A company may be held liable under Georgia law for any defects in the design or manufacture of its products. Similarly, a manufacturer may be responsible if it fails to properly label or warn consumers about the known risks of using a product. Defective design and failure-to-warn claims are distinct categories of product liability, and there are cases in which a manufacturer may be liable for one and not the other.
CertainTeed Corporation v. Fletcher
Along those lines, the Supreme Court of Georgia recently held that a manufacturer of asbestos-containing products could be tried on a defective design claim, while simultaneously rejecting a failure-to-warn claim made by the same plaintiff.
Asbestos refers to a group of silicon-based minerals that, due to their resistance to heat and electricity, were once popular in a variety of industrial applications. However, asbestos use has declined severely in recent years due to its documented health effects. According to the National Cancer Institute, “If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibers are released into the air. When asbestos fibers are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time.” This can lead to a form of lung cancer known as mesothelioma.
The plaintiff in the present lawsuit did not work directly with asbestos. During the 1970s, however, the plaintiff’s father worked for a municipal utility, where he was exposed to asbestos-containing pipes on a daily basis. According to the plaintiff, she regularly laundered her father’s work clothes, which released asbestos fibers into the air. She consequently developed mesothelioma and sued the company responsible for manufacturing the asbestos-containing pipes.
The plaintiff’s lawsuit alleged both defective design of the pipes themselves and failure to warn users of the risk of asbestos exposure from said pipes. In July 2015, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a trial judge’s decision to grant summary judgment to the defendant on both issues. The defendant appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on the failure-to-warn issue only.
The plaintiff argued that had the pipes contained a proper warning label, her father could have taken steps to “mitigate any danger posed by the asbestos dust on his clothing,” thereby reducing her own exposure. The Supreme Court found this was too speculative an argument. The justices said they were “disinclined to conclude that [the defendant] owed a duty to warn third parties based on the fact that, in this case, such a warning may have been effective.” Indeed, the Court noted, by this reasoning the “onus would have been on the worker,” not the defendant, to protect third parties such as the plaintiff.
As for the plaintiff’s defective design claim, that could proceed. The law in Georgia is that a manufacturer has a duty to “act reasonably in choosing a particular design,” weighing the risks and benefits to consumers and other third parties. In order to prevail at the summary judgment stage, the defendant must demonstrate there is an “absence of any evidence that its product as designed was defective.” The defendant here could not do so, the Supreme Court concluded, so it agreed with the Court of Appeals’ decision to reverse the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.