Jeremy Taylor, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group
New York's highest court recently addressed the issue of whether an automobile manufacturer could be held strictly liable for a mechanic's malignant mesothelioma allegedly caused by the mechanic's exposure to asbestos while replacing asbestos-containing brakes, clutches, and engine parts in the manufacturer's automobiles. See Finerty v. Abex Corp., 2016 N.Y. slip op. 03411, 2016 WL 1735804 (N.Y. May 3, 2016). The plaintiff claimed that he was exposed to asbestos during the 1970s and 1980s while working on engine parts in tractors and passenger vehicles manufactured by the defendant, Ford Motor Company. The plaintiff was later diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma. The plaintiff sued Ford and others alleging strict products liability under theories of defective design and failure to warn.
The New York Court of Appeals concluded that Ford could not be held liable under the plaintiff's theories. At the threshold, the court noted that a manufacturer of defective products which places those products into the stream of commerce may be held strictly liable for injuries caused by its products, since it is the manufacturer alone who (a) can fairly be said to know and to understand when a product is suitably designed and safely made for its intended purpose, and (b) has the practical opportunity to produce safe products. The court observed that product sellers are subject to strict liability with respect to allegedly defective products because they may be said to have assumed a special responsibility to the public, which has come to expect them to stand behind their products.
The court found, however, that Ford was not a party within the chain of distribution of the components used in its vehicles, and did not actually place those components into the stream of commerce, precluding strict products liability. This was so, even though the evidence showed that Ford provided guidance to its foreign subsidiary in the design of certain components when there was no evidence that Ford was, in fact, the manufacturer or seller of the subject components. The court also rejected the plaintiff's theory that Ford was subject to strict products liability based on its purportedly being in the best position to exert pressure on its foreign subsidiary for improved product safety. According to the court, the concept of exerting pressure for safer products was applicable only to sellers, who, through their ongoing relationship with manufacturers and through contribution and indemnification in litigation, combined with their role in placing the product with consumers, were in the best position to pressure for the creation of safer products.
Finerty may thus stand for the proposition that a manufacturer's mere sale of a product containing defective components is insufficient to render the manufacturer strictly liable when the manufacturer did not manufacture or sell the components at issue.