The Middle District of Pennsylvania’s opinion in Gorton v. Warren Pumps, LLC supported the government contractor defense and set forth a road map for defendants to follow to win summary judgment. The court, relying on the Supreme Court case, Boyle v. United Technologies Corporation, and applying admiralty law, held the government contractor defense was applicable to Plaintiff’s claims for product liability, breach of implied warranty, and negligence. In Groton, Defendant Warren Pumps moved for summary judgment asserting the government contractor defense. The court, after analyzing the record and standards for the defense, granted summary judgment in Warren Pumps’ favor.

“Government Contractor Defense”

The government contractor defense is a federal common law defense available against claims for strict liability, negligence, breach of warranty arising out of design defects, and failure to warn. Three elements must be established: (1) the United States approved reasonably precise specifications; (2) the equipment conformed to those specifications; and (3) the supplier warned the United States about the dangers in the use of the equipment that were known to the supplier but not the United States. 

Gorton Case Facts

Mr. Groton (“Plaintiff”) testified that he was aboard the USS Blue, a Navy ship, while it was performing exercises in the Pacific from 1959 – 1961. Plaintiff was also present when the USS Blue was drydocked and overhauled in 1961. Plaintiff was an electrician’s mate and performed repair work all around the ship on various pieces of electrical equipment. This work regularly brought him into the boiler and engine rooms aboard the ship where he saw and sometimes assisted other sailors working with gaskets and packing on equipment, including pumps. Plaintiff testified he believed gaskets and packing contained asbestos and that they were supplied by the Navy. Mr. Gorton contracted mesothelioma and brought a personal injury claim against Warren Pumps and other defendants.

“Military Specifications” and Knowledge of Asbestos

Plaintiff provided military specification manuals requiring that express warnings be included on all equipment provided by manufacturers. However, the manuals provided applied to equipment furnished by manufacturers after Warren Pumps furnished the pumps that were used on the USS Blue. The court, after reviewing the proper specifications in place at the time the Warren pumps were provided, determined that Warren Pumps complied with those specifications because the products could not be installed in Navy vessels unless the products conformed with the Navy’s specifications and contractual requirements.

Additional documents show the US Navy was aware of the hazards of asbestos as early as 1922. Conversely, Warren Pumps was not aware until the 1950s or later; after the pumps were provided for use on the USS Blue.

U.S.M.D. Pennsylvania Ruling

The court analyzed the facts above and determined the Navy set forth reasonable specifications based on the manuals. In addition, Warren Pumps met those specifications or the pumps would not have been used. Finally, the record indicated that the Navy was aware of the health hazards associated with asbestos dust well before Warrant Pumps; alleviating Warren Pumps’ duty to warn. Because those facts met the elements of a government contractor defense, the court granted summary judgment in favor of Warren Pumps.

Future Impact

The impact the holding of Gorton v. Warren Pumps, LLC will have on future asbestos related personal injury suits could be significant. The government contractor defense can protect manufacturers against personal injury claims by shifting liability to the government. The third element of the defense is key because actual knowledge is required. Even though the Plaintiff, in this case, proved Warren Pumps should have known of the risk, that was not enough to bar their government contractor defense. Likewise, the court in this case established that compliance with government standards may be presumed if the equipment is in fact installed and used.

Link to opinion –

Written with the assistance of Shyanne Kelly, a summer associate in the Husch Blackwell LLP Chattanooga office.