Friday, January 13, 2012

Foreseeability Gets Its Wings Clipped In California

Late last night we received this message from a correspondent (who will remain anonymous since we lack permission):
Hopefully the groundwork for getting Conte thrown-out has been laid.  Only a matter of time.  And with any luck we’ll have an opportunity some day soon.
Getting a message like that makes us sit up a little straighter.  So we took a look at the attached case, O’Neil v. Crane Co., S177401, slip op. (Cal. Jan. 12, 2011), and we can see what she’s talking about.

As readers may recall from our original rants about Conte v. Wyeth, Inc., 85 Cal. Rptr.3d 299 (Cal. App. 2008), we think that decision is just flat wrong.  The California Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in O’Neil only reinforces that view.

O’Neil involved asbestos.  The plaintiff worked on an aircraft carrier.  Decades before the plaintiff was aboard ship, one class of defendants made the carrier’s propulsion system.  Those defendants supplied products that had no asbestos at all, but were manufactured to specifications that required addition of asbestos insulation from other sources.  Slip op. at 2. They were sued because it was “foreseeable” that asbestos would be used in conjunction with their products.

A second group of defendants made the asbestos-containing gaskets that were components of the ship’s engines.  These gaskets wore out and were replaced by similar products made by others well before plaintiff was aboard ship.  Id.  They were sued because it was “foreseeable” that their products would wear out and be replaced by other asbestos-containing products.

In neither case did plaintiff allege that he was exposed to asbestos from any products actually sold by the defendants.  Slip op. at 6.

In O’Neil the court unanimously held that “foreseeability” did not trump the other policies animating product liability – and did so for both strict liability and negligence.

As to strict liability the court stated:

We have never held that strict liability extends to harm from entirely distinct products. . . . Instead, we have consistently adhered to the Greenman formulation requiring proof that the plaintiff suffered injury caused by a defect in the defendant’s own product.
Slip op. at 10.

There is no duty to warn in California about defects in another supplier’s product, even though the defendant also failed to warn about similar risks in its own product:

[Defendants] gave no warning about the dangers of asbestos . . . in their products.  However, [plaintiff] never encountered these original parts. His exposure to asbestos came from replacement gaskets and packing and external insulation added to defendants’ products long after their installation. . . .  There is no dispute that these [other] products were made by other manufacturers.  No case law supports the idea that a manufacturer, after selling a completed product to a purchaser, remains under a duty to warn the purchaser of potentially defective additional pieces of equipment that the purchaser may or may not use to complement the product bought from the manufacturer.
Slip op. at 15 (citation, quotation marks, and footnote omitted).  Substitute a prescribing physician for the navy in O’Neil and you’ve got Conte.

Imposition of warning duties relating solely to other manufacturers’ products goes “too far”:

An interpretation of [the law] that would require a manufacturer to warn about all potentially hazardous conditions surrounding the use of a product, even when those hazards arise entirely from the product of another manufacturer, reaches too far.  There is no precedent in California law for such a broad expansion of a product manufacturer’s duty.
Slip op. at 25-26.

Where the exposure comes solely from subsequent exposure to other manufacturer’s products, there is no warning liability based on “foreseeability.”  “California law does not impose a duty to warn about dangers arising entirely from another manufacturer’s product, even if it is foreseeable that the products will be used together.”  Slip op. at 27.  “[T]he foreseeability of harm, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for imposing strict liability on the manufacturer of a nondefective product, or one whose arguably defective product does not actually cause harm.”  Id. at 28.

We reaffirm that a product manufacturer generally may not be held strictly liable for harm caused by another manufacturer’s product.  The only exceptions to this rule arise when the defendant bears some direct responsibility for the harm, either because the defendant’s own product contributed substantially to the harm, or because the defendant participated substantially in creating a harmful combined use of the products.
Id. (citations omitted).

Public policy requires that product liability be limited to the manufacturers of products that actually cause harm.

