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Maritime Law Protects Sailors From Asbestos

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Maritime law applies to a different world, one where ships and sailors live.

But if the "special solicitude for the safety and protection of sailors" goes further ashore, machine makers may have a problem. In re. Asbestos Products Liability Litigation, a federal appeals court said manufacturers may be liable for injuries from parts added to their products later.

That means the "bare metal defense" won't work. Manufacturers can be held liable even for asbestos they don't put in their machines.

Reasonably Foreseeable

Writing for the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Thomas Vanaskie said it came down to foreseeability.

"[A] manufacturer of a bare-metal product may be held liable for a plaintiff's injuries suffered from later-added asbestos-containing materials if the facts show the plaintiff's injuries were a reasonably foreseeable result of the manufacturer's failure to provide a reasonable and adequate warning," he wrote.

Vanaskie said the U.S. Supreme Court had not addressed the issue, and so the appeals court had to balance maritime law and general negligence in the case. Maritime law favored the sailors who died of cancer from asbestos exposure.

"Special Solicitude"

Maritime law and "special solicitude" developed independently from common law, and is sometimes more lenient toward sailors than other plaintiffs in common law.

"This divergence is acceptable if not appropriate because the 'humane and liberal character' of maritime law counsels that it is better 'to give than to withhold the remedy' wherever 'established and inflexible rules' do not require otherwise," the appeals panel said.

Richard Myers, representing the plaintiffs in the case, said the court got it right.

"[M]achinery manufacturers are responsible in negligence for asbestos-containing wear products used in their machinery," Myers told the Legal Intelligencer. "The court validated maritime law's 'special solicitude for the safety and protection of sailors.'"

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