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A Rhode Island Court Considers an Employer’s Duty of Care to a Non-Employee for Asbestos Exposure

Posted in Asbestos Litigation, Employment Litigation, Litigation Trends, Rhode Island Courts, Uncategorized

On April 16, 2018, a Rhode Island court addressed for the first time whether an entity owes a duty of care to protect non-employees from exposure to the asbestos-tainted work clothes of the entity’s employee.  In a decision denying the defendant Crane Co.’s motion for summary judgment in the matter of Carolyn Nichols, as Executrix of the Estate of Iva Pearl Jones, et al. v. Allis Chalmers Product Liability Trust, et al., C.A. No. PC-2008-1134, Judge Sarah Taft-Carter held that while the existence of such a duty is determined on a case-by-case basis, the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to establish that Crane Co. had a duty to protect against such “secondary” or “take-home” exposure.  The decision is significant in that the Court demonstrated a willingness to impose such a broad duty upon an employer if certain factors are met through the plaintiff’s evidence.

 

In the Jones matter, the plaintiffs alleged that the decedent, Iva Pearl Jones (“Ms. Jones”) was exposed to asbestos from the clothing of her brother-in-law, Stanley Nichols (“Mr. Nichols”) while Mr. Nichols was employed by Crane Co. from 1979 to 1980 and resided in the same home as Ms. Jones and other family members.  The testimony also established that Ms. Jones “always” did the laundry, including Mr. Nichols’ work clothes.  Ms. Jones was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2005 and passed away in 2007.  The plaintiffs alleged that Crane Co. failed to take adequate precautions to prevent asbestos fibers from leaving the work site and failed to warn employees of a foreseeable risk of take-home exposures to their cohabitants. Following discovery, Crane Co. moved for summary judgment on all counts asserting that it had no duty of care to Ms. Jones, its employee’s sister-in-law, and that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that the alleged exposure to asbestos from Mr. Nichols’ clothing caused Ms. Jones’ disease.

 

The Court, noting that an employer’s duty to protect against “take-home” exposures is an issue of first impression in Rhode Island, recognized the division of existing authority in other jurisdictions that have addressed the issue in NY, MD, GA, TN, NJ, IL, and ND. The Court held that it need not find a “special relationship” between Crane Co. and Ms. Jones to impose a duty because the plaintiffs allegations were based upon Crane Co.’s own alleged misfeasance in utilizing asbestos-containing products and not on an alleged failure of Crane Co. to protect against the actions of a third-party tortfeasor.  Instead, the Court held that under Rhode Island law, the existence of a duty of care is determined on a case-by-case basis considering the following factors: (1) the foreseeability of the harm; (2) the degree of certainty of injury; (3) the closeness of connection between the defendant’s conduct and the plaintiff’s injury; (4) the policy of preventing future harm; (5) the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community in imposing a legal duty; and (6) the relationship between the parties.

 

After considering the above-factors, the Court concluded that Crane Co. owed a duty of care to Ms. Jones. First, the Court found that it was foreseeable to Crane Co. that asbestos fibers could be transmitted on an employee’s clothing and posed a risk to individuals residing with the employee, based on the 1972 Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation “emphasiz[ing] the importance of preventing asbestos from leaving the worksite on employees’ clothes” and advising employers of measures to prevent such risks including providing employees with protective clothing. (citing Standard for Exposure to Asbestos Dust, 37 Fed. Reg. 110, 11318 (June 7, 1972), amending 29 C.F.R. § 1910, et seq.).  Second, the Court noted that the degree of certainty of injury, namely Ms. Jones’ diagnosis of malignant mesothelioma, was not contested.  Third, with regard to the closeness of the connection between Crane Co.’s conduct and the alleged injury, the Court listed several measures Crane Co. could have taken to prevent take-home exposure, such as providing uniforms, on-site showers and laundry services, and/or requiring employees to change their clothes before leaving the facility. Fourth, the Court  acknowledged that asbestos-related illnesses have a long latency period and therefore, the fact that Ms. Jones’ was not diagnosed until 25 years after the alleged exposures did not reduce the closeness of the connection.  Fifth, as to public policy considerations and the burden of imposing a legal duty on employers under the circumstances presented, the Court commented that asbestos poses a danger to public health and cumulative exposures can cause mesothelioma.  The Court rejected Crane Co.’s assertion that imposing a duty would subject it limitless liability and claims from “a seemingly immeasurable amount of people,” emphasizing that Rhode Island courts determine whether a duty exists on a case-by-case basis.  Moreover, it observed that measures Crane Co. could have undertaken to prevent household exposures were required by OSHA and not burdensome or onerous. Finally, the Court rejected Crane Co.’s argument that Ms. Jones’ relationship with Crane Co., as the sister-in-law of Crane Co.’s employee and household member, was too attenuated to support a duty.  The Court found that the plaintiffs had provided evidence of long-standing cohabitation between Ms. Jones and Mr. Nichols and that they acted as a single household unit during the relevant times with Ms. Jones regularly undertaking laundry duties for the household.

