California Ruling Defines Asbestos Supplier's Duty to Warn

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By Steven Sellers

May 24 — A raw asbestos supplier breached its duty to warn a distributor about the dangers of its product under a “sophisticated intermediary” doctrine adopted by the California Supreme Court May 23 ( Webb v. Special Elec. Co., Inc., 2016 BL 163642, Cal., No. S209927, 5/23/16 ).

Special Electric Co. failed to warn Johns-Manville Corp. about the highly toxic nature of the raw crocidolite asbestos it sold in the 1970s, and couldn't reasonably expect that company to warn downstream users of the dangers, the court said.

The ruling upheld a court of appeals decision that Special Electric was wrongly granted a judgment in its favor for the exposures of William Webb, who handled asbestos-containing pipe in the 1970s and developed mesothelioma in 2011.

Under the doctrine announced by the court, a supplier of toxic raw materials may discharge its duty to warn if it knows a sophisticated user is aware or should be aware of the product's dangers, and it “reasonably relies on the purchaser to convey appropriate warnings to downstream users who will encounter the product.”

Here, that standard wasn't met because evidence showed Johns-Manville was generally aware of asbestos dangers, but “no evidence established it knew about the particularly acute risks posed by the crocidolite asbestos Special Electric supplied,” the court said.

Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, joined by Justice Ming W. Chin, concurred in the judgment but said rule adopted by the majority was too broad.

A supplier should, at the least, know a buyer is actually aware of a product's dangers to establish reasonable reliance on the purchaser to warn users, Cantil-Sakauye argued.

Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote the opinion, joined by Associate Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Goodwin Liu, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra R. Kruger.

Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye concurred in the judgment, joined by Associate Justice Ming W. Chin.

The law offices of Ted W. Pelletier, as well as Paul & Hanley represented William W. Webb and Jacqueline Webb.

Hugo & Parker, as well as Horvitz Levy represented Special Electric Co.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steven Sellers in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Patrick at and Jeffrey D. Koelemay at