New Jersey Supreme Court Rules on Failure to Warn Standard

On June 3, 2020, the Supreme Court of New Jersey issued its decision affirming the New Jersey Appellate Division’s reversal of defendants’ summary judgment in the matter of Whelan v. Armstrong International, Inc., et al. 

The Court reinforced that product manufacturers and distributors can be held strictly liable for failure to warn of dangers associated with asbestos-containing component parts necessary to the function of their products, regardless of whether the replacement parts were manufactured by a third party, if the plaintiff can prove: (1) the products contained an asbestos component in the original product; (2) the subject component was integral to the product and necessary for its function; (3) routine maintenance required replacement of the original asbestos-containing component with another asbestos-containing component; and (4) the exposure from the component was a substantial factor in causing or exacerbating a plaintiff’s disease.

A significant aspect of this decision is the Court’s adoption of the Appellate Division’s underlying analysis in Whelan as compared to the 2014 Appellate Division’s analysis in Hughes v. A.W. Chesterton Co. The Court here rejected the Hughes Court’s requirement that plaintiffs prove causation pertaining to the defendant’s product without consideration that the product is a sum of its component parts.  The Court’s decision here instead demands that any causation analysis relevant to the viability of plaintiff’s exposure claims view a manufacturer’s product as a whole, including component parts necessary to their function, regardless of whether component parts that are claimed to be a source of exposure may have been manufactured by a third-party.

Although this decision is not necessarily favorable to defendants, the test propounded by the Supreme Court is well-defined and clear, as the court did not simply refer to a test based only on “reasonable foreseeability.”  The clarity of the Court’s ruling will certainly lend a degree of judicial predictability to litigating liability for component parts in the future.  Moreover, the first prong of the test requires that the original product contained asbestos parts.  Around the country, dozens of defendants in the asbestos litigation are routinely found liable for third-party component parts that were subsequently incorporated into their product, whether the original product contained asbestos or not.  For such defendants, including many sued regularly in New Jersey, the Whelan decision will be a welcome reprieve.

We at the Cook Group are prepared to effectively defend against asbestos exposure claims under what now appears to be settled law in New Jersey. For more information on this decision, contact Armand Kalfayan, Partner, at AKalfayan@cookgrouplegal.com.

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