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James Mack v. General Electric Company

October 3, 2012

JAMES MACK,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY, E.D. PA ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.

CONSOLIDATED UNDER

MEMORANDUM

TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. BACKGROUND............................................... 3

II. LEGAL STANDARD........................................... 5

A. Summary Judgment Standard........................... 5

B. The Applicable Law (Maritime Law)................... 6

III. DISCUSSION............................................... 10

A. Maritime Law Objectives............................. 10

B. Sophisticated User Defense Under Maritime Law....... 12

C. A Navy Ship Is Not a "Product"...................... 25

D. Application......................................... 28

IV. CONCLUSION............................................... 29

This case presents two issues of first impression under maritime law. First, is a Navy ship a "product" within the meaning of product liability doctrine. Second, does maritime law recognize a sophisticated user and/or sophisticated purchaser defense and, if so, to what causes of action does the defense(s) apply.

: Transferred from the Northern District of : California :

The Court has previously rehearsed these issues without reaching a definite conclusion. Some defendants in the MDL have sought recognition of a sophisticated user defense. In doing so, they have relied upon caselaw applying the substantive law of one or more states, asking this Court to apply state law in a case governed by maritime law. See, e.g., Prange v. Alfa Laval, Inc., No. 09-91848, 2011 WL 4912828, at *1 (E.D. Pa. July 22, 2011)(Robreno, J.)(Doc. No. 264)(ruling on motion appearing at Doc. No. 162); Hays v. A.W. Chesterton, Inc., No. 09-93728, 2012 WL 3096621, at *1 (E.D. Pa. May 1, 2012)(Robreno, J.). Other defendants have also attempted to persuade the Court that cases decided under maritime law by other courts have recognized the defense. The Court has previously rejected the argument, noting that there was no clear precedent, together with the absence of any compelling reason for the Court to create new law recognizing such a defense. See, e.g., Hays, 2012 WL 3096621, at *1 (Doc. No. 336)(ruling on motion appearing at Doc. No. 312-1). Now, for the first time, the Court is presented with a clear-cut case where it must decide whether the sophisticated user defense is cognizable under maritime law.

Because the Defendants are builders of Navy ships, it is also appropriate at this time to consider, in tandem, whether a Navy ship is a "product" for purposes of application of strict product liability law. This issue also was previously raised but the relevant state law, as well as the existing body of federal and maritime law, seeking to discern trends in the law regarding these issues.

For the reasons that follow, the Court now decides that, under maritime law, (1) a manufacturer or supplier of a product has no duty to warn an end user who is "sophisticated" regarding the hazards of the product, (2) the sophistication of an intermediary (or employer) -- or the warning of that intermediary (or employer) by a manufacturer or supplier -- does not preclude potential liability of the manufacturer or supplier, and (3) a Navy ship is not a "product" for purposes of strict product liability. In light of these determinations, summary judgment in favor of these shipbuilder Defendants is granted with respect to Plaintiff's strict liability claims because, under maritime law, a Navy ship is not a "product" for purposes of strict product liability. Summary judgment in favor of these Defendants is denied with respect to Plaintiff's negligent failure to warn claims because no Defendant has identified evidence that Plaintiff was a sophisticated user of the asbestos insulation for which Plaintiff seeks to hold it liable.

I. BACKGROUND

This case was transferred in August of 2010 from the United States District Court for the Northern District of California to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania as part of MDL-875. Plaintiff James Mack alleges that he was exposed to asbestos aboard various Navy ships during the 1960s and 1970s, while employed by the Department of Defense as a welder. He was deposed in December of 2011. He has brought both negligence and strict product liability claims against various defendants, alleging, inter alia, that Defendants are liable for failing to warn him of the hazards of asbestos associated with the products for which he alleges they are responsible.

Defendants are shipbuilders: Todd Pacific Shipyards Corporation ("Todd Shipyards"), Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, Inc. ("Northrop Grumman"), and General Dynamics Corporation (formerly known as USX Corporation) ("General Dynamics") (collectively, "Defendants"). Each Defendant has moved for summary judgment, contending, inter alia, that it is free from liability in this case by way of the sophisticated user defense. Defendants have asserted, further, that they cannot face liability on a claim brought under a strict product liability theory because a ship (here, a Navy ship) is not a "product" to which strict product liability theory applies.

Many of the parties initially briefed the issues under California law. By Order dated July 18, 2012, the Court allowed the parties to submit further briefing under maritime law, including policy justifications for their respective positions, in order to inform the Court's decision regarding a recognition by maritime law of a sophisticated user defense. (See Doc. No. 61.) Having considered these arguments, the Court now rules on this issue, as well as whether a Navy ship is a "product" for purposes of strict product liability.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate if there ...


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