  • “[A] manufacturer cannot be expected to exert pressure on other manufacturers to make their products safe.” Slip op. at 30.
  • Non-manufacturers “will not be able to share the costs of ensuring product safety with these other manufacturers.”  Id.
  • “It is also unfair to require manufacturers of nondefective products to shoulder a burden of liability when they derived no economic benefit from the sale of the products that injured the plaintiff.”  Id.
  • “[I]mpos[ing] on manufacturers the responsibility and costs of becoming experts in other manufacturers’ products . . . would impose an excessive and unrealistic burden.”  Id. (citation omitted).

Now, Conte involved a “negligent misrepresentation” claim rather than strict liability, but that won't save it from O'Neil.  See 85 Cal. Rptr.3d at 310 (“this is a case involving legal principles of negligent misrepresentation, and not a products liability action”), 310 n.7 (“negligent misrepresentation will subsume intentional fraud”).

O’Neil goes on to reach the same result – holding that there is no equivalent non-manufacturer liability claim in negligence.  The California Supreme Court directly addresses “foreseeability” and its limits, applying the public policy factors that Conte refused to address.  “[I]n strict liability as in negligence, foreseeability alone is not sufficient to create an independent tort duty.” O'Neilslip op. at 29 (citation and quotation marks omitted) (emphasis added).  “Duty” in negligence “is not an immutable fact of nature but only an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the particular plaintiff is entitled to protection.”  Id. at 30-31.

The plaintiff in O'Neil argued foreseeability uber alles.  The court did not agree:
[F]oreseeability alone is not sufficient to create an independent tort duty. Instead, the recognition of a legal duty of care depends upon the foreseeability of the risk and a weighing of policy considerations for and against imposition of liability.

Slip op. at 31 (citations and quotation marks omitted).  Rather, “when the consequences of a negligent act must be limited to avoid an intolerable burden on society, policy considerations may dictate a cause of action should not be sanctioned no matter how foreseeable the risk.  Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted).


These “policy considerations” (the same Rowland v. Christian factors that Conte ignored, 85 Cal. Rptr.3d at 814) mandate no liability where product-related claims are being made against non-manufacturers.

  • The connection between defendants’ conduct and [plaintiff’s] injury is extremely remote because defendants did not manufacture, sell, or supply any . . . product that may have caused his [injury].”  O’Neil, slip op. at 32.
  • Plaintiff’s injury is “attenuated,” as it occurred decades after the allegedly negligent conduct  Id.
  • “[L]ittle moral blame can attach to a failure to warn about dangerous aspects of other manufacturers’ products.”  Id.
  • “There is no reason to think a product manufacturer will be able to exert any control over the safety of . . . products made by other companies.”  Id.
  • “Manufacturers may also have scant ability to influence their customers’ choices about other products.”  Id.
  • “[R]ecognizing a duty of care would clearly impose a significant burden on defendants and all other companies that could potentially be held liable for injuries caused by products they neither made nor sold.”  Id. at 33.
  • “[R]ecognition of such a duty could lead to an overabundance of potentially conflicting product warnings.”  Id.
  • “[I]t is doubtful that manufacturers could insure against the “unknowable risks and hazards” of other manufacturers’ products used decades later.  Id.

For all these reasons, the court in O’Neil unanimously held that, regardless of foreseeability, there should be no negligence liability against the manufacturer of one product for injuries caused by similar products manufactured by other companies:

[E]xpansion of the duty of care as urged here would impose an obligation to compensate on those whose products caused the plaintiffs no harm. To do so would exceed the boundaries established over decades of product liability law. [S]ocial policy must at some point intervene to delimit liability even for foreseeable injury. The same policy considerations that militate against imposing strict liability in this situation apply with equal force in the context of negligence.
Slip op. at 33 (citations and quotation marks omitted).

We hope, as did our anonymous correspondent, that O’Neil spells the beginning of the end for Conte.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jim,

First and foremost, happy new year. Having had the pleasure of appearing on a program with you in 2011, I hope we have an opportunity to repeat in 2012.

I was struck by your most recent Conte column (which, needless to say, reflects my opinion as well). Given the jurisdiction, I was wondering if the underlying problem with Conte can be applicable to the concept of market share liability (Sindell), another product of the California appellate court system.

Best regards,

Howard Dorfman