 

The Court further concluded that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to prevail against Crane Co.’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of causation.  Crane Co. argued that plaintiffs’ evidence was insufficient to meet the “frequency, regularity, proximity” test set forth in Sweredoski v. Alfa Laval, Inc., No. PC 2011-1544, 2013 WL 3010419, *2 (R.I. Super. June 13, 2013) (Gibney, P.J.).  The Court stated, the “issue of proximate causation is usually a question for the trier of fact that cannot be determined on summary judgment” and found that the plaintiffs had provided sufficient evidence of product identification, regular and frequent use, and proximate exposure to asbestos.  Specifically, Mr. Nichols had testified that he regularly worked closely with asbestos-containing insulation for approximately seven months.  He further testified that Ms. Jones “always” laundered his work clothes, and that there was visible dust in the air when she performed this task.  The plaintiffs’ pathology expert, Dr. James A. Strauchen, also opined that Ms. Jones’ cumulative exposure to asbestos caused her mesothelioma.  The Court held that this evidence satisfied the frequency, regularity, proximity test and was sufficient for a jury to conclude that exposure to asbestos from Mr. Nichols’ clothing was a substantial factor in causing of Ms. Jones’ disease.

 

Judge Taft-Carter’s decision denying Crane Co.’s motion for summary judgment is notable as the first instance in which a Rhode Island court has addressed the scope of duty an employer owes for “secondary” or “take-home” exposures.  While the decision demonstrates a willingness of the Court to extend an employer’s duty to household members of employees that demonstrate exposure to asbestos at a worksite that is controlled by the employer, the Court conducted  a multi-factor analysis that it stated it would apply going forward on a case-by-case basis.

Cumulative Exposure Theory Found Inconsistent with Test for Causation and Determined Not Sufficient Basis for Finding Substantial Factor

Posted in Asbestos Litigation, Products Liability, Uncategorized

In a recent case, the Ohio Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the “cumulative-exposure theory” satisfies the “substantial factor” test for a plaintiff to succeed on a claim for asbestos-related injuries. The standard in Ohio requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that exposure to the product of a certain defendant was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s asbestos-related injuries.

 

The decedent, Kathleen Schwartz, was diagnosed with and died from mesothelioma. The alleged main source of her exposure to asbestos occurred as a result of laundering the clothing of her father, who worked as an electrician.  In addition, plaintiff claimed that Ms. Schwartz was exposed to asbestos as a result of her proximity to her father when he changed the brakes on the family vehicle.

 

Plaintiff, decedent’s husband, brought suit against a number of defendants and claimed that the products of each of those defendants were a substantial factor in causing his wife’s mesothelioma. At trial, plaintiff presented evidence, in the form of expert testimony, that there is no known threshold of asbestos exposure at which mesothelioma will not occur, and thus each exposure to asbestos that the decedent experienced from laundering her father’s clothes and being in proximity to brake products contributed to her total dose of asbestos and were substantial contributing factors to the causation of her mesothelioma.

 

The trial court entered judgement against the defendant in the amount of $1,011,639.92, based on this cumulative exposure theory of causation. The Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, finding that the cumulative exposure theory was based on “reliable scientific evidence.”

 

In reversing the Court of Appeals, the Ohio Supreme Court held that cumulative exposure theory is inconsistent with a substantial factor test for causation. In its decision, the Ohio Supreme Court noted that R.C. 2307.96 requires a showing that “the conduct of that particular defendant was a substantial factor in causing the injury or loss.” This substantial factor standard requires the trier of fact to consider the manner, proximity, and frequency of exposure. As such, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the cumulative exposure theory is incompatible with the plain language of R.C. 2307.96.  Moreover, the Court held that there must be at least some quantification or means of assessing the amount of exposure to determine if the exposure was in fact sufficient to contribute to the cause of the disease.

 

SLIP OPINION NO. 2018-OHIO-474 SCHWARTZ, EXR., APPELLEE, ET AL. v. HONEYWELL INTERNATIONAL, INC., APPELLANT.[Until this opinion appears in the Ohio Official Reports advance sheets, it may be cited as Schwartz v. Honeywell Internatl., Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-474.]

