On April 8, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an asbestos case concerning the liability of a defendant who has sold a component part to a manufacturer who then incorporates the part into its own products.  See Aubin v. Union Carbide Corp., No. SC12-2075.  On review was a decision from the Third District Court of Appeal which held that the Third Restatement of Torts’ component parts doctrine was the governing standard, expressly rejecting the Second Restatement’s test.   See Union Carbide Corp. v. Aubin, 97 So. 3d 886 (Fla. 3d DCA 2012).  To view the district court opinion click here and to view the supreme court oral argument click here.

Aubin worked as a superintendent at his father’s construction company from 1972 to 1974. During this time, he routinely handled and was exposed to joint compounds and ceiling textures. One of the ingredients in these materials was a chrysotile asbestos product mined, processed, and sold by Carbide. After contracting mesothelioma, Aubin filed suit alleging negligence and strict liability as a result of design, manufacturing, and warning defects.

The Third District held that the trial court had erred in: (1) deciding that Aubin’s claims were governed by the Second Restatement’s “consumer expectations” test as opposed to the Third Restatement “risk-utility/risk-benefit” test, (2) denying Carbide’s motion for directed verdict on the design defect claim, and (3) failing to instruct the jury that Carbide could have discharged its duty to warn end-users by adequately warning the intermediary manufacturer.

The district court disagreed that its own precedent in Kohler v. Marcotte—which adopts the Third Restatement’s component parts doctrine—was not binding because the Florida Supreme Court had previously adopted the Second (rather than the Third) Restatement.  The district court stated that absent overruling from the supreme court, the Third Restatement’s test controls in the Third District.  That test provides that a component part seller or distributor is liable when: (a) the component is defective in itself and the defect causes the harm; or (b) the seller or distributor substantially participates in the integration of the component into the design of the product; and (c) the integration of the component causes the product to be defective; and (d) the defect in  the product causes the harm.

Focusing on the first “avenue” of liability under the Third Restatement, the district court held that Aubin’s design defect claim failed because he did not establish how the design of the product caused his harm—specifically, that its design caused the product to be more dangerous than raw chrysotile asbestos is in its natural state.

The Third District also acknowledged that there was no general rule for determining whether a manufacturer may rely on an intermediary to warn end-users, thereby discharging its own duty to warn. Citing the Third Restatement’s comments, the court stated that the inquiry was controlled by a reasonableness standard and included factors such as the gravity of the product’s risk, the likelihood that the intermediary will convey the warning, and the feasibility of warning the end-user. The court also referenced the “learned intermediary” doctrine—which considers the intermediary’s education, knowledge, expertise, and relationship with the end-user—as an informative (but not dispositive) factor. Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court’s finding that there was sufficient evidence to create a factual issue over Aubin’s claim that product had a defective warning.

After acknowledging that a manufacturer’s duty to warn may be discharged by reasonable reliance on an intermediary, the court also held that it was error for the trial court to not have incorporated this into the jury instructions.

Aubin later moved to certify direct conflict, claiming that the Third District’s decision directly conflicted with Fourth District precedent applying the Second Restatement. The court denied Aubin’s motion, explaining that the outcome of its decision would have been the same under the Second Restatement, because the pertinent tests were comparable.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Aaron Suggs (no changes).