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Gray v. Badger Mining Corp.

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Plaintiff sued Defendant and other suppliers of sand for negligence, strict liability for failure to warn , and breach of warranties of merchantability and fitness for intended purpose, alleging that his repeated exposure to silica dust caused silicosis of the lungs. The trial court denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment and it appealed. The appellate court reversed, holding that Defendant had no duty to warn Plaintiff of the dangers of silica dust because his employer, Smith Foundry, was a “sophisticated purchaser” and Defendant was a “bulk supplier.” Plaintiff appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In Minnesota, a supplier of products generally has a duty to warn end users of a dangerous product if it is reasonably foreseeable that an injury could result during its use.

    Facts.

    Lawrence Gray (Plaintiff) worked at Smith Foundry from 1951 to 1998. Smith Foundry used sand supplied by Badger Mining Corporation (Defendant) to create molds in which metal objects were cast. Defendant supplied Smith Foundry with sand in bulk prior to 1981 and then again beginning in 1992. Plaintiff sued Defendant and other suppliers of sand for negligence, strict liability for failure to warn, and breach of warranties of merchantability and fitness for intended purpose, alleging that his repeated exposure to silica dust caused silicosis of the lungs. At trial, Plaintiff produced evidence that Defendant had knowledge of the special hazards involved in using sand for foundry purposes. Specifically, when sand is knocked off the metal casting, the sand is pulverized to small sub-micron sized particles of dust. These particles were then breathed in by Plaintiff. The trial court denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment and it appealed. The appellate court reversed, holding that Defendant had no duty to warn Plaintiff of the dangers of silica dust because his employer, Smith Foundry, was a “sophisticated purchaser” and Defendant was a “bulk supplier.” Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue.

    Whether a supplier of products in Minnesota generally has a duty to warn end users of a dangerous product if it is reasonably foreseeable that an injury could result during its use.

    Held.

    Yes. The court of appeals’ ruling is reversed. In Minnesota, a supplier of products generally has a duty to warn end users of a dangerous product if it is reasonably foreseeable that an injury could result during its use.

    Discussion.

    The duty to warn includes a duty to provide adequate warnings for the safe use of the product and ways to avoid injury. The Restatement (Second) of Torts § 388 states that a supplier is subject to liability for resulting injuries if the supplier (a) knows, or should realize, that the chattel is or is likely to be dangerous for the use for which it is supplied; and (b) has no reason to believe that those for whose use the chattel is supplied will realize the dangerous condition; and (c) fails to exercise reasonable care to inform them of its dangerous condition or of the facts, which make it likely to be so. In response to such a claim, a supplier has several possible defenses. The first defense, “the learned intermediary,” is not applicable here. The second is the “sophisticated user” defense. In Hill v. Wilmington Chem. Corp., 156 N.W.2d 898, 904-04 (Minn. 1968), the court held that a supplier of dangerous chemicals had no duty to warn of the dangerous propensities of the chemical where those dangers were already known to the purchaser. In that case, there was clear evidence that the user had knowledge of the dangerous nature of the chemical. Here, there is no evidence that Plaintiff was familiar with industry or government publications on the dangers of silicosis. The third defense, the “sophisticated intermediary,” is a variation of the “sophisticated user” defense and focuses on the premise that an employer will act in the best interests of its employees. Under the defense, a supplier has no duty to warn the ultimate user when 1) the end user’s employer already has knowledge of the dangers, equal to that of the supplier, or 2) the supplier makes the employer knowledgeable by providing adequate warnings and safety instructions to the employer. Here, Badger did provide Smith Foundry with a general warning of the dangers of silicosis, but it did not warn Smith Foundry about the ineffectiveness of disposable respirators or instruct that only high efficiency respirators should be used. Any question about the sufficiency of the warning should be decided by a jury. The fourth defense, “bulk supplier,” applies when a supplier delivers its materials in bulk and otherwise has difficulty in warning the end user. Because Defendant delivers its products by truck in bulk, requiring it to directly warn every employee of the potential risks involved would be costly and sometimes impossible. Therefore, Defendant may likely qualify for such a defense, but the adequacy of its warning to Smith Foundry would be a question for the jury. The final defense, “raw materials” is stated in Restatement (Third) of Torts: Products Liability, § 5. The defense allows a supplier of raw materials, which will be used as a component of a final product, to escape liability if the component or raw material itself is not dangerous. Although sand is not inherently dangerous as a raw material, it is dangerous when used in a foundry process to which Defendant specifically developed its sand for. Even if the defense is applicable, the supplier must still provide an adequate warning to the intermediate purchaser. Because genuine issues of material fact are present, the trial court did not err in denying Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.


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