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

The Second District Court of Appeal, Division Four in Los Angeles handed down a decision in an asbestos case that involved appellate issues pertaining to causes of action for strict products liability and premises liability, primary and secondary (“take-home”) exposure, liability for replacement component parts, and proper jury instructions to be given in asbestos cases on the issue of substantial factor.  Joseph Petitpas v. Ford Motor Company, et al. (Cal. Ct. App., July 5, 2017, No. B245037), an opinion certified for publication on July 5, 2017, presents several factual scenarios to test a number of the decisions in the past decade that continue to shape asbestos litigation in California.   Motions for summary adjudication and defense jury verdicts were affirmed for Ford Motor Company and Exxon Mobile Corporation, while the trial court’s granting of a nonsuit for defendant Rossmoor Corporation was also affirmed.

Background

Plaintiffs  Marline and Joseph Petitpas filed suit against over 30 defendants, alleging Marline’s mesothelioma was caused by exposure to asbestos from sources including, but not limited to, direct exposure from being in the presence of automotive maintenance work, secondary exposure by coming into contact  with Joseph’s clothes and person after he performed automotive maintenance work, primary exposure by visiting Joseph at construction sites while he was employed as an architectural drafter for Rossmoor, and secondary exposure through contact with Joseph’s clothes and person after he  visited construction sites in the course of his employment with Rossmoor.  Marline passed away during the appeal.

Issue One

Prior to trial, Exxon was granted summary adjudication of Plaintiffs’ strict products liability claim.  Exxon, a premises defendant, demonstrated that in the course of Joseph’s work at a service station for which Exxon assumed liabilities, Joseph used replacement clutches and gaskets that came from a local independent auto parts store.  Exxon also showed that Joseph used brakes obtained from a mobile brake service company that not only provided brakes but also performed brake work at the service station.  Exxon’s evidence was sufficient to support an inference that the service station was not primarily in the business of supplying asbestos-containing vehicle parts.  In distinguishing this case from its decision in Hernandezcueva v. E.F. Brady Company, Inc. (2015) 243 Cal.App.4th 249, the Court found the service station was a provider of services rather than a seller or distributor of asbestos-containing parts.  The Court also found no relationship existed between the service station and parts manufacturers in which the station could exert any influence on product safety on the manufacturers.  Exxon was not in the stream of commerce for asbestos-containing vehicle parts to the extent strict liability was warranted.

Issue Two

Exxon had also been granted summary adjudication relating to Plaintiffs’ claims of secondary exposure to asbestos.  The trial court applied Campbell v. Ford Motor Co.  (2012) 206 Cal.App.4th 15 and found that Exxon was a property owner that had no duty to protect family members of workers on its premises from secondary exposure to asbestos used during the court of the property owner’s business.  During
Continue Reading Petitpas v. Ford Motor Co., et al.: A Look at the Evolving Landscape of Asbestos Litigation in California

Asbestos(Cropped)On Friday, June 2, 2017, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District, issued an unpublished opinion holding that Shell Oil Company owed a duty to protect from asbestos exposure the wife of a former machinist who worked at Shell facilities from approximately 1954 to 1992. Beckering v. Shell Oil Company (Cal. Ct. App., June 2, 2017, No. B256407), “Beckering II”). In this recent opinion, the Court of Appeal reversed its own earlier ruling from 2014 which initially held that a premises owner has no duty to protect a family member from secondary exposure to asbestos off the premises (Beckering v. Shell Oil Company (Cal. Ct. App., Nov. 21, 2014, No. B256407), “Beckering I”).

Beckering II, the latest appellate decision regarding the scope of duty owed in secondary asbestos exposure or “take home” cases, is the result of the trickledown effect of the California Supreme Court’s December 2016 decision Kesner v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132.

