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Delaware Supreme Court Finds Duty To Warn For Product Manufacturers And Employer Defendants In Take Home Exposure Case

Posted in Asbestos Litigation, Delaware Courts, Employment Litigation, Professional Liability

Ramsey v. Georgia Southern University Advanced Development Center, et al., No. 305, 2017, C.A. No. N14C-01-287 ASB (Del. June 27, 2018).

 

On June 27, 2018, the Supreme Court of the State of Delaware issued a fifty-seven-page opinion in the above-mentioned case, creating new precedent for Delaware employer liability in secondary or “take-home” asbestos cases. Below is a summary of both the relevant factual and procedural background, as well as Chief Justice Strine’s opinion.

 

The plaintiff’s spouse, Robert Ramsey, worked for Haveg Industries, Inc. at its industrial plant for twenty-four years. From 1967 to 1979, Mr. Ramsey regularly handled asbestos-containing products manufactured by Georgia Southern University Advanced Development Center and Hollingsworth and Vose Company as part of his job as a maintenance worker at Haveg. Throughout this period his wife, Plaintiff, Dorothy Ramsey, washed Mr. Ramsey’s asbestos-covered clothing. Mrs. Ramsey eventually developed lung cancer, from which she subsequently died in 2015. Her estate sued the manufacturers of the asbestos products, alleging that the cancer was caused by Mrs. Ramsey’s exposure to her husband’s asbestos-riddled clothing. In granting the appellee manufacturers’ motions for summary judgment and dismissing the claims, the Delaware Superior Court relied primarily on two previous Delaware Supreme Court cases, Riedel v. ICI Americas Inc., 968 A.2d 17 (Del. 2009), and Price v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 26 A.3d 162 (Del. 2011), in which the Delaware Supreme Court held that an employer owed no duty to non-employees, including their spouses, for failure to adequately warn of the dangers of handling clothing exposed to asbestos, minus a special relationship between the employer and the non-employee, because the failure to warn was nonfeasance rather than misfeasance. Mrs. Ramsey appealed, arguing that in distinguishing an employer from a manufacturer: 1) a manufacturer of asbestos products creates the danger of asbestos-related harm and therefore commits misfeasance by failing to warn foreseeable victims; and 2) to the extent the holdings in Riedel and Price would block recovery on take-home claims against manufacturers, those holdings should be overruled. The appellant defendants argued that Riedel and Price controlled, and prevented Mrs. Ramsey from recovering from manufacturers because they are even further removed from an employer’s spouse than the employer itself. Additionally, they argued that allowing such claims would impose upon manufacturers an essentially limitless duty to warn that would be both impractical and unfair.

 

The Supreme Court acknowledged the compelling arguments on each side, but ultimately agreed with Mrs. Ramsey. First, the Court held that manufacturers owe a duty to warn to reasonably foreseeable users of their products, stating that “[b]ecause the risk of harm from take-home asbestos exposure when laundering asbestos-covered clothing is reasonably foreseeable, a plaintiff in Mrs. Ramsey’s position has a viable claim against a manufacturer . . . . Ramsey. at p. 44 of 57. However, the Court limited this duty by stating that the “sophisticated purchaser” defense would cut off a manufacturer’s liability to ultimate end users once the manufacturer has warned the employer of the risk of harm, stating that such an approach would establish “a fair and efficient accountability system . . . by limiting the duty of asbestos product manufacturers and employers in take-home asbestos exposure cases to providing fair warning about the dangers of laundering to those with whom they have the most proximate relationship. Manufacturers may discharge their duty by warning employers, and employers may discharge their duty by warning employees.” Ramsey, p. 39 of 57.

 

The Court did not end its analysis there, however, recognizing that, without “further alteration to [Delaware’s] jurisprudence, manufacturers would face liability in circumstances when employers would not.” Id. at p. 50 of 57. Thus, the Court overruled, to the extent necessary, its holdings in Riedel and Price, finding that employers commit misfeasance, rather than nonfeasance, when exposing their employees to dangerous asbestos products. The Court differentiated between the classic case of nonfeasance – a passerby failing to save a person from harm not of the passerby’s making – from employers who have created the risk of harm to both the employee and the launderer of the employee’s clothes by putting them in contact with asbestos. In such a case, the Court stated that “[o]nce an employer has engaged in misfeasance, recognized principles of tort law impose upon it a duty to ‘act reasonably, as a reasonably prudent man (or entity) would,’ which ‘encompasses protecting against reasonably foreseeable events.’”  Id. at p. 55 of 57 (citation omitted).  In other words, the Court held that a household member who claims exposure to asbestos through laundering the clothing of an employee, may sue the household member’s employer for a failure to warn, though recovery may be denied if the employer can demonstrate that it took steps to warn the employee, protect the employee and address potential harms associated with asbestos exposure.

 

While the Court clarified that “plaintiffs in cases like this will be of the most foreseeable kind: those who for many years laundered the dirty clothes of the employee with whom they shared a household,” it also acknowledged Defendants’ concern that “claims from plaintiffs with more momentary exposure to and tenuous relationship to an exposed employee [may be] filed in the future.” Id. at p. 56 of 57. The Supreme Court’s holding in Ramsey, although attempting to limit the scope of its impact, has likely opened the door to a new array of take-home asbestos claims against manufacturers and employers, which were previously unavailable under Delaware law. However, it is important to note that this holding will not affect asbestos claims filed in Delaware where the alleged asbestos exposure took place outside of the state and Delaware substantive law does not apply.

 

If you have questions regarding the Delaware Supreme Court’s opinion in Ramsey or litigation in general, we invite you to contact The MG+M Law Firm’s Wilmington, Delaware office.