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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.