Summary Judgment Order Illuminates Issues in MA Asbestos Litigation

Posted in Asbestos Litigation, Massachusetts Courts, Premises Liability, Professional Liability

Overview

On March 30, 2018, Judge Rya Zobel of the United States District Court (District of Massachusetts) issued a memorandum of decision on two Defendants’ (NSTAR Electric, formerly Boston Edison, and General Electric) Motions for Summary Judgment in an asbestos personal injury and wrongful death matter, June Stearns and Clifford Stearns as Co-Executors of the Estate of Wayne Oliver v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., et al., that addresses multiple issues, including statute of repose, strict liability and liability of a premises owner.

Background

Plaintiff’s decedent, Wayne Oliver, worked on the construction of two power plants, Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (Massachusetts) and Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant (Maryland), between 1971 and 1978 and his estate alleges that Mr. Oliver was exposed to asbestos-containing products present at those sites. Defendant NSTAR Electric (formerly Boston Edison)(“Boston Edison”) owned the Pilgrim premises.  Defendant General Electric (“GE”) allegedly designed, manufactured, and sold generators used at Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs.  Oliver worked as a pipe inspector for Bechtel, the architect-engineer on projects at both Pilgrim and Calvert Cliffs.

 

As the owner of Pilgrim, Boston Edison conducted safety audits while the construction proceeded, but primary responsibility for the site construction rested with GE and Bechtel: GE for the steam supply system, nuclear fuel system, and the generators themselves; and Bechtel for everything else. In that capacity, Bechtel hired and supervised all subcontractors on the project, including an insulation installer, New England Insulation (“NEI”). Although NEI reported to Bechtel, it installed the asbestos-containing insulation around the generators pursuant to directions from both Bechtel and GE, and pursuant to GE’s specifications that specifically required asbestos-containing insulation.  The Court also recognized that at both Pilgrim and at Calvert Cliffs, GE had rejected suggestions or proposals for an asbestos-free insulation alternative.

 

Oliver allegedly sustained exposure to asbestos at both sites while inspecting pipe near dusty thermal insulation as other subcontractors installed it around the generators. He was subsequently diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2015 and died in 2016.  In denying summary judgment to GE and granting summary judgment to Boston Edison, the Court found that:  (1) while the construction work performed by GE met the definition of an improvement to real property for purposes of the statute of repose, public policy considerations necessitated an exception to the application of the statute in cases involving alleged asbestos-related disease; (2) the installation of asbestos insulation was not an abnormally dangerous activity; (3) Boston Edison did not exercise sufficient control over the work at issue to be held negligent; and (4) a premises owner, such as Boston Edison, has no duty to warn where the subcontractor has knowledge of the hazard which is equal to or greater than that of the premises owner.

 

Application of Statute of Repose

GE argued protection from Plaintiffs’ claims under Massachusetts’s six-year statute of repose, which bars claims concerning “improvements to real property.” Under Massachusetts law, this involves a “permanent addition” versus “ordinary repair.” Whether this statute applied to asbestos claims against manufacturers posed an issue of first impression for the Court. GE argued that its generators were permanent improvements to the plant. Plaintiff disagreed, and further argued that public policy prevented the application of the statute to asbestos claims given their long latency.

 

Ultimately, the Court agreed with GE that the generators were permanent improvements, but found that public policy cut against the application of the statute of repose to GE’s benefit. Though the public policy behind statutes of repose is based on the policy judgment that a potential defendant should have no reasonable expectation of responsibility for injuries that occur after the passage of a number of years, the Court held that such a policy rationale does not apply to asbestos cases because: (1) the potential dangers associated with asbestos exposure were well known by 1971; and (2) the typical latency period from asbestos exposure to disease is much longer than the six-year window for filing personal injury claims under the statute of repose.  Accordingly, the Court found that an asbestos defendant should not have a reasonable expectation that an injury, if one should occur, would likely manifest itself within the six year statute of repose.

 

The Court further relied on what it called a “somewhat relaxed” burden of proof in asbestos cases, thereby minimizing the argument that evidence relied upon by the parties would become stale over the passage of time, another policy reason behind the application of statutes of repose. The Court also noted that GE’s responsibility was not typical of a manufacturer that releases its products to an end user without much retained control. In this case, GE directed the material selection and at least some of the work allegedly giving rise to the exposure.  In addition, GE continued to exercise some level of control for an extended period of time through on-site maintenance and inspections following completion of the project. On these grounds, the Court refused to bar Plaintiffs’ claims against GE on statute of repose grounds.

