The Tennessee Supreme Court’s opinion in Carolyn Coffman et al v. Armstrong International, Inc., et al., at least implicitly, recognized a “bare metal defense” for the first time under Tennessee law. The Court addressed the issue of whether, under Tennessee law, 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.” The Court held that, under the Tennessee Products Liability Act (TPLA), Tenn. Code Ann. §29-28-101 through 108, the equipment defendants did not have a duty to warn end users about the post-sale incorporation of asbestos containing products manufactured by third parties.

“Bare Metal Defense”

The “bare metal defense,” recognized in several other states (see our other analysis on this topic), allows equipment defendants to avoid failure to warn claims for asbestos products added at a later time. These defendants assert that, because their products left their control as “bare metal” and contained no asbestos, they have no duty to warn of the dangers of asbestos products added by others later in time (for example, exterior insulation added after a product is installed at a facility).

Coffman Case

Plaintiff in the case, Donald Coffman, worked as an equipment mechanic at the Tennessee Eastman chemical plant from 1968 to 1997. His job entailed repairing and replacing gaskets, packing, and insulation on various pieces of equipment. Among those named as defendants were manufacturers of equipment such as pumps, valves and steam traps (Equipment Defendants). Mr. Coffman claimed that he was exposed to asbestos from removing insulation, gaskets and packing affixed to or contained within the Equipment Defendants’ products. Mr. Coffman later was diagnosed with mesothelioma and he and his wife filed suit against the Equipment Defendants under the TPLA.

Plaintiffs argued that, under the TPLA, the Equipment Defendants were required to warn users of potential asbestos exposure because it was foreseeable that asbestos-containing products sold by other companies could be integrated into the pieces of equipment post-sale. The Equipment Defendants filed motions for summary judgment on the failure to warn claims and were victorious in the trial court. The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, and the Equipment Defendants appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Ruling

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, holding that the Equipment Defendants did not have a duty to warn of post-sale incorporation of asbestos products manufactured by others. The TPLA, and prior opinions interpreting the language of the TPLA, focuses significantly on a manufacturer’s control of a product. In fact, the TPLA specifically states that a “manufacturer or seller of a product shall not be liable for any injury to a person or property caused by the product unless the product is determined to be in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-105(a) (2012) (emphasis added). “Defective” and “unreasonably dangerous” are defined terms under the TPLA. Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-102(2), (8). The court stated the definitions themselves link the defective or unreasonably dangerous condition to the manufacturer’s product itself, and consequently “a defendant’s liability [is linked] to the defendant’s own product, not the product of another manufacturer.” Coffman at p. 10.

Plaintiffs asserted that the products were “defective” in that they were “unsafe for normal and anticipatable handling and consumption.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-28-102(2). Plaintiffs argued that the Equipment Defendants should have foreseen the incorporation of asbestos-containing products into their equipment and warned as such. The Supreme Court, however, was unmoved and found that the defective condition must be linked solely to the manufacturer’s own product and not a third party’s asbestos-containing product.

Future Impact

The Court’s decision in Coffman will impact Tennessee asbestos cases far into the future. Manufacturers of equipment that did not contain asbestos now have a greatly enhanced chance of winning summary judgment under Tennessee law. It will be crucial for defendants to elicit testimony from plaintiffs’ witnesses about the source of replacement parts such as gaskets and packing, information about the maintenance history of a product or whether exterior insulation was added to a product after it was first sold.

It should be noted that the Coffman opinion applies only to post-sale integration of asbestos products that were manufactured by other companies. It also does not apply to asbestos products that were originally supplied with the piece of equipment. Thus, if a plaintiff claims exposure to asbestos gaskets or packing that were contained within a piece of equipment when it was new, or provided as replacement parts by the same manufacturer, the duty to warn still exists.