CA Employer Liability for Asbestos Can Extend to Workers’ Households

Employers may be liable for asbestos-related illnesses that a worker’s household members developed after being exposed to microscopic fibers on the worker’s clothing and equipment, according to the California Supreme Court.

A former railway employee’s wife died from an illness that was allegedly caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos on her husband’s clothing.

In the resulting negligence claim, the state high court was ultimately asked to decide if an employer owes a duty of care to prevent secondary or “take-home” exposure to asbestos.

BNSF Railway argued that businesses using asbestos don’t have a duty to prevent exposure to nonemployees who have never visited their facilities. But the California Supreme Court disagreed—at least in limited circumstances.

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring set of minerals that was commonly used in manufacturing and construction because of its resistance to heat and corrosion. But the substance can be deadly when its microscopic fibers are inhaled over a prolonged period.

Accordingly, its use is now heavily regulated and lawsuits abound over employer and landowner liability for asbestos exposure.

The court noted that “[b]y drawing the line at members of a household, we limit potential plaintiffs to an identifiable category of persons who, as a class, are most likely to have suffered a legitimate, compensable harm.”

The California Supreme Court opted not to limit employer liability to workers’ immediate family members. It said that the legal or biological relationship between the parties wasn’t the reason for the ruling, rather “the general foreseeability of harm turns on the regularity and intimacy of physical proximity … between the asbestos worker and a potential plaintiff.”