Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Tennessee Products Liability Act Does Not Impose a Duty to Warn for Products Manufacturer Did Not Make or Sell

January 4, 2021

The Tennessee Supreme Court has determined that, under the language of the Tennessee Products Liability Act, a manufacturer is not liable for injuries resulting from products it did not make or sell.

This products liability action was brought by Mr. Donald Coffman and Mrs. Carolyn Coffman as a result of Mr. Coffman’s exposure to asbestos at his workplace. Plaintiffs alleged that Mr. Coffman was exposed to asbestos-containing materials during his career as an equipment mechanic at a chemical plant. Mr. Coffman developed mesothelioma and filed suit against nearly thirty defendants, alleging that they were liable for his exposure to asbestos by breathing in dust created by asbestos-containing gaskets, insulation, and packing while he was repairing and replacing parts at his workplace. Among others, Mr. Coffman sued several industrial equipment manufacturers, claiming that they were liable under the Tennessee Products Liability Act for failing to warn him that the materials needed to repair and maintain their products contained asbestos. The trial court awarded summary judgment to the equipment defendants, concluding that the equipment defendants affirmatively negated any duty to warn of asbestos with respect to products that were manufactured and sold by others.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the equipment defendants owed a common law duty to warn about the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing products even when they were manufactured and sold by others because it was foreseeable that their equipment would be used or repaired with asbestos-containing products at some later date. The Supreme Court granted permission to appeal to address whether the equipment defendants “had a duty to warn of the dangers associated with the post-sale integration of asbestos-containing materials manufactured and sold by others.”

In an opinion released today, the majority of the Supreme Court held that the Tennessee Products Liability Act does not impose upon the equipment defendants a duty to warn with respect to products that did not contain asbestos when they left the defendants’ control, but rather an end user integrated or used asbestos-containing materials with the equipment defendants’ products after their final sale. To that end, the Supreme Court reversed in part the holding of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the trial court.

Justice Sharon G. Lee in her dissenting opinion disagreed with the Court’s “no-duty-to-warn rule.” In her view, under the language of the Tennessee Products Liability Act, a manufacturer has a duty to warn when it knows or should know that its product requires aftermarket integration with another product, such as a replaceable component part, to function properly; and knows or should know that this aftermarket integration will likely render the final product unreasonably dangerous. According to the dissent, a jury should hear the evidence and determine whether the equipment defendants had a duty to warn consumers, including Mr. Coffman who died in 2014 as a result of mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure, about the dangers of the equipment defendants’ products.

To read the opinion in Coffman, et al. v. Armstrong International, et.al., authored by Justice Roger A. Page, and Justice Lee’s separate dissenting opinion, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.