By Steven M. Siros, Partner, Jenner & Block
On October 3, 2012, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania decided two questions of first impression under maritime law: (1) does maritime law recognize the sophisticated user and/or sophisticated purchaser defenses and (2) is a Navy ship a "product" for purposes of strict product liability law? The plaintiff was a welder who claimed that he was exposed to asbestos aboard various Navy ships during the 1960s and 1970s. He brought both negligence and strict product liability claims alleging that the defendants (Navy shipbuilders) had failed to warn him of the hazards of asbestos in the Navy ships.
The court first evaluated the application of the sophisticated user/purchaser defenses. After considering the policy objectives of maritime law, the court found the sophisticated purchaser defense to be unavailable for asbestos claims under maritime law. The court was concerned that application of the sophisticated purchaser defense would have the effect of leaving all Navy personnel without a remedy since Navy personnel are already precluded from recovering from the United States government for their asbestos-related injuries. With respect to the sophisticated user defense, however, the court noted that recognition of this defense under maritime law would serve to "encourage participation in maritime commerce by limiting-in a reasoned manner-potential liability of those involved in such commerce while continuing to protect those sea workers in need of protection (i.e., those workers who are not sophisticated as to the hazards to which their work exposes them)." The court therefore found the sophisticated user defense to be applicable to negligence claims under maritime law.
Relying on the Restatement (Second) of Torts, the court limited the applicability of the sophisticated user defense to negligence claims and found that the defense was not a bar to plaintiff's strict liability claims. The court therefore proceeded to evaluate whether the Navy ship is a "product" for purposes of strict product liability under maritime law. The court found that as between a shipbuilder and the manufacturer of the various products within the ship, the entities best able to protect sea-bound workers and to bear the burden of preventing harm to these workers are the manufacturers of the various products aboard the ship. The court was concerned that to place upon a Navy shipbuilder potential liability for the tens of thousands of products assembled in a Navy ship pursuant to Navy specifications would "be an undue, unmanageable, and cumulative burden likely to discourage the activity of shipbuilding." The court therefore found that the Navy ship was not a "product" within the meaning of maritime strict product liability law.
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