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January 2012

California Supreme Court Limits Product Liability

The California Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed that a product liability defendant is not liable for harms from products it did not put into the stream of commerce – in other words, for the products of others.  This includes products that will foreseeably be used with the defendant's products, and even replacement parts made by others for the defendant's product.

"[W]e have never held that [product liability] extend[s] to preventing injuries caused by other products that might foreseeably be used in conjunction with a defendant's product [here, insulation].  Nor have we held that manufacturers must warn about potential hazards in replacement parts made by others ? Nor would public policy be served by requiring manufacturers to warn about the dangerous propensities of products they do not design, make, or sell."  (O'Neil v. Crane Co. (Jan. 12, 2012, S177401) __ Cal.4th __.) 

Plaintiffs argued  that the O'Neil defendants "bore responsibility for his injuries because their products originally included asbestos-containing components, and it was foreseeable that these parts would wear and be replaced with other asbestos-containing components, and that these repair and maintenance procedures would release harmful asbestos dust."   There was no evidence that defendants made or supplied the replacement parts with which decedent worked.

The court rejected liability for insulation, flange gaskets, and replacement internal gaskets and packing that were not put into the stream of commerce by defendants.  The decision went even further than prior similar decisions (Braaten and Simonetta in Washington, Taylor in California), by rejecting liability under every likely product liability theory – negligence and strict liability, design defect and failure to warn.  "We conclude that defendants were not ? liable for O'Neil's injuries because (a) any design defect in defendants' products was not a legal cause of injury to O'Neil, and (b) defendants had no duty to warn of risks arising from other manufacturers' products." 

Gordon & Rees has been involved in each of the most significant decisions in this area.  Gordon & Rees partners Michael Pietrykowski and Don Willenburg filed an amicus brief in support of the O'Neil defendants.  Earlier, Gordon & Rees partner Mark Tuvim authored an amicus brief supporting defendants in Braaten and Simonetta, and Gordon & Rees represented defendants in the Taylor decision, from which O'Neil quoted approvingly and on which O'Neil expanded.  

While this decision arose in the specific context of asbestos and equipment aboard Navy ships, it is likely to be applicable in a wide variety of other product liability actions, asbestos and non-asbestos.  At the same time, O'Neil is unlikely on its own to dent or deter asbestos litigation.  The decision contains possible exceptions and unanswered questions, so it is more likely that the result will be a shift in tactics and focus.


Michael J. Pietrykowski
Mark B. Tuvim
Don Willenburg

Environmental/Toxic Tort
Product & General Liability