Court Of Appeals Significantly Expands Manufacturer’s Duty To Warn
In Dummit v. Crane Co., the Court of Appeals held yesterday that the manufacturer of a product has a duty to warn of the danger arising from the foreseeable use of its product in combination with a third-party product that is necessary to enable the manufacturer’s product to function. In so holding, the Court does not depart from its prior holding in Rastelli v. Goodyear Tire Co., but extends liability on behalf of the manufacturer based on foreseeability that the manufacturer’s product be used with the other product out of necessity.
In Dummit, plaintiff’s decedent was a Navy boiler technician who worked on non-asbestos Crane valves that contained asbestos-backed gaskets, packing and installation. Suttner v. A.W. Chesterton, the companion case to Dummit, involved a decedent pipefitter for General Motors who worked with Crane valves in GM’s Tonawanda plant. In both cases, the asbestos containing packing materials and gaskets surrounding the valves were not manufactured by Crane.
According to the longstanding precedent in Rastelli, a manufacturer may be held liable for harm caused by a third-party’s product used in conjunction with the manufacturer’s product when the manufacturer (1) controlled the production of the defective product, (2) derived some benefit from the sale of the defective product, or (3) placed the defective product in the stream of commerce. Rastelli v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, 79 N.Y.2d 289 (1992).
Although the Court’s decision in Dummit shifts the focus from a stream of commerce theory to one of foreseeability based on the necessity of use of the defective product, it does not abandon the Rastelli factors altogether. While noting that Crane did not control the production of the asbestos containing gaskets and packing, the Court still found other Rastelli factors supporting Crane’s duty to warn the plaintiffs. Crane derived a benefit from the sale of the third-party’s products since the products were essential to its valves working properly. Furthermore, the Court noted “where a manufacturer creates a product that cannot be used without another product . . . . the manufacturer has a substantial, albeit indirect role, in placing the third-party product into the stream of commerce.” As such, the Court determined that Rastelli and its progeny support the imposition of a duty on behalf of a manufacturer that is on notice that its product may be used with a defective product out of necessity.
The Court further noted that another relevant consideration is the manufacturer’s superior position to know of and warn against the hazards associated with the combined products. The manufacturer of a durable product designed for continuous use, such as a valve, is in a better position to know and warn of the defective nature of the combined products than the manufacturer of the “fungible” product that deteriorates quickly. Because the user is more likely to interact with the durable product, he or she is more likely to observe warnings on that product. As a result, Crane was held to be in a better position to learn and therefore warn of the defective condition of the third-party’s packing material and gaskets.
With this decision, the Court further extends a manufacturer’s duty to warn to include products that are necessary to allow the manufacturer’s product to work as intended.
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