 

Although the decision purports to rely on a case-by-case factual approach to the application of the statute of repose, as evidenced by the Court’s statement that “although designers, engineers, and contractors like GE appear facially covered by the statute of repose, their protection is ultimately determined by reference to underlying acts.” the Court implicitly states that the statute of repose can never properly apply to asbestos claims, because such application would bestow upon asbestos defendants “absolute immunity” due to the typical latency period for asbestos-related diseases.

 

Strict Liability of Premises Owner

Plaintiff argued for the imposition of strict liability on Boston Edison based on the premise that the act of insulating equipment with asbestos-containing insulation amounted to an abnormally dangerous activity. Massachusetts imposes a balancing test on the application of strict liability in which the court evaluates: (a) whether an activity risks harm; (b) the magnitude of the harm; (c) whether the risk can be mitigated with reasonable care; (d) whether the activity is a common one; (e) whether the activity is appropriate where it is taking place; and (f) the activity’s value to the community. Here, the Court disagreed with Plaintiff’s argument and found that, despite the risk of significant harm posed by asbestos-containing insulation, the fact that asbestos insulation was commonly used during the time frame at issue, and the possibility of taking reasonable precautions to mitigate that harm weighed against the imposition of strict liability. Accordingly, the Court granted summary judgment in favor of Boston Edison on Plaintiffs’ strict liability claim. This decision suggests that, going forward, the Court will not be receptive to the blanket categorization that asbestos products are abnormally dangerous.

 

Negligence of Premises Owner

In addition, Plaintiffs argued that, to the extent Plaintiff’s employer, Bechtel, was negligent by exposing him to asbestos, Boston Edison bears vicarious responsibility. In Massachusetts, an employer of an independent contractor on their premises is not liable for harm caused by that independent contractor’s negligence, unless the employer retains control over performance of the work. Plaintiffs argued that Boston Edison’s authority to monitor the construction, coupled with the ability to shut down the project, rose to a sufficient level of control. The Court disagreed, and considered the right of inspection and the right to impose work stoppage insufficient levels of control to justify imposition of vicarious liability, and granted summary judgment. This decision supports the arguments of premises owners charged with responsibility for their independent contractors, and reaffirms the importance of clearly delineated responsibilities.

 

Plaintiffs further argue that, as premises owner, Boston Edison negligently failed to give Oliver’s employer a warning regarding the dangers of on-premises asbestos. Massachusetts landowners owe a duty of reasonable care to employees of independent contractors. However, courts distinguish pre-existing hazards with those created by the work the independent contractor undertakes to perform. With the latter, the independent contractor stands on equal footing with regard to the risk. The Court considered the insulation a case of the latter—where Boston Edison’s knowledge of the risks of asbestos was no greater than Bechtel’s, Boston Edison had no duty to warn, and therefore no liability, and granted summary judgment. This decision cuts against plaintiffs’ attempts to make premises owners the effective “insurers” for on-premises work, the nature of which subcontractors may be more or equally aware.

Trouble Brews in NYCAL after Summary Judgment Rejection

Posted in Asbestos Litigation, Litigation Trends, New York Courts, Products Liability

A March 22, 2018, denial of a defendant’s summary judgment motion in the New York City Asbestos Litigation (NYCAL) signals a drastic lowering of the product identification standards in that venue (and a possible strategic adjustment necessary in future defendants litigating there).

 

In Trumbull v. Adience, Inc., a former brewer sued Stavo Industries (“Stavo”) as a manufacturer of asbestos-containing products to which the plaintiff was allegedly exposed.  Stavo made, among other products, filters used in breweries. The plaintiff listed Stavo in his interrogatory responses, but not during his deposition testimony.  At his deposition, the plaintiff recalled exposure to filters generally, but only named one specific manufacturer—Cellulo.  However, the plaintiff also referred back, on the record, to his interrogatory responses for the list of filter brands that he supposedly encountered.

 

From Stavo’s perspective, the plaintiff’s general interrogatory mention of Stavo and reference back to those interrogatories during the deposition failed the requirement for product identification. Stavo moved for summary judgment.  Justice Manuel Mendez denied Stavo’s motion, and ruled that a reference back to the interrogatory responses during his deposition did “sufficiently identify” Stavo filters as an exposure source.  The Court found that Stavo’s liability could be inferred from the plaintiff’s testimony that he worked near filters being removed and replaced, considered with Stavo marketing materials from the time at issue claiming widespread usage of Stavo products in the brewing industry.  For the Court, this provided enough evidence to survive summary judgment.

