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

 (AP Photo/The Boston Globe, Frank O’Brien) 

In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel of the Massachusetts Appeals Court affirmed summary judgment against the estate of former Detroit Tigers’ pitcher, Mark Fidrych, in Pantazis v. Mack Trucks, Inc., Mass. App. Ct., No. 16-P-1497 (Nov. 27, 2017).  On appeal, the Court rejected the Estate’s argument that a component part manufacturer had a duty to warn end-users of foreseeable hazards and risks associated with a non-defective component part installed into a completed end product.

In April of 2009, approximately 30 years after throwing his last pitch in Major League Baseball, Fidrych’s lifeless body was found under a dump truck at his farm in Massachusetts. A witness had observed Fidrych working under the truck, and a medical examiner later determined the cause of death to be accidental asphyxiation.

Mack Trucks, Inc. (“Mack”) had manufactured an incomplete vehicle, consisting only of a chassis, cab, and engine. Fidrych purchased that incomplete vehicle and later converted it into a dump truck by installing a piece of equipment manufactured by a co-defendant. That second piece drew power from the vehicle’s power system to raise and lower the truck bed.

Ann Pantazis, executrix of Firdych’s estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the two entities, among others, alleging that both entities failed to adequately warn end-users about foreseeable risks posed by certain components. She argued that both defendants knew of the dangers posed by unguarded drive shifts, but failed to provide adequate warnings to end users.

Both defendants conceded that the truck’s power system could have been designed and installed differently to avoid certain potential dangers. Nevertheless, the Court held that the “potential dangers…arose from the assembly of the component parts into the finished auxiliary power system. As the manufacturers of mere components that were not themselves defective, the defendants had no duty to warn assemblers or end users of the risks presented by such systems.” In citing the seminal case of Mitchell v. Sky Climber, Inc., 396 Mass. 629 (1986) (adopting the component parts doctrine), the Court expressly rejected the plaintiff’s foreseeability argument and held that the validity of the component part doctrine does not turn “on the factual unforeseeability of such harms.”

In summary, the Court declined to read a foreseeability exception into the component parts doctrine and affirmed the vitality of the doctrines efficacy as a defense for manufacturers of non-defective component parts.  As stated by the Pantazis Court, there is “no underlying duty to warn of risks posed by the assembled product that arose out of the addition of other components and the decisions made, and actions taken, by downstream actors.”  While Pantazis breathes fresh air into the component parts doctrine, the Court left future challenges open by noting, in dicta, “[n]one of this is to say that appellate courts should never recognize exceptions to the component parts doctrine.”
Continue Reading Appeals Court Strikes Out Products Claim Filed by Estate of Former American League Rookie of the Year Mark “The Bird” Fidrych