Appeals Court Rejects Bystander Injury Claims

The Sixth Circuit has affirmed the dismissal of claims that a child contracted mesothelioma from exposure to his father's asbestos-laden clothes, finding no evidence that such a “bystander” injury was foreseeable at the time of the alleged exposure. Martin v. Cincinnati Gas and Electric Co., 2009 WL 188051 (6th Cir. 1/27/09).

Claims were brought against the father's old utility company employer and a company that allegedly manufactured asbestos-fireproofing for the utility. The claims were based on asbestos that Martin's father allegedly brought home on his work clothes while working for the utility, CG & E. The district court granted summary judgment for defendants because neither had a legal duty to the plaintiff.

Under applicable Kentucky law, as in most jurisdictions, duty presents a question of law for the judge to decide. Typically, there is a universal duty of care which requires every person to exercise ordinary care in his activities to prevent foreseeable injury. The most important factor in determining whether a duty exists is foreseeability. And foreseeability, in turn, is determined based on what the defendant knew or should have known at the time of the alleged negligence. There was no evidence that either defendant had actual knowledge of the danger of bystander exposure, so the question is whether they should have known: that is, was such a risk foreseeable to them based on “common knowledge at the time and in the community?”

Plaintiff’s expert report did not indicate that the risk was knowable, but in any event, it is insufficient that the danger was merely knowable: the knowledge has to have been available to the defendant. There was an insufficient showing of any general knowledge of bystander exposure in the industry. Plaintiff's expert report concedes that the first studies of bystander exposure were not published until 1965. (Martin's father's exposure to asbestos materials stopped in 1963).

The court rejected the plaintiff’s reliance on several cases from other states where bystander asbestos exposure liability has been upheld; the Sixth Circuit agreed with a number of other cases in which courts have found no duty for secondary asbestos exposure. E.g., CSX Transp. Inc. v. Williams, 608 S.E.2d 208, 210 (Ga. 2005); Adams v. Owens-Illinois Inc., 705 A.2d 58, 66 (Md. Ct. App. 1998); In re Certified Question from Fourteenth Dist. Ct. of Appeals of Tex., 740 N.W.2d at 218-20; In re New York City Asbestos Litig., 840 N.E.2d 115, 121 (N.Y. 2005); and Alcoa Inc. v. Behringer, 235 S.W.3d 456, 462 (Tex. Ct. App. 2007).
 

Summary judgment affirmed.

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