 

After this decision, the bar for product identification in the NYCAL appears dangerously low.  This standard encourages plaintiffs to make blanket references to their vague interrogatory responses in depositions where actual recollection is impossible. It also forces prudent defendants to cross-examine during depositions with or without a specific mention of the defendant’s product occurring. If the NYCAL proceeds with this standard, the number of identifications stands to increase.

Developments in Sexual Orientation Discrimination Claims under Title VII

Posted in Employment Litigation, Litigation Trends, Rhode Island Courts

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, and sex. Federal circuits are currently split on whether discrimination based on sexual orientation falls within the scope of discrimination based on sex (and therefore within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition). On February 26, 2018, the en banc Second Circuit Court of Appeals found in Zarda v. Altitude Express that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination based on sex does in fact cover discrimination based on sexual orientation, overturning its own precedent holding from almost twenty years prior. This result signals increased viability for challenges advocating a broader interpretation of Title VII to remedy sexual orientation discrimination, as well as a potential pushback by the Jeff Sessions-helmed Justice Department as these challenges arise.

 

Zarda involved a skydiving instructor (Zarda) who alleged that his employer (Altitude Express) fired him in response to a customer telling them of his sexual orientation. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York granted summary judgment in favor of Altitude Express on Zarda’s claim, finding that Title VII failed to cover sexual orientation discrimination, and that Zarda failed to establish the type of gender-stereotyping claim covered by the act. The District Court considered itself bound by the Second Circuit’s 17-year-old decision in Simonton v. Runyon, and held that, absent an en banc review by the Second Circuit reversing Simonton, Second Circuit precedent required dismissal. Zarda appealed the summary judgment to the Second Circuit, which granted an en banc review. Writing the majority opinion, Judge Robert Katzmann wrote in the majority opinion that sexual orientation discrimination necessarily involves sex discrimination, as it means discrimination against someone based on their own sex in relation to the sex of those to whom they are sexually attracted. Katzmann noted that although Congress had not sought to address sexual orientation discrimination in Title VII, laws like Title VII “often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,” which in this case included sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit thus reversed Simonson, vacated the summary judgment, and remanded the Title VII claim to the District Court.

 

By allowing such a claim to proceed under Title VII, the Second Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit, which found last April that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination in its decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Hively concerned an adjunct professor who alleged that her employer passed her up for full employment because she was openly gay. Hively argued that she faced discriminated for failing to conform to female stereotypes, and because she publicly identified as a lesbian. The Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded the summary judgment in favor of her employer. It found that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination” and that “a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.” According to the Seventh Circuit, Title VII encompassed both her gender non-conformity and sexual orientation discrimination allegations.

 

The Eleventh Circuit held otherwise in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital, decided on March 10, 2017. The case involved a male-identifying security hospital security guard (Evans) allegedly dismissed from employment for failing to present as a woman. Like the plaintiff in Hively, Evans argued that she suffered discrimination due to her gender non-conformity, which she argued fell within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination. The Eleventh Circuit agreed that Title VII protected against this type of discrimination, but found that she failed to make a prima facie showing of it. The Eleventh Circuit distinguished discrimination based on gender non-conformity from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and found that Title VII did not address the latter.

 

In Franchina v. City of Providence, decided on January 25, 2018, the First Circuit heard the city’s appeal of a verdict and judgment against it for a female firefighter’s Title VII claim that her employer provided her with a hostile workplace, where she suffered discrimination as both a woman and a lesbian. She proceeded under a “sex-plus” theory, or a gender discrimination claim alleging that an employer classifies employees based on their sex “plus” another characteristic (in this case, sexual orientation). The First Circuit held in denying the city’s challenge that the plaintiff’s claim of sexual orientation discrimination, although not technically redressable under Title VII, did not cause her meritorious sex discrimination claim to fail. In a jurisdiction following Zarda’s reasoning, this “sex-plus” heuristic becomes less meaningful or necessary for the plaintiffs to resort to, where sexual orientation itself becomes a protectable distinction. The difference between two jurisdiction’s analyses in cases like Franchina underscores the stakes in the national push for Circuit reconsideration of narrow judicial applications of Title VII.

 

After these cases, a pronounced Circuit split exists on the scope of Title VII’s coverage. On December 11, 2017, the Supreme Court refused certiorari for the plaintiff’s appeal in Evans, but more appeals to the Court’s jurisdiction on this issue appear imminent. The Second Circuit’s reversal appears to increase the impetus for the Supreme Court to address this question. In the meantime, state legislatures draft their own provisions aimed at remedying the type of discrimination typified by these suits.