California Supreme Court Rules Employers Have a Duty to Protect Families From Second-Hand Asbestos Exposure

Posted on December 13, 2016

Spouses and children have been shown to be at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer, when a family member brings fibers home in their hair, clothing and shoes. Family members can unwittingly be exposed to asbestos by their loved ones who work with asbestos-containing products. Now, the California Supreme Court has ruled that companies whose employees bring asbestos fibers home with them can be held liable in the case of an illness.

The ruling came in a Dec. 1 filing of an opinion by the California Supreme Court of lawsuits brought against Pneumo Abex, LLC, and BNSF Railway Company. In one case, a nephew developed peritoneal mesothelioma after his uncle, who worked at Pneumo Abex manufacturing brake shoes containing asbestos, brought asbestos home on his clothes. The nephew, who stayed at his uncle’s house three days a week, would roughhouse with his uncle while he was still in his work clothes. This occurred over a period of six years.

In the other case, a wife was exposed to asbestos that was brought home on her husband’s clothes. He was a fireman and hostler for BNSF and was exposed to asbestos from pipe insulation and other products. The wife was exposed to the deadly asbestos through contact with her husband and his clothing, tools, and vehicle.

The two cases allege that BNSF and Abex, through the use or manufacture of asbestos-containing products, created a risk of harm to the household members of their employees by failing to exercise reasonable care in their use of asbestos-containing materials.

Asbestos is a known carcinogen and has been linked to mesothelioma, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. According to the opinion, “Mesothelioma is a cancer of the chest and abdomen closely associated with asbestos exposure. Asbestos can cause disease when an individual inhales or ingests microscopic asbestos fibers that have been released into the air.”

Most cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed decades after exposure, leaving those exposed at a life-long risk of developing the cancer. Even small amounts of asbestos and infrequent exposure can create a risk for contracting mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.

The question the Supreme Court justices had to answer was “whether employers or landowners owe a duty of care to prevent secondary exposure to asbestos.”

The justices answered yes, saying, “Where it is reasonably foreseeable that workers, their clothing, or personal effects will act as vectors carrying asbestos from the premises to household members, employers have a duty to take reasonable care to prevent this means of transmission.”

This ruling opens the door to allow lawsuits to move forward for family members who developed mesothelioma through second-hand exposure. Only family members who reside with the worker are eligible. However, this is significant for removing an obstacle that was often encountered for mesothelioma victims who were exposed outside of a workplace. It is important that these innocent bystanders are compensated for a company’s unsafe practices that resulted in a terminal cancer.

Currently, there is no known cure for mesothelioma, and the average survival time varies from 4 – 18 months after diagnosis.

See the full opinion on the California Supreme Court website.