were intended. Judge Yandle noted that the plaintiff relied on evidence that the Ingersoll-Rand products “required asbestos-containing components to function properly in the high-heat applications for which they were supplied.” Based on this evidence presented by the plaintiff and the Quirin court’s opinion, Judge Yandle denied the motion for summary judgment because Ingersoll-Rand designed its products to be used with asbestos-containing materials.
The Maritime Factor
The Court applied maritime law after finding that the claim met both a locality test and a connection test established by the Supreme Court in Jerome B. Grubart v. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 513 U.S. 527 (1995). The locality test requires that “the tort occur on navigable waters or, for injuries suffered on land, that the injury is caused by a vessel on navigable waters” (citing Grubart). The Court noted that “the locality test is satisfied as long as some portion of the asbestos exposure occurred on a vessel on navigable waters.” Judge Yandle held that the locality test was met because the plaintiff’s alleged asbestos exposure occurred as he worked on a Navy ship on navigable waters.
The connection test requires that the incident is the type that has “a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce” and that the “general character of the activity” shows a “substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity.” Judge Yandle found that the Ingersoll-Rand products at issue were essential to the proper functioning of ships and bear a substantial relationship to traditional maritime activity, therefore satisfying the connection test. Judge Yandle applied maritime law to the claims after both tests were met.
The decision allows for plaintiffs to succeed in proving liability under a theory of negligence where it can be shown that the defendant knew of the hazards of asbestos and had knowledge that its product would be used with hazardous asbestos-containing materials. Whether the ruling in Kochera will be adopted by the trial and appellate courts in Illinois will depend on future arguments by plaintiffs and defendants challenging or supporting the rationale set forth in the opinion.