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Maritime law the focus of recent U.S. Supreme Court decision

Sailors here in Louisiana and elsewhere face numerous dangers aboard ship regardless of whether they work for the U.S. military or a private company. One of those hazards comes from chemicals and other materials that could be toxic. Sailors have a right to know what could potentially cause them harm as they perform their onboard duties, and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in a case involving maritime law affirms that right.

Two veterans of the U.S. Navy received news from their doctors that they had cancer. They believe their unknown exposure to asbestos aboard ship caused it. Their subsequent lawsuits against the manufacturer of some equipment went all the way up to the country's highest court.

The manufacturer claimed that it was not responsible since it delivered the products to the government without any asbestos. However, in order to make the product function as intended, it required products containing this toxic material thereafter without the knowledge of the sailors. They claimed the manufacturer owed them a duty of letting them know this could happen.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed -- at least in part. It did not rule that the manufacturer, or other manufacturers in the future, must divulge the potential for toxic materials to be added afterward all the time. They need only divulge such information when the addition of something like asbestos makes the product work as intended, which means that the original product would not work properly without it.

This could open up a new avenue of restitution for other sailors, including those here in Louisiana, who find themselves in the same position. Asbestos-related illnesses are often fatal, chronic and incurable, and those who work on vessels deserve the right to know they could be working around such a toxic material. If they do contract a disease as a result, this ruling could give them a source of restitution under maritime law.

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