No Duty To Warn Of The Hazards of Cleaning Hazard-Protecting Equipment

This past December, the Court of Appeals of Washington reversed a trial court’s denial of several respirator manufacturers’ motion for summary judgment on plaintiff’s claim that they failed to warn him of the dangers of asbestos exposure while cleaning respirators designed to protect against asbestos. Macias v. Mine Safety Appliances Co., 244 P.3d 978 (Wash. Ct. App. 2010).
Mine Safety Appliances Company, American Optical Corporation, and North Safety Products USA (collectively “respirator manufacturers”) manufactured respirators that could protect against a variety of contaminants dependent upon the contaminant-specific filter cartridge selected by the user. The plaintiff worked as a tool keeper at a Seattle shipyard, and as part of his duties, he was responsible for cleaning respirators after they were returned by shipyard workers at the end of their shifts. After working in the shipyard for over twenty-five years and handling hundreds of dirty respirators on a daily basis, the plaintiff was diagnosed with mesothelioma and commenced this action against the respirator manufacturers.

The plaintiff alleged that the manufacturers were negligent and strictly liable for failing to warn him of the dangers of asbestos exposure. In response, the respirator manufacturers argued that they had no duty to warn of the dangers associated with asbestos in another company’s product. In support of their argument, the manufacturers cited the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Simonetta v. Viad Corp., 197 P.3d 127 (Wash. 2008), holding that the duty to warn is “limited to those in the chain of distribution of the hazardous product.”

The Court agreed with the respirator manufacturers and held that they did not have a duty to warn, neither under a negligence or strict liability theory, because the manufacturers did not manufacture, sell, or supply the asbestos and did not control the type of contaminants used at the shipyard. While the plaintiff argued that the court should consider the purpose of the product in its duty to warn analysis, the Court rejected the notion that a product manufacturer should have a duty to warn of the dangers of a hazardous substance when its product is designed for the purpose of protecting against those very hazards.

Even though the manufacturers should have expected, as pointed out in the concurring opinion, that those who perform the necessary cleaning of the respirators would be exposed to the hazardous substances which had been absorbed, the plaintiff should have also expected that he would have been exposed to asbestos as he was cleaning the respirators of the substance against which it was designed to protect. Manufacturers should not be expected to warn against every conceivable hazard created by others’ products especially when the purpose of the manufactured product is to protect against those hazards.

While we here at Abnormal Use have been known to venture into the outdoors with the UV-protection afforded by a decent pair of polarized sunglasses, we wouldn’t expect Costa Del Mar to warn us of the dangers of the sun exposure we undoubtedly will receive to the rest of our faces when we neglect to wear sun screen. Even though this opinion did not expressly create a duty on behalf of the consumer, consumers must recognize that there comes a point with the use of any product at which the manufacturer’s duty to warn must end and the user’s common sense must take over.

Smells Like Lung Disease

Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. In his bid to quit smoking and improve his health, Larry Newkirk began eating microwave popcorn to suppress his appetite. What Mr. Newkirk could not have known, while on his course to eating five to seven bags of microwave popcorn each day for eleven years, was that the delectable treat (allegedly) caused his severe lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans. We reported earlier on a recently filed case involving allegations that Diacetyl‘s “characteristic buttery odor” smelled more like lung disease than popcorn flavoring, but the Eastern District of Washington in Newkirk v. Conagra Foods, Inc., No. CV-08-273, 2010 WL 2680184 (E.D. Wash. July 2, 2010) has had a chance to examine the issue. It issued some Defendant-friendly rulings on a few motions on Daubert as well as summary judgment.

A large part of the opinion focuses on the expert testimony of Dr. David Egilman, the plaintiff’s expert, who is board certified in Occupational and Internal Medicine. Holding degrees from Brown and Harvard, Dr. Egilman is certainly no intellectual lightweight. Mr. Newkirk put forth Dr. Egilman to establish general causation and specific causation. The court excluded Dr. Egilman’s testimony and ultimately granted summary judgment.

Unfortunately for Mr. Newkirk, there was no scientific foundation for Dr. Egilman’s opinions, and, neither does it appear that there will be any scientific foundation, because “manufacturers of microwave popcorn stopped using diacetyl in or around 2007.” Previously, there had been some research on the employees in microwave popcorn plant, and that research tracked the employees according to their particular job function. In addition, there was an EPA study released in 2007 studying the chemicals released when a bag of microwave popcorn is opened. But the “scientific community has yet to determine a safe level of diacetyl exposure.” Dr. Egilman made leaps in logic, equating the diacetyl exposure of a manufacturing worker (those who worked around the large vats of flavoring tantalizingly called slurry) to the purported exposure of a consumer opening a bag of popcorn in the home.
However, there is nothing to support Dr. Egilman’s conclusion that is at the heart of this case: that the vapors emitted from a microwave popcorn bag contain the same proportion of chemicals or that all of the substances in the two instances are identical.

Newkirk at *9. The court pointed out this “analytical gap,” even to the point of quoting from Dr. Egilman’s affidavit and expert report (several times), followed by the explanatory parenthetical “citing nothing.” I might try that in my next response brief if I ever need to quote the plaintiff: “[Ridiculous point of law asserted by plaintiff.] (citing nothing).”

Unlike some plaintiffs, Mr. Newkirk has an actual injury. Unfortunately for him, there is no science supporting his allegation of the causation of his injury. We applaud the District Court for demanding science, and, seeing none, dismissing this case.