Tenn. Sup. Ct. / Asbestos

Manufacturers Not Liable for Failure to Warn About the Dangers of Post-Sale Asbestos-Containing Materials 

The Supreme Court of Tennessee, in an opinion written by Judge Page in which Chief Judge Bivins, Judge Clark, and Judge Kirby joined, applying Tennessee law, held in a products liability action stemming from occupational exposure to asbestos that the manufacturers of certain equipment (the “Equipment Defendants”) could not be held liable for injuries resulting from products they did not make, distribute, or sell. The Equipment Defendants had no duty to warn of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Donald and Carolyn Coffman filed a products liability action after Mr. Coffman was diagnosed with mesothelioma. The Coffmans alleged Mr. Coffman was exposed to asbestos through his work as an equipment mechanic at the Tennessee Eastman chemical plant between 1968 and 1997. The Equipment Defendants included several industrial equipment manufacturers. The Equipment Defendants’ products were not alleged to have originally contained asbestos, but rather, alleged to have contained asbestos post-sale in the following ways: included insulation applied to the exterior of the equipment post-sale; asbestos-containing flange gaskets applies to the exterior of the equipment post-sale; and asbestos-containing replacement packaging integrated into the equipment post-sale.  According to the Coffmans, the materials needed and used to repair the Equipment Defendants’ products contained asbestos, and therefore, the Equipment Defendants were liable for Mr. Coffman’s illness because he was exposed to asbestos while working with or near the Equipment Defendants’ products.  Additionally, the Coffmans alleged that the Equipment Defendants were subject to liability because their products were unreasonably dangerous, and the Equipment Defendants failed to adequately warn users of potential asbestos exposure resulting from the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others. 

The Equipment Defendants moved for summary judgment on the claims related to asbestos exposure arising from products that they themselves did not make, sell, or distribute. In making its determination, the trial court looked to the Tennessee Products Liability Act (“the TPLA”), which supersedes common law claims for personal injuries stemming from alleged defects in products or failures to warn of the dangers associated with a product. The trial court found the duty to warn to be an essential element of the Coffmans’ negligence and strict liability claims under the TPLA and found that the Equipment Defendants had no such duty. Accordingly, the trial court granted the Equipment Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The Coffman’s appealed.

On appeal, the Coffmans argued that the Equipment Defendants were liable under a duty-to-warn theory because it was foreseeable, and even intended, that their equipment would be repaired and maintained with asbestos-containing materials. The Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the Equipment Defendants had not affirmatively negated their duty to warn.  The Court of Appeals vacated the final judgments entered by the trial court, and the Equipment Defendants appealed.

In an issue of first impression, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the Equipment Defendants did not have a duty to warn as alleged. The Supreme Court found the TPLA specifically provides that a defendant shall not be liable under the TPLA unless the product is defective or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the defendant’s control. Thus, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the Equipment Defendants could not, as a matter of law, be held liable for Mr. Coffman’s injuries. The Tennessee Supreme Court proved unpersuaded by the Coffmans’ argument that the Equipment Defendants should have foreseen that their products would be used with asbestos containing products. On the contrary, the Tennessee Supreme Court found it dispositive that “the end-products at issue on this appeal were neither made nor sold by the Equipment Defendants.” (emphasis in original).  TPLA links a “defendant’s liability to the defendant’s own product, not the product of another manufacturer.” Coffman v. Armstrong Int’l, Inc., No. E2017-01985-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Jan. 4, 2021).