California Court Decides Take-Home Asbestos Exposure Duty Claims

Friday, December 2, 2016

Employers and premises owners have a duty to “members of a worker’s household” to exercise ordinary care to prevent take-home asbestos exposures, the California Supreme Court held on December 1, 2016. This ruling expands liability for employers and premises owners.

The Court issued its opinion in two cases (Haver and Kesner), in which it granted review to decide whether and to what extent a duty may be owed for take-home asbestos exposure claims. Intermediate appellate courts noted the wide-ranging impact of these claims because they involve a potentially “limitless pool of plaintiffs.” (Campbell v. Ford Motor Co.)

The California Supreme Court held that employers and premises owners have a duty which extends to “members of a worker’s household” to exercise ordinary care to prevent take-home asbestos exposures. Balancing the competing policy interests involved, however, the Court instructed that “this duty extends only to members of a worker’s household” and “does not extend beyond this circumscribed category of potential plaintiffs.” The Court also noted that the duty owed was “subject to any exceptions and affirmative defenses generally applicable to premises owners” and employers, such as the rules for contractor liability.

By “drawing the line at members of a household,” the Court stated “we limit potential plaintiffs to an identifiable category of persons.” This addressed concerns raised by the defense (and other courts) that take-home exposure claims involve uncertainty and undue burden because they could involve “anyone who may have had contact with an asbestos worker,” such as “innumerable relatives, friends, acquaintances, service providers, babysitters, neighbors, carpool partners, fellow commuters on public transportation, and laundry workers.” Thus, the Court stated its holding was intended to “strike[] a workable balance between ensuring that reasonably foreseeable injuries are compensated and protecting courts and defendants from the costs associated with litigation of disproportionately meritless claims.”

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