State Court Finds No Duty to Spouse of Exposed Worker

Delaware's supreme court held last month that an employer owes no duty of care to an employee's spouse, who allegedly contracted asbestos-related disease from exposure to her spouse's work clothes. Price v. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., No. 719, 2009 (Del. 7/11/11).

Bobby Price worked as a maintenance technician in defendant's facility from 1957 until 1991. During his employment, Mr. Price allegedly worked with and around products containing asbestos. Allegedly, Mr. Price transported asbestos fibers home on his clothing, vehicle, and skin. Patricia Price, his wife, alleged that years of living with her husband, and handling and washing his work clothes, exposed her to the fibers. Mrs. Price claimed to suffer from bilateral interstitial fibrosis and bilateral pleural thickening of the lungs. These maladies, she claimed, stemmed directly from her exposure to the asbestos dust and fibers her husband brought home from work.

Plaintiff sued, alleging that the company wrongfully released asbestos from its plant and that she was a reasonably foreseeable victim of its asserted misconduct. 

To prevail on a negligence claim under Delaware law, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant owed her a duty of care, the respondent breached that duty, and the breach proximately caused an injury. Whether a duty exists is a question of law, typically. To determine whether one party owed another a duty of care, Delaware courts look to the Restatement (Second) of Torts for guidance.  Negligent conduct involves either (1) an act which the actor as a reasonable person should recognize as involving an unreasonable risk of causing an invasion of an interest of another (described in some cases as misfeasance), or (2) a failure to do an act which is necessary for the protection or assistance of another and which the actor is under a duty to do (sometimes described as nonfeasance).

Plaintiffs moved to amend the complaint to state a claim based on an asserted theory of misfeasance—that the release of asbestos was carried into a worker's home — rather than a claim of nonfeasance based on a failure to warn. The Delaware court noted that in the case of misfeasance, the party who does an affirmative act owes a general duty to others to exercise reasonable care, but, in the case of nonfeasance, the party who merely omits to act owes no general duty to others unless there is a "special relationship" between the actor and the other which gives rise to the duty.

DuPont contended that as a matter of substance the amended complaint really alleged  nonfeasance—not misfeasance. Again, in order to recover for nonfeasance, a plaintiff must specifically allege a “special relationship” between herself and the defendant. Having not alleged any “special relationship” in this case, DuPont argued, Price’s amendments were futile because they failed to state a claim as a matter of law.

The court noted that Price’s allegations, stripped of all reformatory re-characterization, were that: (1) Mr. Price, an employee of defendant, worked with and around products containing asbestos for 34 years, (2) asbestos fibers settled on his skin, clothing, and vehicle, (3) defendant allegedly did not provide locker rooms, uniforms, or warnings to the Prices regarding the dangers of asbestos, (4) defendant did not prevent Mr. Price from transporting the asbestos fibers home on his skin, clothing, and vehicle, and (5) Mrs. Price, because she lived with Mr. Price and washed his clothes, developed disease. These alleged acts were pure nonfeasance—nothing more. Dupont’s alleged failures to prevent Mr. Price from taking asbestos fibers home or to warn the Prices about the dangers of asbestos did not rise to the level of affirmative misconduct required to allege a claim of misfeasance. No amount of semantics can turn nonfeasance into misfeasance or
vice versa.

Having alleged only nonfeasance, Price needed to allege that a “special relationship” existed between her and DuPont in order for DuPont to owe her a duty of care. But the relationship between Mrs. Price and DuPont did not fit any of the recognized “special relationships”
giving rise to a duty to aid or protect. Just because her husband worked for DuPont for over thirty years, or DuPont provided health insurance to her as Mr. Price’s spouse, or DuPont sponsored company picnics and participated in programs promoting a "family friendly" workplace, a special relationship did not exist. 

The plaintiff's bar has been aggressive in efforts to create new methods of recovery from asbestos exposures -- new defendants, new legal theories, new injuries, new plaintiffs. For once, a court has put the brakes on this seemingly endless expansion. 

 


 

Family Exposure Allegations Dismissed in Chemical Case

Readers of MassTortDefense recognize that one feature of the asbestos litigation is the co-called family or household exposure case, a form of by-stander liability in which the plaintiff alleges he or she contracted asbestos disease not from exposures at work but through contact with a family member who brings the fibers home from a job.

A recent case explores this situation in a non-asbestos context.  In  Oddone v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, 2009 WL 4044429 (Cal. Ct. App.,  11/24/09), James Oddone worked for Technicolor, Inc., from 1973 until 2006; he died from a brain tumor (glioblastoma multiforme) in January 2007. His wife, inter alia, asserted on her own behalf the theory that her husband brought home toxic vapors and chemicals on his clothing and person and that she was injured by exposure to these materials; this cause of action was predicated on Technicolor's alleged negligence in exposing her husband to toxic chemicals.

Most claims of this type are analyzed, at first, with a duty analysis.  Here, the defendant argued, and the lower court agreed, there was no duty to the wife, using the traditional duty factors, including whether transaction was intended to affect the plaintiff; the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury; the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered; the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct; and the policy of preventing future harm.

The court of appeals did agree with the proposition that this was the exact analytical framework for the case. Rather, the major factors ought to be ones are the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff, the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered injury, the closeness of the connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered, the moral blame attached to the defendant's conduct, the policy of preventing future harm, 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, and the availability, cost, and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved.

In order to apply those factors, however, a plaintiff claiming to have been injured by an exposure to chemicals must specify the chemical that caused the injury and in the course of doing so must of course also specify the injury. Importantly, he must also allege that as a result of the exposure the specified toxin entered his body.  The court said it does not make a difference that the plaintiff is claiming injury as a result of secondary exposure. If anything, the exposure requirements are even more apropos in such a case because the connection between the defendant's acts and the claimed injury is more attenuated than in a primary exposure context.

"It cannot be denied that a case predicated on secondary exposure to chemicals potentially cuts a very wide swath," said the court of appeals.  It is therefore only appropriate to pay close attention to the factor that there must be a close connection between the defendant's conduct and the injury suffered. That connection is only shown by setting forth specifically which chemicals cause which specified injuries. In a secondary exposure case, the allegation that as a result of the exposure the specified chemical entered the plaintiff's body is of particular importance. Central issues in such a case are whether secondary exposure to a specified chemical is even possible and, if it is, whether the exposure will result in the ingestion of the chemical into the plaintiff's body.

Turning to policy issues, the court did not hold that a plaintiff cannot ever state a cause of action for secondary exposure to toxic chemicals.  But, as part of the analysis, including “all family members” into the category of those owed a duty would be too broad, as not all family members will be in constant and personal contact with the employee. Limiting the class to spouses would be at once too narrow and too broad, as others may be in contact with the employee and spouses may not invariably be in contact with the employee. Limiting the class to those persons who have frequent and personal contact with employees leaves at large the question what “frequent” and “personal” really means.  The gist of the matter is that imposing a duty toward non-employee persons saddles the defendant employer with a burden of uncertain but potentially very large scope. One of the consequences to the community of such an extension is the cost of insuring against liability of unknown but potentially massive dimension. Ultimately, such costs are borne by the consumer.

Here, the court of appeals could not say that the trial court abused its discretion in sustaining the demurrer to the first amended complaint without leave to amend.