State Court Allows Double-Dipping Asbestos Claim

A state appeals court has ruled that an employer may face liability under New Jersey law for allegedly exposing a plaintiff to asbestos through contact with her husband's work clothes, even if she also had worked for the employer as a direct employee herself. See Anderson v. A.J. Friedman Supply, et al., No. A-5892-07T1, 2010 WL 3289061 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div.,  8/20/10).

Plaintiffs alleged that Bonnie Anderson contracted mesothelioma from one or both exposures to asbestos at the Linden Bayway Refinery owned by defendant Exxon Mobil Corporation (and home of the state's largest Christmas tree apparently).  The first was bystander exposure from laundering her husband John's asbestos-laden work clothes during his employment with Exxon from 1969 to 2003. (In Olivo v. Owens-Illinois Inc., 186 N.J. 394 (2006), the court had found that an employer could be liable for indirectly exposing family members to the asbestos fibers found on an employee's work clothes.)  The second was alleged direct exposure during Bonnie's own employment with Exxon from 1974 to 1986.

At trial, plaintiffs focused on the bystander exposure, and tried to downplay any significant exposure at work.  A defense expert agreed that the only epidemiologically established cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure; it is commonly accepted today that it's possible that women can get mesothelioma from asbestos dust brought home on the clothing of a husband or parent; and that mesothelioma has an average latency period of thirty-two years.

The trial court charged the jury that asbestos brought home by John need not have been the sole cause of plaintiff's asbestos-related injuries, but it must be a substantial contributing factor, and if the jury were to find that Bonnie's exposure occurring during the course of her employment was the sole cause of her injury or disease, it should return a verdict for Exxon.

Exxon appealed  from a judgment in favor of plaintiffs, awarding more than $7 million to the Andersons in compensatory damages.

The appellate court noted that this case presented a novel scenario of a single injury arising after a long latency period caused by one of two, or both, asbestos exposures.  The court of appeals framed the question as whether Mrs. Anderson could continue to assert a claim against Exxon if she was exposed as a result of washing the clothes but she was also an employee with possible direct exposure at that time. 

As to that question, the court turned to the "dual persona doctrine," which under New Jersey law generally provides that an employer may become like a third person, vulnerable to tort suit by an employee, outside the normal bar of the exclusivity of the workers compensation system, if and only if it possesses a second persona so completely independent from and unrelated to its status as employer that by established standards the law recognizes that persona as a separate legal person.

The court could find no close precedents, but one might think that the role of the defendant as employer of husband and wife and its supposedly distinct role in the alleged exposure due to the husband's work-related clothing do not rise to the the level of separate legal persons.  But the court affirmed the trial court's reasoning that Exxon had such a dual persona, having an employer capacity for an eight year period, but then having a separate "relationship" to Mrs. Anderson as a bystander for 20 years. It was thought unfair to the plaintiff not to let her pursue her claim based on her bystander exposure, which had "absolutely nothing" to do with her employment relationship with Exxon. That is, although Exxon could not be held liable based on her direct occupational exposure, it could be held liable pursuant to her separate exposure to the asbestos brought home by John from his Exxon job.

One might assume that if the employer was a "separate legal person" who was not protected by the workers comp scheme for purposes of the alleged bystander exposure, then at least the defendant could get some recognition on the verdict form of this separate legal entity/status.  But even though the trial judge viewed Exxon as "standing in two different pairs of shoes," the court refused Exxon's request to have the two legal persons listed on the verdict sheet, and declined to direct the jury to allocate fault between Bonnie's direct asbestos exposure as an Exxon employee and any bystander exposure from washing John's work clothes.

The court of appeals agreed, reasoning that the jury could not allocate any fault to Exxon as Bonnie's employer, because Exxon was immune from suit pursuant to the Workers Comp Act. The state's comparative fault doctrine provides that fault shall be allocated among each "party" in the case. The workers' compensation bar precluded Exxon from being a "party" in this litigation in its status as Bonnie's employer.

Thus, defendants like Exxon get the worst of both worlds: no safe haven under workers' compensation for having been the plaintiff's employer, and no allocation of fault to the "distinct" exposure because it was the employer under the workers comp scheme!