Kesner v. Superior Court

In Kesner, the California Supreme Court examined whether employers and landowners owe a duty of care to prevent secondary exposure to asbestos and held that “the duty of employers and premises owners to exercise ordinary care in their use of asbestos includes preventing exposure to asbestos carried by the bodies and clothing of on-site workers.” Kesner v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal.5th 1132, 1140. In so holding, the Court found it was “reasonably foreseeable that workers, their clothing, or personal effects will act as vectors carrying asbestos from the premises to household members [and that, therefore] employers have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent this means of transmission.” Id. Notably, “[t]his duty also applies to premises owners who use asbestos on their property” regardless of whether the premises owner is the vector’s employer, although the Court recognized that premises liability includes a number of affirmative defenses and exceptions which may be applicable depending on the facts of the case. See Id., at 1140, 1160.

To arrive at this conclusion, the Supreme Court examined and applied the well-established “Rowland factors” which, when balanced together, can justify a departure from the general rule of ordinary care: (1) the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; (2) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; (3) the closeness of the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; (4) the moral blame attached to the defendant’s conduct; (5) the policy of preventing future harm; (6) the extent of the burden to the defendant and consequences to the community of imposing a duty to exercise care with resulting liability for breach; (7) and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved. Kesner, 1 Cal.5th at 1145; see Cabral v. Ralphs Grocery Co. (2011) 51 Cal.4th 764, 771; Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 105, 112; see also Parsons v. Crown Disposal Co. (1997) 15 Cal.4th 456, 472.

In finding that “[t]he most important [
Continue Reading Kesner v. Superior Court: The Aftermath

The Maryland Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Georgia-Pacific Corp. was not liable for illness involving a woman who was exposed to asbestos while doing her father’s laundry in the 1960s.

The Insurance Journal reported on the recent decision:

  • The Court of Appeals ruled that Georgia-Pacific Corp. was not obligated to warn relatives of the dangers of asbestos in the 1960s.
  • The hazard was not sufficiently known until federal regulations were issued in 1972 by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
  • The court’s ruling overturns a $5 million verdict.
  • Jocelyn Farrar had been exposed while doing laundry in the late 1960s and fell ill decades later.

In the decision, available on the website of the Maryland high court (pdf download), the Court explained that it rejected liability because:

  • There was no duty to warn persons such as Ms. Farrar, who was a “bystander of a bystander,” a person who never used the product and never directly came into contact with it.
  • The duty extends to those whom the supplier should expect to use the product or to third persons whom the supplier should expect to be endangered by its use.
  • Even if the danger was foreseeable, prior to 1972 OSHA regulations, it would have been difficult for the company to have provided a warning that could have avoided the danger.

The Maryland decision continues the recent trend in rejecting a duty in cases involving secondary exposure.  In 2012, California followed Ohio and joined the growing list of states which reject the defendant’s duty to an employee’s family member in “take home asbestos” cases. In an article featured in the DRI‘s Newsletter and published on May 9, 2014, co-authors Carter E. Strang and Karen E. Ross also noted the jurisdictions which have rejected secondary exposure claims.  Since their publication, California and Maryland have joined approximately nine other states in rejecting a duty in secondary exposure cases.  Another California court recently came to the same conclusion as the earlier California case in an unreported decision.

However, as Strang and Ross noted in their January 16, 2014 DRI article (pdf download), it is unclear how these cases will play out at the trial level, as a verdict of over $27 million was recently entered in California in a case involving take-home asbestos exposure.

As the National Association of Manufacturers noted, the Maryland Court of Appeals found:

“that there was skimpy knowledge at the time of the danger to household members from asbestos dust brought into the home, and that the company was unable to give warnings directly to such plaintiffs and the warnings would not have had any practical effect. “

Conclusion

Courts nationwide are increasingly rejecting the claims by plaintiffs and their attorneys that seek to impose duties far removed from the allegedly wrongful act.  Defense attorneys can and should seek to impose reasonable limits on the issue of duty to those instances in which harm is reasonably foreseeable to the alleged tortfeasor.  Raising appropriate
Continue Reading Maryland Court Continues Trend, Holding There Is No Duty To Warn For Household Exposure